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Well, that's the beauty of it all

Just By Being Herself, The Heroine Of Abc's Comedy Changes Others. As She Deals With Cultural Push-pull, She's Gorgeous In Her Own Way.

September 17, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

YOU could choose to focus on the way "Ugly Betty" looks. After all, the title of this new ABC comedy prods you in that direction. But there's something more meaningful cooking on this series than the fact that its star, America Ferrera, is hiding her beauty under bushy eyebrows, braces and a mousy wardrobe.

"Ugly Betty," which centers on 22-year-old Betty Suarez, a homely looking college grad who grew up in Queens, has been called both a Cinderella story and an ugly duckling, fish-out-of-water tale. Betty dreams of landing a plum job in publishing in Manhattan, perhaps at a financial magazine, and in the pilot, Betty sort of gets what she wants: She's hired as an assistant to the editor of fashion publication Mode. It's a "Devil Wears Prada" sort of setup that will pit her against the pretty people and their superficial world. And it's the sort of contrast that made "Yo Soy Betty la Fea," the Colombian series on which it's based, one of the most popular telenovelas ever.

But none of that gets at what's truly groundbreaking about "Ugly Betty." Woven into Ferrera's role is the story of a first-generation U.S. Latina straddling cultures, a young woman as rooted in her Latina upbringing as she is in her American belief that anything can be accomplished with hard work. At home, Betty helps her immigrant widowed father (Tony Plana) deal with his frustrating HMO; at work, with her ingenuity, she saves her boss (Eric Mabius) from losing an important client, even though he has treated her dismissively.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Colombian telenovelas: A Business section article Saturday on the Colombian \o7telenovela industry said Univision, the largest U.S. Spanish-language network, would this year broadcast five Colombian-produced soap operas, up from two last year. The shows will be broadcast on TeleFutura Network, the sister network Univision founded in 2002.

"I feel it's wonderful that this show is not about her being a Latina, and that's what makes her different," said Ferrera, who was in full Betty garb (minus the braces) during a lunch break at Raleigh Studios recently. "Being an immigrant is one story. But when you have family roots in another country but you're born and raised as an American, that's a whole different struggle. Betty is a minority in every sense of the word: She's a woman, she's young, she's Hispanic, she's short and not blond and not blue-eyed. Yet she's got something inside that is very reassuring to watch."

Indeed, by not harping on Betty's ethnic background but reflecting the reality of what it feels like to grow up as both an insider and outsider in two cultures, never quite fitting into either, "Ugly Betty" distinguishes itself from the other shows on broadcast television. In recent years, ABC has led the way in multicultural casting, hiring actors of many ethnic backgrounds for "Lost," "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" without typecasting them. Or as the spunky 22-year-old Ferrera put it, "You turn on 'Lost' and it's not like, 'Oh, I'm Latino so when I landed I had a bag of tortillas in my purse.' "

But "Ugly Betty" creator Silvio Horta, a Cuban American born in Miami, wanted to up the veracity quotient. He decided that his version of the popular telenovela would work only if it depicted the way he grew up. After several other countries (including India, Germany and Russia) succeeded with remakes of the show, executive producers Ben Silverman ("The Biggest Loser" and "The Office") and Salma Hayek attempted to make it in Hollywood but had no luck selling it because they wanted to keep Betty a Latina. Then Hayek met Ferrera, who had starred in "Real Woman Have Curves" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," and ABC executives began to see the possibilities. Landing her and Horta ("Jake 2.0") sealed the deal.

"This is my story, living at home and switching between languages -- talking to my mother in Spanish, talking to my sister in Spanglish, and you don't even think about it," Horta said. "You grow up thinking telenovelas are cheesy, and yet all the kids watched them because that's what your parents watched. And you got addicted. Of course, that was interspersed with watching 'Three's Company' and 'The A-Team.' I don't think you really get it unless you live it."



FERRERA gets it. The youngest of six children who grew up in Woodland Hills with their Honduran mother, Ferrera was proud of her heritage but wanted more than anything else to fit in with her peers. Her mother spoke to all of the kids (five girls and one boy) in Spanish, and they spoke to her in English because nobody in the neighborhood was speaking Spanish then.

"Where I grew up, I went to tons of bar and bat mitzvahs, and I've never been to a single quinceanera," said Ferrera, an El Camino Real High School graduate. She wanted to convert to Judaism "because it was the cool thing to do. When you are first-generation anything, you have your past, which is these roots, and it's a part of you because you're so deeply connected to your relatives. But then you have the society that you're supposed to blend into. You're supposed to find friends, you're supposed to make a life for yourself. It's that quarrel between how much do I compromise on each side and still understand who I am?"

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