Last fall, Channel 2 news (that's the one that claims to treat the news "as if it matters") offered an earth-shaking story: A blind date was being arranged between the ugliest male student in America and the ugliest girl student. Allegedly ugliest, of course.
The man had already been chosen: Bruce Morgan, a 6-foot-3 criminology major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the university (located in--where else?--Indiana, Penn.) selected by "College Book" Lisa Birnbach as home of the ugliest male students. The girl was to come from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, regarded by Birnbach as being anything but a hotbed of attractive female students.
A few days later, The Times reported that the lucky girl, Kate Neidhold, had flown more than 4,100 miles to meet Morgan, who unveiled her by removing a paper bag from her head. Morgan, in gray tuxedo and untied tennis shoes (de rigueur among the "uglocracy") commented after the date: "We might end up getting married and creating a superior race. It wouldn't be like Hitler's Aryans. We'd be fun people." It's a wonderful start to a filmable novel, and I'm not sure I shan't write it myself. (This is one part Bo Derek is not going to get, unless they fall back on the old "ugly girl" cliche of the movies, in which the heroine removes her bifocals and takes out the single hair-clip restraining cascades of lustrous hair, and the hero, eyes popping, gulps: "Why, Miss Smith . . . you're beautiful! ")
Marriage and ugliness competitions have been linked in history. At the end of the 18th Century, English artist Thomas Rowlandson drew "The Grinning Match," writing across the top: "The Frightfull'st Grinner to be the Winner." A cobbler with a horse's collar over his head is standing on a barrel, surrounded by an amused crowd. A notice-board reads: "On the 9th of October next will be run on Coleshill Heath Warwickshire a plate of 6 guineas value 3 heats by any horse, mare or gelding. Also a plate of less value to be run for by asses. The same day a gold ring to be grinned for by men." To the left is seen the man's bride-to-be; and on the back of the drawing Rowlandson wrote: "But what he esteemed more than all the rest, a country wench whom he had wooed in vain for about 5 years before, was so charmed with his grins, and the applauses which he received on all sides that she married him the week following and to this day wears the prize upon her finger, the cobbler having made use of it as his wedding ring." Grinning, or "gurning" matches are still held in rural parts of England today; there is still some cachet in ugliness.
In 1912, Edward Howell edited the minutes of "Ye Ugly Face Clubb" of Liverpool, 1743-53. The motto of the club was Tetrum ante omnia vultum (Before all things, an ugly face). Membership was open only to bachelors, and when you read the other qualifications, you can imagine that most of them were likely to remain bachelors. Every member had to have "something odd, remarkable, droll or out of the way in his Phiz" (physiognomy). "A large mouth, thin jaws, blubber lips, little goggling or squinting eyes shall be esteemed considerable qualifications in a candidate," the rules added. Also, "particular regard shall be had to the length of a candidate's nose," and "a large carbuncle, potato nose shall have the preference of a Roman or King William's."
Each member was described--warts and all--in a catalogue of deformity and grotesqueness. For example, Joseph Farmer had "little eyes, one bigger than ye other. . . . Mouth from ear to ear resembling a shark's." His looks were "extraordinarily haggard, odd, comic and out-of-ye-way . . . in short, possessed of every qualification to render him ye Phoenix of ye Society, as the like won't appear again this 1,000 years." Francis Gildart had an "odd, droll, Sancho Pancho (sic) Phiz" and John Branker boasted a "rotten irregular set of teeth, resembling an old broken saw. . . . On the whole very much like the picture of King Peppin, inexpressibly odd and ugly."
America, too, had its ugliness clubs. One in New York, which met at Ugly Hall, 4 Wall St., in the early 19th Century, was presided over by a gentleman with the title "His Homeliness." The Charlestown (Mass.) Ugly Club had a rule that the clubroom must always be the ugliest room in the ugliest house of the town. "When an ill-favored gentleman first arrives in the city," William Hone recorded in his "Table Book," "he is waited upon, in a civil and familiar manner, by some of the members of the Club, who inform him that they would be glad of his company on the next evening of their meeting."