By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- The name of the show is "Ugly Betty." The lead character -- described as "slightly plump" on ABC's Web site -- dresses awkwardly, wears braces and views life through thickly rimmed glasses.
What is she doing on television? As the main character on a highly touted fall series, no less?
Doesn't she know that she's supposed to be thin and blond, with a fashionable wardrobe, trendy sex life, photogenic friends, perfect hair, a flat, muscled stomach and fake breasts, fake legs and fake personality?
That perfect, thin beauty is the fantasy that's presented to us anyway -- and it's hard for both participants and spectators to avoid. Actresses (and some actors) have cosmetic surgery, starve themselves and go well beyond eating-right-and-exercise to be considered "beautiful," and many non-performers follow along.
The process can become downright dangerous when it leads to eating disorders or constant cosmetic alterations. Over in the fashion industry, some leaders -- concerned that the stick figures wearing the latest styles may be emaciated past the point of survival -- have enacted rules banning ultra-thin models from their catwalks.
(Not all designers are happy with the new standards. Prior to London Fashion Week this month, Giorgio Armani wrote he preferred "slender" models because "the clothes I design and the sort of fabrics I use need to hang correctly on the body." Given the size of the bodies he's used, perhaps he's really expecting his outfits to "hang" on wire hangers.)
Old habits die hard. On a recent episode of Bravo's "Project Runway," some of the contestants reacted in exasperation when they were told they'd have to design for the "everyday woman" -- their own mothers and sisters.
"It's almost like, for the fashion and beauty industry, the average woman is unusual and weird," says Rachel Weingarten, a marketing specialist, former makeup artist and the author of "Hello Gorgeous!" (Collectors Press), a history of cosmetics and beauty advertising. "There was a time when heroines looked more like us. You could see a woman who was imperfect."
Now, she says, models and performers are tweaked to look flawless. Even news anchors aren't immune: Katie Couric lost 20 pounds through Photoshop. (Couric wasn't pleased: She reportedly said she preferred the original photo "because there's more of me to love.")
So what's an "Ugly Betty" to do? One hopes she -- and the actress who plays her, America Ferrera -- takes pride in herself, just the way she is. On the other hand, should the show be canceled, it probably will be a long time before an "ugly" character -- especially a female one -- takes front and center on American TV.
Eye on Entertainment sizes things up.
"Ugly Betty" is based on a Colombian telenovela "Yo Soy Betty la Fea" ("I am Betty the Ugly"), which was a huge hit when it debuted there in 1999 and was copied in several other countries. It's being brought to American TV by actress Salma Hayek.
The American Betty is a working-class girl who lives in Queens with her father, sister and nephew. She gets a job in Manhattan with Mode magazine, a fashion-industry bible, as an assistant to the callow son of the magazine's owner, who's just been named editor.
The two, who know next to nothing about fashion, have to deal with some thin-and-haughty types, including Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), who was passed over for the editor's slot, and her assistant, Marc (Michael Urie).
There are some telenovela -- that is, melodramatic -- touches: The previous editor died mysteriously, and the behavior of the fashion-industry types can be over the top. Of course, according to tradition, the latter has always been thus.
"Ugly Betty" has been one of the best-reviewed series of the fall, and ABC rewarded it with a time slot before its latest powerhouse, "Grey's Anatomy." The network obviously is giving it a real chance to succeed. One hopes that the ugly duckling becomes a swan of the schedule -- without becoming like "The Swan."
"Ugly Betty" premieres at 8 p.m. ET Thursday on ABC.
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