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Wednesday, 20 September, 2000, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Ugly Betty charms Colombia

Betty has become a TV phenomenon in Latin America
By Jeremy McDermott in Medellin

It is not worth trying to ring anyone here in Colombia at 9.30 at night. They will either ignore the phone or answer it with ill humour.

Because this is the time the nation's favourite soap opera, I am Betty the Ugly, is shown, and it has become little short of a religious ritual.

The soap shows us at our very worst, our obsession with beauty, the material and superficial

Ana Cristina Restrepo, soap fan
"The soap shows us at our very worst, our obsession with beauty, the material and superficial," said Ana Cristina Restrepo, an avid fan.

The story is about a very plain secretary who works in a glamorous fashion design house, surrounded by beautiful women. Some of the other actresses are actually former beauty queens.

Despite her looks, Betty gets ahead, through hard work and intelligence, something Colombians find so impossible to believe that it is the bedrock of the show's humour and massive appeal.

During an episode earlier in the year Betty was offered a bribe. The next show had the highest rating of any soap on Colombian history, as people tuned in to see whether she accepted it.

The soap has made headlines in Colombia
Even the newspapers ran articles begging her not to turn out corrupt, in a country where corruption costs hundreds of millions every year.

"We need your example, Betty" and "You still have time to save our country," ran the headlines.

Needless to say Betty refused the bribe and laboured on believing honesty and diligence were the only way to success.

The country's Congress did not take the hint and a massive scheme of kickbacks for corrupt politicians awarding public contracts was discovered about the same time, prompting a newspaper editorial that suggested Betty run for office.

The actress that plays Betty, Ana Maria Orozco, is actually a celebrated beauty, but the make-up artists ensure that a moustache, pasted down hair, thick glass and enormous braces on her teeth, cover the fact.

Social commentary

The show also parodies the racial and social makeup of Colombian society. It reveals the absurd formality of the upper class from Bogota, in the form of Betty's boss, the dashing and unscrupulous Armando Mendoza, a member of the country's European-descended elite.

Despite the fact Betty has a graduate degree in finance, she is offered only a job as a secretary by Armando, because of her looks.

Of course Betty falls in love with her crooked boss, who attempts to use her to rescue his flagging business using nefarious methods.

Another of the record-breaking episodes was when Betty and Armando went to bed together, prompting outraged headlines in the papers the next day, like that run in the respected El Tiempo: "Betty the Ugly is Not a Virgin!"

Don't worry Betty may be in love, but she has not compromised her principles...yet.

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