Friday, 27 June 2008

Gonzalo Otálora :: The Munter Who Made Good

Gonzalo Otálora is a self-proclaimed ugly man and living proof that contrary to popular opinion, you can actually polish a turd. Gonzalo hails from Argentina, where his book Feo! - or, if you will, Ugly! - is regularly described as a bestseller.

Feo! is the story of Gonzalo’s life as an ugly man, from a childhood bubbling with persecution and tears, to a pustulating adolescence wherein he attempted to transform himself with corrective surgery, suicidal thoughts and girdles; finally through to adulthood and - happily – self-acceptance and an end to the self-loathing.

I thought I’d ask him a bunch of questions and see how his experience of being ugly compares with my own.

First up, he explains a little about what he’s learned over the years. ‘Nobody is ugly,’ he says. ‘Nobody is beautiful. Simply, we have different bodies. In my case I suffered from a typical form of aesthetic anorexia. I felt ugly, but I understood that the beauty industry imposes a model which 5% of society represents, and the other 95% want to attain. This is basically a con that makes you think that if you're not beautiful, you're nothing. In Argentina, this happens a lot.’

It isn’t just society at large of course, which conspires to make the ugly person feel unwanted. Individuals do it too. I mention the Ugly Tree, out of which many a hilarious, heartless person has smilingly informed me that I have clearly fallen, hitting – of course - every branch on the way down. I wonder if there are any similar expressions in Argentina which make ugly people's lives a misery but seem to amuse everyone else.

‘In Argentina there are many sayings,’ he replies. ‘In that sense we are very creative.’ I ask him to tell me one. He tells me one:

‘Uglier than stepping barefoot on a turd.’

I shake my head.

People can be so cruel.

Gonzalo was born into an ordinary family - non-ugly parents and two non-ugly siblings - in 1976. So when did he realise that he was not like other boys? ‘Since my school companions started making fun of my glasses,’ he says. ‘BIG glasses. From then on I noticed that my appearance was different to other people’s, and not in a good way.’

Then of course, after years of quotidian torture at the hands of pernicious children, comes the terrorism of puberty. ‘From the age of 14 to 18,’ says Gonzalo, ‘sex was an obsession. Four years of daily struggle, until I could accomplish it. My first time, like many other ugly people, was with a prostitute.’ But then – and this is where any common ground we share falls completely away - things changed. ‘For me, having sex after the age of 18 was not difficult… I went from being an ugly person with no success to a player, a Casanova looking for revenge.’ Oh. Um… ‘Now, luckily, I am calm....’


He wrote something similar a few months ago in the Financial Times. ‘I became an expert at picking up women in the street,’ he wrote, ‘but they were all one-night stands.’ Now, thankfully - otherwise he’d probably have no soul - Gonzalo is looking for love, which he describes as ‘the most difficult thing... It’s difficult when one has low self esteem and can't love themselves, to have others love them. Now, I'm going through that grand hurdle in my life... love.’

Lack of love aside, Gonzalo is doing pretty well these days. He’s a successful journalist and TV producer, as well as a self-taught womaniser and a best-selling author. So. How come he came to write a book about being ugly?

‘I wrote the book without thinking,’ he confesses. ‘I felt the need to talk about my past. It’s the story of an adolescent who was bullied in elementary school, who got rejected by women in clubs, and who then had difficulty finding jobs. It’s the story of a fighter who understood that it wasn't necessary to be beautiful to succeed… The secret is to love yourself no matter what the mirror tells you.’

Although this advice is obviously sound, it’s also kind of trite, and anyone who’s ever stood in front of a full-length mirror and sobbed their swollen heart out will tell you that loving yourself is much, much easier said than done.

Gonzalo however, has experienced both sides of the coin of self-loathing. In his teens and early 20s he did everything he could to change the way he looked. He had laser surgery and hair implants. He even wore a girdle. ‘Moreover,’ he says, ‘I lived my whole life trying to lose weight and fell into all the traps.’

He was obsessed with becoming attractive, but eventually realised that he was wasting his time. ‘If we always see ourselves as ugly, we will always need to change our appearance to feel good. When someone tries to solve all their problems by changing their appearance, they are buying a ticket to suffering. However, if the change is internal, if we learn how to live with our body, then we have much more chance of finding happiness.’

Feo! then, is the story of how one man made the shift from a lifetime of perceived discrimination to relative contentment.

It could be argued – by a more cynical chap than I - that Gonzalo Otálora is actually something of a charlatan, another ‘Ugly Betty’, i.e. someone trading off of a repulsiveness which in reality does not actually exist. For even as a teenager, at the height of his hormonal festering, Gonzalo wasn’t that bad. Quite tasty in fact.

