Ugly Betty’s Mark Indelicato felt ’embarrassed’ being the ‘poster child’ for queer kids
Mark Indelicato was just 12 years old when he shot to global fame as fashion-obsessed Justin in Ugly Betty.
He automatically became the “poster child” for LGBT+ youth everywhere, simply because Justin was the only gay kid on television at the time [the character came out in season four, though his sexuality was hinted at much earlier].
It was a lot of pressure, considering Mark was still coming to terms with his own sexuality at the time.
“It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve really leaned into acknowledging the significance of the character,” the actor, now 27, tells PinkNews.
“I think that for a long time I ran away from it because it was embarrassing to me. For a certain period of time, I was the only one, and of course, when you’re the only one, you automatically become the poster child for something. Even still to this day, I don’t want to be the poster child for anything. I didn’t sign up to be a role model to anyone.”
The series followed Betty Suarez, a defiantly un-chic Mexican-American woman played by America Ferrera who lands a job at fashion bible MODE. Hilarity ensues, but so too does a nuanced portrayal of Latinx family life in America. “Betty is a testament to the American Dream, and the American Dream is, in fact, alive and well, and within reach of anyone in the world who wants it,” creator Silvio Horta said when Ugly Betty won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series in 2007.
The show was a hit around the world, and today Mark believes it attracted such a huge following because people could see themselves reflected in the characters – something that added to the pressure he felt.
“When people see themselves in you, they rely on you. They rely on your character to deliver. So I think there was a moment in time when I couldn’t separate myself from the character because I was also coming out of the closet when he was, and our lives were intersecting at very important parts of our lives. It was hard for me to separate who Justin was and who Mark was for a while, which is why I kind of distanced myself from it.”
Ugly Betty icon Mark Indelicato faced ‘inappropriate’ questions from cruel journalists
Mark found doing press for the show particularly hard, recalling journalists saying “extremely inappropriate” things to him.
“Reporters were really, really horrible. It was the early 2000s where you could still say things to kids that you could never get away with saying now. Reporters would be fired on the spot if they said anything to a minor the way that I was being spoken to.”
Luckily, his co-stars were “like five mothers protecting me at all times,” he says. “America was young at the time and she was very protective of me because she dealt with such harsh criticism from the press about her body image, and Vanessa [Williams] could identify with that barrage of harassment based on her own personal experiences. I feel lucky that there were so many women that were just like, ‘Hmmm, you’re not going to talk to him like that.’ I can’t count how many times Ana or America pulled me out of an interview, being like, ‘He can’t talk to him like that, sorry, no.’”
Though he remains close with his co-stars, Mark’s relationship with the show itself has been fraught for years. He recently reached a turning point after a conversation with Carl Clemons-Hopkins, his co-star on the HBO Max series Hacks.
“He was like: ‘Yo, you know that you changed the game, right?’ It’s all of these years later that I’m able to circle back around and be like: ‘Oh, right, yeah. I did that. Cool.’ Ana [Ortiz, who played his mother on Ugly Betty) and America would tell me that every single day – it’s not that I wasn’t aware of the fact, it was just coming to terms and accepting it and really leaning into it and being proud of it. I think I’m finally proud of what I’ve done.”
As diehard fans will remember, Ugly Betty was cancelled in 2010 after just four seasons. In the years since, it’s developed something of a cult following. With so many shows from yesteryear getting the reboot treatment, fans have naturally wondered if Ugly Betty could make a comeback. The cast seems to be behind the idea too – although those plans were complicated in 2020 when the show’s creator Silvio Horta tragically passed away.
“We all want to do it,” Mark says when asked about the idea of a reboot. “I mean, we’re all still such good friends. I literally was on the phone with Ana right before I got onto this call with you. I talk to America at least once every two weeks. We all want to do it – it’s just a matter of, luckily, all of us are out here doing a million different things. I can’t remember the last time we were all in the same state or on the same coast.”
He’s also not sure who would write the reboot and exactly how the story would be brought back to life following Horta’s death.
“I think there’s still this feeling of, when is the right time to do it, if ever,” he says. “In my perspective, I would love to do it to honour him and his memory… I think that we all feel that way, but there is a need to tread lightly around something that is also so precious to us.
“We also don’t want to just do it to do it, we want to do it, all of us, and really come out with something that’s quality and something that we’re all really proud of – not to push something out because fans want us to. I’m so grateful fans do want us to, because we all would be there in a heartbeat. So that’s kind of a long, roundabout way of saying, not yet, but we are definitely open to it.”
‘Box-ticking’ approach to diversity on-screen is ‘disingenuous’
One of the big barriers to an Ugly Betty reboot is time constraints – the original cast have all kept busy with their own separate projects, and Mark is no exception. He’s currently starring in Hacks, and most recently, he’s appeared in With Love, a heartfelt, holiday-themed romantic comedy series from One Day at a Time creator Gloria Calderón Kellett. The show follows Jorge (Mark) and his sister Lily (Emeraude Toubia) as they search for love and purpose at Christmas.
With Love shows just how far television has come since Ugly Betty hit television screens 15 years ago. In the show, Jorge is openly gay, has a bisexual boyfriend, and he is loved by his sprawling Mexican-American family. The series disrupts stereotypes – Jorge’s family is religious and steeped in tradition, but they still support him unconditionally.
“I think the idea of Jorge’s family being OK with it – I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive in the same ways that we might have thought they were a few generations ago,” Mark explains. “I don’t think that they would consider his sexuality as having anything to do with their religiosity. I think that’s something that’s really interesting to explore – a family that is still so steeped in tradition and has these conservative, moral and ethical values, but also being so extremely proud of their out son, grandson, nephew, etc.”
The show also challenges tired, outdated tropes around gay characters. Notably, Jorge lives with his best friend – a straight man – and there’s no suggestion whatsoever that there’s any sexual tension or unrequited love lingering in the background. That was important to Mark – he’s sick of tired tropes about queer people.
“They have such a sweet, genuine, unmistakably platonic friendship, and they joke around with each other, and they really are just two of the boys together,” he says.
“I also wanted to be careful that we’re not sugar-coating this, like: ‘Look at this straight man and this gay man getting along, that could be you too!’ I feel like that would be really corny because in my life as a gay man, I have tons of straight male friends – we don’t talk about our queerness or our straightness in that way. If anything, it’s always talked about in a really joking, light manner.”
With Love also puts diversity at the core of its storytelling – the show follows people from various walks of life as they navigate love, life and friendships. Mark thinks we need more stories like those presented in With Love – but he’s also adamant that diversity mustn’t just be a box-ticking exercise.
“I think the whole movement for representation is a never ending battle, we’re never going to get to the pinnacle of representation,” Mark explains. “I also want to be able to see [diverse characters] only when they’re portrayed in a very genuine manner. I don’t really appreciate certain storytelling that has a gay character because they feel that they have to – that feels disingenuous to me. So I would rather people leave out the gay character or the queer character or the trans character if they’re not going to treat it with the utmost respect, if they’re just trying to tick off a box for what they think audiences want to see.
“In this show, Gloria was so passionate about representing as many different identities as humanly possible in these five episodes, and it was done with care. I appreciate it when it’s done in that way.”
With Love debuts on Amazon Prime on 17 December.
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