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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 January 2007, 09:21 GMT
Ugly Betty's beautiful message
By Peter Bowes
BBC News, Los Angeles

Ugly Betty
Actress America Ferrera finds the role of 'ugly' Betty liberating
A new sitcom featuring a supposedly ugly office assistant at a fashion magazine has become a huge hit in the United States.

Ugly Betty follows the life of Betty Suarez, who comes from a struggling Latino family and has no interest in the glamorous world of high fashion.

Betty works as an executive assistant to a womanising boss at Mode fashion magazine.

The character, played by the 22-year-old actress America Ferrera, is short with bushy eyebrows and braces on her teeth.

She wears drab clothes and thick-rimmed glasses. She also has a heart of gold.

Ferrera made her film debut in 2002 playing an overweight teenager in Real Women Have Curves.

The role of Betty came along when the show's producer, Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek, approached the fledgling actress.

"I read the script and fell in love with the character," says Ferrera.

"Whether you like it or not when you're playing yourself, or something close to yourself, you want to make sure that it's the best of you that's out there.

"But because I get to play Betty and put on this costume and dive into that character, it also gives me more freedom to go as far as I can in the acting and not be concerned with what I'm looking like."

Bucking the trend

Ugly Betty was inspired by the Colombian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, which translates as I Am Betty, the Ugly One.

The series, which will be broadcast on Channel 4 and E4 from January, was adapted to an American setting by former Oscar nominee Hayek.

"The original was groundbreaking," says Hayek. "I immediately jumped on it.

"It's about the fish-out-of-water, the person who is not conventional in the way she looks, the way she talks," explains Hayek.

"But they are incredibly smart and hard workers, and they get ahead in life using that."

Salma Hayek
Actress Hayek takes a back seat as the show's executive producer

British actress Ashley Jenson, who starred alongside Ricky Gervais in Extras, plays Betty's seamstress pal in the show, while 40-year-old producer Hayek makes several on-screen appearances.

But Ferrera is the standout star and has become an overnight sensation in the role.

Bucking the trend on US television, where sitcoms, soaps and primetime dramas invariably feature beautiful women, the actress has attracted glowing reviews from viewers and critics.

"Betty is a new kind of TV star," says Luaine Lee, a columnist with the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

"She's not beautiful, she's not blonde, she's not dumb - so she's the antithesis of what we have usually laughed at in our sitcoms.

"America Fererra is brilliant in the role, so natural and so unassuming."

'Timeless' format

The show has proven to be a major ratings success for the ABC network in the US. The series has struck a chord with 16 million viewers every week - all rooting for Betty.

For Ferrera, playing ugly, is a beautiful thing.

Ugly Betty cast
The rest of the Ugly Betty cast are predictably attractive

"I couldn't imagine having my job or my ratings based on making sure that I maintain a healthy physique or workout five hours a day, on top of doing the work," she says.

"The stories and the messages have universal appeal and people love that it's not based at all on physical trends or definitions of what beautiful is.

"There's always another pretty face down the line, but it's fun to be on a show that is quite timeless."

The actress likens the role to that of Bridget in the film, Bridget Jones's Diary.

"She was the underdog and you wanted to see her win and you wanted her to get the guy."

"Most of us are not TV stars and we don't look like we belong on television. We're just normal people who also deserve to have good lives."

"I think we all feel inadequate in one way or another," adds columnist Lee.

"Americans also tend to champion the underdog. When someone like Betty comes along who's naive, down-to-earth, caring and sincere, we feel relieved that there is something real in this world of phoney and superficial values."

Ugly Betty airs in the UK on Channel 4 from Friday 5 January.

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