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.