Imagine you are cast as the lead in a TV series. You’d be ecstatic, right? Well, what if the show was called Ugly Betty—and you were playing Betty? What if the other characters routinely deride you as “fugly”? What if ABC’s own press material describes you as “a slightly plump plain-Jane from Queens”?
“Yeah, you do stop and think, Okay, why did you think of me for this?” says America Ferrera. The 22-year-old actress, who also co-starred in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, was personally recruited by Ugly Betty’s executive producer, Salma Hayek, in what might be considered a backhanded compliment. (Hayek, a onetime telenovela star, cameos in the series in several funny send-ups of the Mexican soap operas.) It must be some comfort to Ferrera that, in reality, as evidenced by the adjacent photo, she is a far cry from fugly. But her transformation is complete and convincing, and not just the product of makeup alone. (She wears pop-on braces and undergoes what she describes as the “amping up of the eyebrows,” but she adds, “It’s not like I’m a character on Star Trek who has to sit in the chair forever.”) Ferrera proves remarkably adept at playing a stumbling, stammering wallflower. Which is fortunate, since without a genuinely homely heroine, the show wouldn’t work at all.
Ugly Betty is based on Yo Soy Betty La Fea, the popular Colombian telenovela about a young woman who’s hired as the assistant to the playboy editor of a high-fashion magazine precisely because she’s too hideous to distract him. Betty’s become an unlikely star around the world; the show’s been adapted everywhere from India to Germany to Russia. But it’s easy to imagine how this could be fumbled by American producers—if, for example, Betty was played by an obviously hot actress who’s “uglied up” with a ponytail (no!) and glasses (egad!), the common trick in many a teen comedy. Even The Devil Wears Prada tried to pawn off the willowy Anne Hathaway as a tweed-wearing frump. In Ugly Betty, however, Betty really is ugly, or at least aggressively plain. She’s certainly cringe-inducing, especially in that one rainbow-bright Guadalajara poncho she wears on her first day of work. (Yikes.)
But that’s just the kind of detail that the show gets exactly right. Although the premise sounds similar to that of Prada (complete with a fashion-advice-granting fairy godmother), Ugly Betty flourishes because of its well-calibrated tone: the borderline-ludicrous haute outfits of her preening co-workers, who look as if they’ve stumbled off a David LaChapelle photo shoot; Vanessa Williams as the resident harridan; even the boss (Eric Mabius), who comes around to become Betty’s ally, finds just the right alchemical mix of cockiness and charm. When Betty searches for a place to sit at the very Condé Nasty cafeteria, you’ll wince more than chuckle, recalling every long-buried high-school slight. And as the show’s center, Ferrera is relentlessly endearing, never crossing the line from beleaguered underdog to cowering simp.
ABC’s already smitten: The show tested so well that the network rescued it from the exile of Friday night and named it the lead-in to Grey’s Anatomy. (“That definitely put a bounce in everyone’s step,” Ferrera says.) If the show’s a hit, Betty may, over time, shed her homely exterior, or at least learn how to better maintain her hair. Or maybe not. “For me, it’s fine if Betty never morphs into the beautiful swan. I think she’s lovable as is,” Ferrera says. “She is the most beautiful character on the show.”
Ugly Betty, ABC; premieres September 28 (8 p.m.)