America the Beautiful

The Golden Globes used to be the most relaxed of the awards ceremonies. For many years the lesser-known stepcousin of the Oscars, the Emmys and the Tonys, the ceremony wore its raffish air with the pride of a starlet wearing a couture gown. A recent issue of Entertainment Weekly featured Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep dishing about the awards luncheon in the days before it was televised. "You could get drunk!" said Dame Helen. These days, however, it is almost as scripted as all the other ceremonies.



But some unscripted emotion was evident this year when America Ferrera, who plays the hero of the hit television show Ugly Betty, was named best actor in a television series, musical or comedy. Ms. Ferrera burst into tears at her table. A few seconds later, clutching her award at the podium, she spoke of the many young women who have written to say how much the series--about an "ugly" girl with a big heart--has meant for them. It gives them, their letters say, a sense of being "worthy and lovable."

"Ugly Betty" is a rare show that is both fun and good for you. The eponymous hero is a hardworking young Hispanic woman who lives in Queens, N.Y., and works at a fictional fashion magazine called Mode. One of the showÕs producers, the actress Salma Hayek, based the ABC series on the telenovelas popular in her native Mexico. As a result, the showÕs over-the-top storylines and dialogue are sometimes more appropriate for a sudsy afternoon show like, say, "Passions," which often includes the odd witch and warlock among the oversexed housewives and philanderers.

Early stories about "Betty" noted its obvious debt to the telenovelas genre and its similarity to the movie "The Devil Wears Prada," which also centered around a "plain" girl working at a New York fashion magazine. Yet while Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly was a bad boss of the icy-cool variety (complete with snow-white hair), Wilhelmina Slater, played with relish by Vanessa Williams, is more fiery-hot, closer to the plate-throwing type exemplified 20 years ago by Joan Collins in "Dynasty."

The appeal of "Ugly Betty" is more than skin-deep. As portrayed by Ms. Ferrera, who starred as a similarly zaftig woman in "Real Women Have Curves," she is warm and humane. Betty Suarez is committed to her family, which coheres around her father, Ignacio, who happens to be an illegal alien. She is committed to her work, too. Her immediate boss is an airhead named Daniel, who seems incapable of doing any meaningful work without Betty’s help. This is one of the showÕs minor flaws: associate editors at magazines occasionally have to work.

Betty is equally adept at dealing with the imperious Wilhelmina Slater, who would just as easily chew on her staff as a celery stick. "Do you know how many curly-haired, effete sycophants there are waiting to replace you?" she says to her gay assistant.

In almost any venue other than Hollywood, Ms. Ferrera would be considered an attractive woman. It reminds me of comments made about the comedian Janeane Garofalo, who played the similarly "ugly," and therefore lonely, friend of the actress Uma Thurman in the movie "The Truth About Cats and Dogs." Only in the world according to the entertainment industry, where rail-thin supermodel looks are the norm, would Ms. Garofalo find herself dateless on a Saturday night.

How refreshing to see a young woman on television who looks like someone you would know--in other words, someone who eats food. At a time when too many young women compare themselves to stick-figure models and when those same stick-figure models are hospitalized for anorexia while publicly protesting how much they eat, Betty Suarez is a welcome arrival. (In an ironic twist, Vanessa Williams herself is a former real-life Miss America.)

And, marking an advance over "The Devil Wears Prada," in which its heroine triumphed after getting a makeover (which consisted largely of a haircut), America FerreraÕs Betty does not seem at all interested in being "made over."

It is a sad commentary that we have to celebrate normalcy on television, but celebrate we should. Betty is pleasant, moral and kind. She is someone you might enjoy knowing, someone you might go to for advice, someone you might ask to look in on an aging parent or babysit your child. Her brand of morality is of the hidden kind: she cares for her family and does her job quietly without much need for attention. She triumphs over whatever life throws at her because, despite her unruly hair, her unplucked eyebrows, her mouth full of braces and her outmoded wardrobe, she is a beautiful soul.

Betty may never make it onto the front page; she may never step into the job of editor of Mode; and she will certainly never become a fashion model. But thatÕs okay; and her family, her friends and the viewers know it. So do all the young women who have written to America Ferrera.

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