Nowadays, from the pictures that are available on the web, it turns out he’s just an ordinary bloke. He’s no Johnny Depp for sure, but equally, he’s no Ronaldo.

In fact, he looks a bit like Jon Ronson, who I'm sure is frequently described as 'quite dashing'. Although probably only by his mum.

But what the hell. It’s not a competition. Much more important than how ugly he is - or isn’t - is the fact that he’s been an inspiration to other fuglies who’ve read his book. Indeed, he says feedback has been ‘stupendous…. Every day readers who identify with what happened to me write on my website and my blog.’ This includes a great many kids of course, for whom Gonzalo hopes to develop some anti-bullying materials for use in schools.

And it doesn’t stop there. As part of his compassionate work for the facially disadvantaged, Gonzalo is also attempting to introduce a tax on beauty. On the back of his belief that ’everything costs double’ for the ugly person, he put it to the Argentine government that there should be ‘a tax on beauty to benefit ugly people, to fix the injustice of aesthetics.’ Unsurprisingly – as the idea is every bit as ridiculous as taxing the intelligent for the shortcomings of the stupid - they didn’t take him particularly seriously. But he probably sold a few more books because of it.

Good for him.

Having got to know Gonzalo a little, I can see that we do indeed have quite a bit in common. Except of course the fact that I could never describe myself as ‘a Casanova’. And I haven’t written a best-selling book about being ugly. Oh, and I am actually ugly. But apart from that, we’re like two rather unappealing peas in a rotten old pod. And I am very much looking forward to reading Feo! when it’s translated into English (hopefully by the end of the year). In fact, if I don’t get a free copy for all of this lovely publicity, then I’ll be seriously miffed.


Finally, I ask Gonzalo about the bright side of being ugly. Does it actually have any benefits?

‘The honesty of aesthetics,’ he replies. ‘I am what you see and I didn't pay for it.’

Apart from all of the surgery of course. And the prostitution. And the years of fad-dieting.

And the girdle.


Feedback Friday is away.

Share on Facebook! Digg this


curly said...

Being ugly is the absolute effing pits. Esp as a woman. Well surely it's worse as a woman. Women are meant to be lovely and feminine and gorgeous and fanciable.

There was a prime bitch at school - who irritatingly was called 'Pretty' (Honest to god), and she loved to remind me how ugly I was. She finally shut her lip-glossed-gob when I explained to her that without ugly people how would we know what beauty was? I provided the measure for her beauty and without me she'd just be plain and all people would notice about her was her huge nose and shallow personality.

Sobbing into the pillow is now thankfully at least 10 years behind me. I guess I've grown into my face and to a point accepted it. I think I just got tired of being upset at something I can't change. Tired of the utter self-loathing. I can now allow my photograph to be taken and hold back a retort if ever I'm paid a compliment (although the latter might induce a lip snarl). Old Ladies admire my curls. I was once told I had nice eyes. And some guy in a pub once said 'Flash that smile at me again so I can put the memory in my wank-bank'. What a fantastic compliment!

You often make me laugh and often make me question dear Bete, but today all this ugly talk has made me sad. It just raises up uncomfortable feelings........and anger. Yeah i feel flipping angry about being given the ugly gene.

Ah well that's life and we're all ugly in some respect and gorgeous in others. And some of us are literary wonders who bring laughter and warmth and discussion to our lives (that's you that is).

I thought of not-Keith yesterday as I stood in front of a Lucien Freud SP. Hope the co-hab is working out and you're both having a damn good time every now and again.

Michael said...

"Feedback Friday is away."


isabelle said...

I'm still new here, even though I have read a lot. I don't want to belittle the abuse and damage you suffered as a result of your 'ugliness' while in your formative years, but something in me is sort of glad about it. I hope that doesn't come across as sounding peverse or uncaring , far from it, what I mean , is that those terrible experiences have shaped what you are , right now. And all I can see is an articulate, intelligent and interesting man.To me, at least, that's really all that matters. I hope you know what I mean. xxx

Carolina said...

Yay, you wrote the piece. Some of my students who helped with the translation will be happy to hear it was useful!!

And on another note, these two girls who helped are adorably pretty. They immediately asked if the "guy" I was doing this for was funny and smart. I said yes, very. They replied "So who gives a fuck if he's ugly. I'll take smart and funny any day over good looking. Smart and funny don't age; looks, well we all know how that turns out" And these are shallow 17 year old girls. It did warm my heart!

Timorous Beastie said...

