PIOBICCO, Italy -- Telesforo Iacobelli is a man with a mission and a strange one at that. For the past 30 years, he has championed the cause of the ugly in society.
Though the ugly are not normally ranked among the dispossessed in any organized sense, Iacobelli argues they represent a maligned and often misunderstood group. He says he knows what he is talking about; not only is he the president of the Club dei Brutti, or Ugly Club, he counts himself among its charter members.
"I'm ugly, and I don't regret it," the irreverent founder says. "It's absurd that people feel marginalized in society by an aesthetic that is based solely on beauty."
Part philosopher, part humorist, Iacobelli pokes fun at a vain culture by presenting the "No Bel" prize each year. (In Italian, "non bello" means not beautiful.) He also takes a swipe at American soap operas in a campaign called "Brut-iful." (In Italy "The Young and The Restless" is renamed "Beautiful.")
His outspoken beliefs and antics have tapped a rich vein. The Ugly Club boasts an international presence and more than 20,000 card-carrying members. Membership is free and does not require an evaluation to join. The Web site is www.clubdeibrutti.com.
There is some irony that the Ugly Club should be based in Italy, which embraces the ideal of the bella figura, or making the right impression, and is a major force in fashion, design and aesthetics. Iacobelli has set himself a herculean task in trying to dismiss and dispel the "cult of beauty."
Truth be told, the man is not one of nature's crueler compositions. His defect, as he sees it, is a small nose in a country where broad and long snouts are not only the norm but praised.
His own example points to one of the key tenets of the club -- that ugliness can be as much a factor of self-perception as of reality. "Advertising and popular culture exclude people," Iacobelli says, "and if you don't fit the mold they promote, you can be made to feel less than you are. That's not right."
The club has brought the topic out of the closet and attracts academics, doctors and sociologists to conferences where they discuss the plight of the ugly in society.
"Beauty is just one aspect in a person's make-up that can affect how they get along in society," says Professor Gianni Camattari of the Integrated Psychology Center of Milan. "Ugliness, in itself, is not an obstacle to having an active social life or even sex life; the real obstacle is the deep conviction of being ugly, which can be overcome."
The Ugly Club's home is the small town of Piobicco in the province of Pesaro in the Marches region on Italy's Adriatic coast. Iacobelli, 65, runs a general store and has been a booster for his community, serving as president of the pro loco, the town's promotional body. The Ugly Club has brought Piobicco significant media attention, largely because of his innovative and spirited undertakings to make it the "Ugly People's Mecca."
Iacobelli has attracted thousands of people to this part of the country, says Samuele Sabatini, president of the pro loco for the nearby town of Urbania. Though not a member of the club, Sabatini collaborates with Iacobelli. They recently organized a festival in Urbania for La Befana, the winter festival in which a witch visits children and gives them candies or coal depending on how they have behaved.
"La Befana is ugly," Sabatini says, "but she's good. We want to make Urbania the capital for La Befana."
In 1996 Iacobelli staged a symbolic marriage ceremony between the winner of the Miss Bellissima beauty contest and the fattest man in Italy. In a nod to the prized local production of truffles, Giuliano Bellesi, who weighs 477 pounds, was dressed as a truffle, while Elisa Salmasi, a svelte 123 pounds, came as a mushroom.
"Truffles are the ugliest growth in the ground and yet they are precious, even an aphrodisiac," says Iacobelli, cracking a smile, "whereas the mushroom is beautiful to look at but can sometimes be poisonous, even fatal. Nature is very honorable; it gives other qualities to those of us who are ugly."
A visitor to Iacobelli's house is ushered into the cellar, which has been transformed into a shrine to ugliness. "It's my private museum," Iacobelli says, flicking on the lights to reveal room after room of ugly possessions: Photos, trophies, documents, posters and unusual objects fill the shelves.
A painted slogan on a board reads: "The women of ugly men are always happy."
A wild boar's head is mounted over the door and is the club's emblem. Its crest features a reclining man smoking a pipe with the slogan, "La bruttezza e 'na virtu, la bellezza e schiavitu" -- ugliness is a virtue, beauty is slavery.
"We're not against beauty," Iacobelli insists. "We've had four Miss Italys join our club. We are normal people who want to talk about the problems of ugliness in society."
These problems have presented themselves in ways Iacobelli had not anticipated. Young people come to his doorstep in despair, some on the verge of suicide over their presumed deformities. Iacobelli takes on the role of therapist to make these people realize they are not who they think they are.
"I get them to face themselves in the mirror," he says.
On his mantel is a frieze of Vulcan, the mythical god and protector of the ugly. As the story goes, on seeing how ugly he was, his mother threw Vulcan over a cliff, but he survived and became a skilled blacksmith. For supplying Achilles with superior weapons, he was admitted to Mount Olympus where he married the beautiful Venus, goddess of love, and lived happily ever after.
On the night of last year's Academy Awards in Hollywood, Iacobelli performed with a band called, not surprisingly, the Ugly Band, at a concert in the Tuscan hometown of actor Roberto Benigni, who was named best actor for his film "Life is Beautiful."
"Benigni is one of us," says Iacobelli. "He's a little ugly. I think if he wasn't so ugly he wouldn't have been the success he is. The ugly must attain a higher level of accomplishment to emerge, so they try harder."
He notes studies from American universities that purport to demonstrate that ugly people have on average a higher intelligence.
The origins of the club are poignant. At one time Piobicco was the hometown of 128 unwed women. Iacobelli set up a marriage agency to try to find them husbands. A common problem was the presumption that these women were unattractive, so he set out to champion their cause.
He took his cue from an earlier club in Piobicco, dating to 1879, that also had an interest in ugliness. Maybe it's something in the water, or a result of eating all those truffles.
Roberta Iacobelli, the president's daughter, puts her father's work in perspective. "We can't have beauty without something to compare it to; the idea of beauty only exists because there is a contrast. In some tribal societies, the beautiful women were horrendous by our standards, so it's all relative, isn't it?"
A proud father drapes his arm around his offspring and beams, "I want the tree of ugliness to spread its branches all over the world."