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By Peter Davis | March 1, 2009 | People
America Ferrera is worried about wardrobe. Wrapped up like a piece of candy in a garishly patterned sheer smock over a drab olive-green thermal tee, the 24-year-old TV star is in costume as Betty Suarez, her character on ABC’s Ugly Betty. Sitting in her undecorated dressing room (right next door to the enormous lifelike set of Mode magazine, where Betty works) at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Ferrera wonders if Betty’s unsightly ensembles are becoming just a bit too hip.
“I see Betties walking through the streets of Manhattan all the time,” she frets, tugging on a necklace with a big B charm and teardrop-shaped faux pearls. “Go down to the East Village. You’ll find 25 people dressed like Betty. Now our problem is, how do we keep her Betty and not make her look too cute? Because her crazy style is everywhere.”
Fashion plays a starring role on Ugly Betty. Zac Posen, Mark Badgley and James Mischka, Nina Garcia, and Project Runway winner Christian Siriano have all done cameos, and designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have told the producers they’d love to be on the show, too. But of course Betty’s clothing is anything but stylish.
“At work I get to wear the most ridiculous stuff,” she says, and giggles girlishly. “I get my dose of crazy fashion on the show. Pat Field, our costume designer, is wonderful. This is kind of a secret, but there are times when Betty has some crazy print on and it turns out to be vintage YSL or Versace. They look hideous on Betty, but they’re actually these wonderful pieces.”
In Ugly Betty's office full of manic Mode fashion editors, the innocent and eager Betty, a braces-wearing, stylistically challenged misfit from Queens, is the moral center. It's more Cinderella than The Devil Wears Prada— which makes it not all that far from the truth.
“I’m not a huge fashion person,” Ferrera says. Off the set, her uniform— jeans and a T-shirt—is the anti-Betty. But she has gained a new appreciation for Seventh Avenue, she admits. “I’ve grown to respect the art of fashion. I endlessly flip through magazines, scouring them for articles that could be assignments Betty would have.”
Ferrera has even been known to work some red-carpet glamour, like the lacy gray Monique Lhuillier dress she wore when she won the SAG Award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a comedy series in 2007. (She also has an Emmy and a Golden Globe.) “I love Oscar de la Renta,” she mentions. “I always feel beautiful and womanly and girly in Oscar de la Renta.”
After filming two seasons on sets in LA, Ugly Betty moved production to New York, where the show is actually supposed to take place. “I am so proud of this new season,” Ferrera says, snapping open
a can of Diet Coke. “Season one, everything was new, and season two was about experimenting and testing the waters. This season we’ve really found a balance, with great stories. There’s Justin, Betty’s nephew on the show, and the question of whether he’s gay and how his mother Hilda is dealing with it. And lots of romance, too. For the name ‘Ugly Betty,’ she sure gets a lot of love. There’s always somebody. A really fun romance is coming up for Betty that spans the whole second half of the season.”
The daughter of Honduran parents, Ferrera grew up in Woodland Hills, in California’s San Fernando Valley. Named after her mother, Ferrera says she detested the name America as a child. “It’s a terrible name to grow up with,” she recalls. “In terms of the jokes and the songs, kids just think they’re hilarious. There isn’t a joke you can tell about America that I haven’t heard. It’s such a weird name. I hated it. It made me way too different. I hated when they’d call out ‘America’ and everyone in the classroom would turn around to see whose name it was. I dreaded it. So I used my middle name, Georgina.”
But, like Betty, Ferrera eventually learned that being different is often an advantage, especially in entertainment. When she started acting professionally, she decided to go with her real first name again. “I thought, It’s my name,” she explains slowly, sitting up a bit more straight in her chair. “It was about getting past the high school years of not wanting to be different from anybody. It was about owning my identity and being unique.”
Ferrera first came to New York when she was 17, a month after 9/11. I remember feeling a calm. It felt like home to me. And it's not like I was some small-town girl. I grew up in LA. My whole goal from then on was to get back to New York."
In her few short years in Hollywood before becoming a pop-culture icon, Ferrera had already made something of a name for herself, starring in the films Real Women Have Curves (2002) and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). Then one day in 2005, Salma Hayek, Ugly Betty’s executive producer, spotted her in a hotel lobby.
“She stopped me and pitched the whole show to me right there,” Ferrera recalls. Hayek offered her the job. “That’s the way of Hollywood,” says Ferrera. “You’ve got to take the chance where you find it.” Almost overnight, the girl with the funny name went from up-andcoming young actress to cover star of W magazine.
Yet despite her newfound celebrity, Ferrera shies away from the tabloid spotlight. She’s never photographed rolling into a nightclub or shopping on Robertson Boulevard in LA, and, unlike so many other stars her age, she doesn’t seem ultracomfortable with the idea of self-promotion. “Usually, I’m a little bit of a nervous wreck at photo shoots,” she confesses.
It should come as no surprise, then, that she’s still rattled by the in-your-face tactics of photographers, whose worst behavior she witnessed in Ugly Betty’s third season, when Lindsay Lohan came on to play Betty’s backstabbing high-school nemesis and the set became, as Ferrera recalls, a paparazzo’s dream and the cast and crew’s nightmare.
“We deal with paparazzi in big numbers every time we’re out shooting,” Ferrera explains. “They get so close. They’re basically in the scene with you and you have to pretend you don’t hear the clicking of cameras. It’s a whole other element to deal with when we’re on location.”
But she wouldn’t swap the realness of shooting on New York sidewalks for anything. “What’s exciting is all the different ways to see New York. Betty’s view of the city is this very fantastical ‘bright lights, big city.’ It’s a dreamlike way of seeing New York.”
Ferrera films the series 10 months of the year, and during her hiatuses makes movies (this year: American Tragic, a drama about a soldier back from Iraq). She hopes to keep living in New York. She loves seeing live performances at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and names the East Village and the Lower East Side as her favorite neighborhoods.
“I don’t know how long you have to live in the city before you get to call yourself a New Yorker,” she says, showing a wide smile. “I feel like I was born a New Yorker.”
Photographs by Kenneth Willardt/Corbis Outline, Styling by Bequ Quillian, Hair by Miok, Makeup by Linda Hay, Manicure by Donna D