I completely agree with you: he's not ugly at all. I felt slightly miffed. All right for him, not ugly at all, like "ugly" betty: actually very attractive, and so forth. But it's a great story anyway. I'm really happy to have stumbled on your lovely blog.

Lauren Wojcik said...

But he isn't ugly in the least bit!!

Which makes me think....


But I already knew that ; )

Anonymous said...

Stop it.

Selena said...

I agree the guy is not ugly, now. He lucked out and grew into his face, grew into his ugly and transcended.

That's not to say, that he wouldn't have gotten terribly teased as an adolescent.

Look at the picture again, to all you naysayers who compassionately say that he wasn't "ugly".

Seriously? If we're all honest we'd say, he did, indeed, fit the aesthetic criteria for ugly as a young man. If you think that's mean, well- I would rather have someone be kindly honest, then have someone try to sugar coat the truth of the matter.

Then again beauty is subjective. Indeed, some of you may have been able to see past the glasses, acne and big teeth to the beauty that lay within, then, as you do now. Who can truly say?

All I know is, at the time when you are tipping of over the edge of childhood and falling on your face in the mire of adulthood, is horrible to bear at best.
Youths trying to act like they think adults should, can break into their finest reserves of cruelty. Who are we to diminish his struggle- simply because he seems to have prevailed?

Everyone feels ugly at some point in time, why begrudge people their insecurities, whether they be past or present, real or imaginary?

I hope some of that made sense- I need some coffee...

Have a beautiful day everyone!

Anonymous said...

So many words, such a long post. Yet only 8 comments. That doesn't seem fair.

So have another one, on me.

La Bête said...

Curly, you’re lovely. Don’t be angry. Unless of course it does you good. And self-acceptance is everything, yes. I think I’m approaching it myself, you know. I really do. Thanks for your thoughts.

Michael, really? You’re one of my favourites, you know.

Isabelle, I do know what you mean. You heartless swine. Just kidding. x

Carolina, yes! Thanks to you and your colleagues. And these shallow 17-year-old girls of which you speak. I love them. Please send them to me.

Thanks, Beastie. Maybe Selena is right though and it doesn’t really matter. If you feel ugly, and you feel persecuted because of it, then I guess you are.

Hi Lauren. Thanks, Lauren. Lovely Lauren.

Anon, that’s excellent! That made me bellow-laugh. Just what I needed. Thank you. STOP IT!

Selena, yes. I agree with you. You are very wise. Have a beautiful day yourself.

Anon, you read my goddamn mind. No one reads anymore. Boo hoo. Not no one, obviously, but next to no one. Oh well. At least you’re here. And Gonzalo read it too. And he liked it. So that’s good.

kittyrex said...

Lots of stuff to comment on here but its nighttime and I'm sleepy. Forgive me for being late.

Curly, you are gorgeous inside and out. If I was fucklexible (fuckably flexible - either sex) I would so want you.

Lauren, Timerous Beastie, Selena; I totally agree with you. That guy is not ugly in the least and it annoys me that he is generating conjecture and possible sympathy votes on the basis of HIS perceptions.

Show me any teenager that doesn't have image issues in high school, regardless of how objectively attractive, or otherwise, they are. Kids are cruel, it's crushing; you're not standard issue appealing. Most of us are lucky enough to be able to move on from this.

(As an aside, I fell in love with my boyfriend online. I suspect most people would not call him goodlooking -he's very overweight, and not classically featured) but it doesn't matter a damn to me. It was his personality that I wanted, and still want, and after nearly 18 months, it's his personality that I am going to marry. And yes, we've spent a lot of time together in the flesh as well so we both know that the personality and the physicality are inseparable.

I have teenage daughters: an automatic classification into the category of 'most selfish, hair product consuming, compulsory excessively shallow' individuals around. They say, and act up to it, that personality is most important in a relationship.

Like Carolina, this thrills me.

I sincerely hope that we are starting to see a change in actual and potential relationships at base levels, rather than the immediate visual aspect.

I think we are. The internet is changing and impacting so many aspects of our lives and our day to day routine activities, participating or not, that it makes sense to accept basic shifts in behaviour, with a few paradigms stirring up things on the way to adjustment.

hey said...

I am apparently not an ugly woman, and I don't usually view myself as the same, but if being beautiful is all about having sex and relationships and long-term relationships, and being ugly is the antithesis to accomplishment of the same, as implied by a lot of this blog and the commenters, well, then Bete, you are actually ahead of me on the sex count and the relationship count, not really by choice on my part, either. The psyche is a funny thing. I've got ten years on you, too.

And I am sure that guy would have got teased and bullied at school, and it seems that many of us commenting know how that feels.