Pretty Ugly

They are being paraded before us, the obese lispers, the sallow Goths. The dwarfs (some even shorter than Ryan Seacrest) and the 6-foot-4-in-stocking-feet female giants. Frizzy-haired, pop-eyed, snaggle-toothed, they grooved on last Wednesday's episode of American Idol to the Pussycat Dolls' song "Don't Cha."

Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me. ...


This is supposed to be hilarious because, you see, these people are not hot - most are quite the opposite. The early weeks of the talent competition's open tryouts have become a televised ugly pageant, complete with vicious insults from the snickering judges.

But for once, the hit show is on the wrong side of a trend. These days, ugliness is respectable and, dare we say, even desirable. Maybe it's a natural backlash against an increasingly symmetrical society. Maybe it's because we've figured out how to market it.


In any case, as Justin Timberlake (who, in Alpha Dog, is looking a little scruffy himself) might put it, we're bringing ugly back.

The signs are everywhere. At the Golden Globes last week, Ugly Betty, the primetime chronicles of a metal-mouthed secretary, won for Best Television Comedy. Its star also scooped up the prize for Best Actress in a Television Comedy, beating out the beauties from Desperate Housewives.

Then there are the Ugly Dolls, monstrous plush toys with missing eyes and extra limbs and names like Ice-Bat and Chuckanuka, whose sales more than doubled last year, thanks in part to a presence at Barney's New York and other haunts once reserved for the beautiful.

And last week brought the triumph of the UglyRipe, an odd-looking yet tasty tomato that was discriminated against for years because of its physique. ("Misshapen ... concave stem ... rigid shoulders" is how one disdainful tomato grower describes it in a protest letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) But now, after a long battle, the tomato will be sold across the country, and consumers are rejoicing. America isn't just ready for ugliness. We're hungry for it.

"Ugly is a word that I truly believe is losing its sting," says Betty Hoeffner, founder of Hey U.G.L.Y., a self-esteem organization for teenagers. "Now it's kind of cool to be ugly."

She attributes the shift to the ratings success of Ugly Betty, the sleeper-hit telenovela, and also to the conscious effort of activists to change the meaning of ugly, which, in the name of her nonprofit, stands for Unique Gifted Lovable You.

There does seem to be a pro-ugly offensive. This winter, in response to the Ugly Betty phenomenon, ABC launched a public service campaign called "Be Ugly '07," which encourages girls to "throw away society's unrealistic standards of beauty" and "be real in a superficial world." There are plans to distribute "daily affirmation cards" and Ugly Betty masks, among other projects. Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, the one that featured all those zaftig lasses in their underwear, has a similar strategy, with a "self-esteem fund" and essay contests.

But the celebration of ugliness or, at least, of plainness, is also a spontaneous movement. Online there are sites enshrining everything from garish Christmas lights to grotesque insects, and contests for the ugliest everything abound. Ugliest dog? Past winners have included a blind Chinese Crested Hairless horror - the late pooch even has his own Web site, Ugliest vegetable? The parsnip. Ugliest celebrity husband? Well, you have your pick of 10 of them.


Why are the uncomely collecting laurels? Maybe we're just sick of the u-word being used against us, says David Horvath, the CEO - actually, he prefers "top ugly, no, the ugliest" - of Ugly Dolls, which he created in 2001.

"We realized that ugly was a marketing tool, a way to sell beauty products so no one will think you are ugly," he says. "Well, we realized that there is no such thing as ugly. Ugly is just all those little bumps and twists and turns that make us who we are, and that's why we call it the Ugly Doll."

And Joe Procacci says he thinks of ugly as a way to reach customers who believe that beauty comes from within, particularly where produce is concerned.

"Vegetables shouldn't be judged by looks," says Procacci, the Ugly- Ripe's developer, who says that it took 20 years and $3 million to create the tomato from a French heirloom variety but that customers caught on much more easily. "These ugly tomatoes that we've bred are tasty. Once they taste them, they love them."

This philosophy stretches from supermarket aisles to the hills of Hollywood, where several of this summer's most anticipated films feature ill-favored stars. Shrek the Third is one - need we say more? And John Travolta might be a good-looking man, but not when masquerading as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. In TV land, it's more of the same, with the homely Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) as the hero in recent episodes of NBC's The Office.

Even the most extreme segments of the beauty industry are bowing to the appeal of ugly. The Council of Fashion Designers recently released a "health initiative" aimed at plumping up runway models, and ABC yanked its slasher-esque plastic surgery show, Extreme Makeover, after just one episode this fall.


Perhaps we've gotten used to the glut of ugliness on reality TV, or maybe we just ran out of money or energy to go under the knife again, an addiction Alex Kuczynski criticizes in her best-seller, Beauty Junkies.

Maybe it's that we realize that loveliness doesn't always correlate with success, according to Richard St. John, author of the new book Stupid, Ugly, Unlucky and Rich.

"I've stood nose to nose with Rupert Murdoch," he says of the media mogul, "and believe me, it's not a pretty picture."

Of course, ugliness still has its ugly side, as those who've tuned into the Donald vs. Rosie takedown fest - "I'd look her right in that fat ugly face of hers and say, 'Rosie, you're fired,'" Trump told TV's Entertainment Tonight - know full well.

Research suggests that unattractive people suffer in a variety of ways, according to Ty Tashiro, an assistant professor of psychology of the University of Maryland, College Park. They are paid less. Their parents appear to love them less. They are ultimately more likely to commit a crime, according to one recent study.

And Hollywood's occasionally misguided attempts at portraying ugliness can do the national psyche more harm than good. Anne Hathaway was an unconvincing Plain Jane in The Devil Wears Prada, for instance, even when she was supposed to be (gasp) a size 6. If you're going to show unsightliness, America wants the real thing. As Gollum, ugliest of uglies, declares in Lord of the Rings, "Give it to us raw and wriggling!"


"It's nothing to be afraid of," says Betty Hoeffner, who, having debunked "ugly," is searching for positive acronyms for words such as "dork" and "loser." "Everyone is realizing that there is a way to see beauty that isn't on the cover of magazines. They used to call me Ugly Betty as a kid, and it hurt so bad. Now they call me Ugly Betty and I am so proud."