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They’ve been keeping viewers south of the border hooked for years, as well as anyone with Univision on their cable provider. Telenovellas are Latino soap operas, with just as much passion and melodrama as ours. The groundbreaking Colombian “Yo Soy Betty LaFea” told the story of a frumpy girl who incurs the ire of her beautiful and stylish co-workers, but proves to be pretty efficient herself. Actress Salma Hayek ("Frida", "After the Sunset") saw the show, and decided America needed their version, so she heralded “Ugly Betty” into production.

Premiering on ABC at 8PM ET/PT, Friday, September 22, “Ugly Betty” stars America Ferrera ("Lords of Dogtown") as the title character, Betty Suarez, with Eric Mabius ("The L Word") as her boss, the new editor of fashion magazine “Mode”, and Vanessa Williams as the fashionista who deserved the editor job. Think “Devil Wears Prada” with a Latina twist.

“It’s about, yes, the fish out of water, the person that is not conventional in the way they look or the way they talk,” Hayek told Dish during an interview with the cast of the show in LA recently. “But they are incredibly smart and hard workers, and they get ahead in life using that. Everybody wants to see these kinds of stories, but at the same time, she’s not a victim. She has a sense of humor about herself.”

Perhaps it is a person with a Latin sense of humor that would call a show’s lead character “ugly” or “fea.” The American press were quick to jump on the title. “The title has a lot to do with the tone of the show,” Hayek continued. “When I said ‘having a sense of humor about herself’, I think it’s sarcastic. I don’t think Betty is really ugly. We’re making fun of it. We’re not really calling her ugly. We’re making fun of the people that would think that’s ugly.”

Ferrera dons glasses and braces in an effort to “ugly up” and live up to the title. “When I’m in character and I’m wearing Betty’s costume, I never felt more confident, more beautiful and more pretty on the inside,” she said. “I wish that one day America can feel the way that I feel when I’m Betty, because when I’m Betty, there’s a light that shines from the inside and it’s so wonderful to be her.”

Luckily, the fake braces allow her to maintain normal eating habits. “My braces are a wonderful contraption. They go in and they come out whenever I want to take a trip to craft service. And they just come in and they pop out. They’re like retainers.”

Familiar to audiences for roles playing off her natural Latina curves, such as “Real Women Have Curves” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”, the real America Ferrera looks like the most delightful, sweet young girl you’d ever see. “It takes away the pressure on me as an actress,” she said. “I’m not a model. I never wanted to be a model. I never wanted to do ads for Neutrogena. That’s not what I set out in my life to do. I set out to tell stories. I set out to represent real people.”

So different is her real life appearance that it’s entirely possible she could be famous around the country, and no one would recognize her on the street. “I love it. It’s wonderful. I can’t wait. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t necessarily care if anyone knows who I am. I fell in love with this character so early on, and to me it’s so wonderful to see that people are falling in love with her. People feel like they do know you and they can come up to you and hug you and touch you because you were in their living room, you were on their TV. So I imagine that if the world falls in love with Betty the way I fell in love with Betty, it will probably be very hard for people to distinguish me from her”

In an homage to the tellenovellas that inspired "Ugly Betty", Hayek appears on a TV screen as an actress in a telenovella that Betty’s family watches. It is Hayek’s only on- screen involvement with the show. “It’s a lot of fun, but you have to remember that’s where I started,” Hayek said.”

The original “Betty La Fea” focused on a romance between Betty and her boss. It also ended after two years, so in the interest of keeping “Ugly Betty” on the air for many years, there won’t be too many initial sparks between Ferrera and Mabius. At the beginning of the series, he’s got a bevy of ladies to juggle, and the show’s producers have instructed Mabius to start working out, because many shirtless scenes are coming.

Though nothing immediate is on the horizon, even Mabius hopes his character sees the beauty in "Ugly Betty". “I don’t see how it can’t happen but we don’t know that yet. I certainly think it’s possible because there’s an inevitable trust that’s established, and admiration and confidence in one another as people. You see that Betty and Daniel make one another better, who they are, more complete. It’s like she has a gap and I have a gap and together we sort of create this whole. When things get charged and excited like that, of course the emotional attachments are inevitable. But I’m not writing the show.”

Could Mabius be this year’s Patrick Dempsey ("Grey’s Anatomy")? “I’ll let you know when that happens. I don’t know if I’m ready because it hasn’t happened yet, but we’ll see. I hope that’s reflective of a huge audience response.”

Vanessa Williams may be channeling a bit of Meryl Streep in her character. “It’s an honor to play somebody who is strong,” Williams said. “Of course she’s evil and demonic and looking for the worst. But those are really fun roles to play because it’s on the page. There’s a reason why I’m attracted to these roles, because I enjoy playing them with ease, but it also is very, very fun for me.”

Any ugly duckling story usually involves some sort of makeover, and working in a fashion magazine, it seems inevitable. So how can the show keep "Ugly Betty" faithful to herself without succumbing to the same pressure Betty herself faces to “fit in?”

“We address that right off the bat,” said Hayek. “Betty has a makeover that doesn’t quite go as planned, so we want to get that out of the way to really get back to Betty being herself, which is when she is the strongest and when she is the most confident.”

Such confidence in the face of social pressure comes from Ferrera’s own family. “I have an amazing mother and an amazing family and I’ve always had a really wonderful sense of self and who I was. That’s not always so inviting. It’s kind of intimidating to people who don’t know who they are, so I had a little roughness with some teachers and what not, but I did a little talking back in my day.”

Even the inarguably lovely Salma Hayek looks up to America Ferrera. “I almost cried,” Hayek said. “I’m so proud of her because I walked with that woman in my mind since the idea of making this show ever came to me. I said, ‘it’s going to be America, it’s going to be America.’ I see her come out of the trailer with the silly outfit and I just want to go and kiss her. She also, we love animals and I just adore her. She is such a beautiful thing that I’m seeing unfold right in front of my eyes.”

Hopefully Ferrera and “Ugly Betty” can be a role model to everyone else when they see the show. There sure weren’t many when she was growing up. “My TV role models were “I Love Lucy” and “Happy Days” and Shirley from “Laverne and Shirley,” Ferrera said. “I grew up watching TV just like everyone else did, so when I was growing up, there weren’t many Latino faces but I also grew up as an American. I knew I had culture that was different than theirs in a sense. But I went to American high schools, watched American television so it’s very similar to most other American young people.”

Hayek put it most simply: “America needs America.”

Don’t Miss “UGLY BETTY” at 8 PM ET/PT, Thursday, September 28, on ABC!

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www.Dishmag.com / Issue 68 - September 7310
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