A Chinese version of Ugly Betty was inevitable. The Latin American telenovela of the plain, intelligent girl who triumphs in corporate and family life has been adapted into more than a dozen versions and is now a ratings-topping success in 80 countries. So there was a buzz in mainland media circles last year when Hunan Satellite Television teamed up with Mexican rights owner Televisa and mainland production house Nesound to create Chou Nu Wu Di (literally, Ugly Invincible Girl). Hunan Satellite has a reputation for screening big shows, having reportedly drawn at least 13 million yuan (HK$14.85 million) from corporate sponsors for its popular Pop Idol-like Super Girl singing contest in 2005. Like other versions of Ugly Betty, Chou Nu Wu Di is thinking big, with a budget of 150 million yuan for five seasons of hour-long episodes. Unilever and Bausch & Lomb have forked out a 'significant amount' to sponsor the show, which pilots on Sunday. But mainland message boards are abuzz that the star of Chou Nu Wu Di may be too good-looking for her part, and critics fear the credibility of its script might be undermined by sponsors' product placements. Chou Nu Wu Di is similar to the American version of Ugly Betty showing in Hong Kong. Like her US counterpart, America Ferrera, Li Xinru plays Lin Wudi as a spirited, fresh graduate from a loving, suburban family who has been sent to the big city to find a job. Wudi also has bad hair, wears orthodontic braces and heavy glasses, and is believed to have prepared for the role by putting on 10kg and sunbathing for a tan, going against the rise in popularity on the mainland of skin lightening and protection products. The rice-and-dumpling-eating Wudi is 'extremely ugly', according to reports from an unnamed cast member. However, critics say Li's heroine is thinner and fairer than her overseas counterparts. 'Lin Wudi is much less ugly than Betty,' the Information Times said after Li showed up in character at a press conference last week. The comment spawned instant discussions on mainland message boards that emulated debates on beauty after last month's lip-synch saga in which seven year-old Yang Peiyi was deemed 'too plain' to appear at the Olympics opening ceremony. Among 3,000 comments on the popular Baidu social networking site, one member argued that Hunan Satellite's heroine should be called 'Pretty Wudi', while another posted the question: 'Isn't it hypocritical to use pretty women to play ugly girls?' Unilever China's media director, Patrick Zhou, admits the show's producers didn't want to choose an actress who was too unattractive. 'If she's too ugly, people will say no to the show. After makeup [Li] is not ugly at all,' he says, adding that he sees a match between Unilever's brands and the show's advancement of inner beauty. 'Like the show, our brand essence talks about real beauty: confidence, optimism ... truth,' he says. The series is shaping up to be one of the country's biggest product-placement exercises, however, with sponsors involved in its script and production. In one episode of Chou Nu Wu Di, the agency at which Li's character works is tasked to create an advertisement for a Unilever brand. Unilever commercials are aired during the show and the company's Lipton milk tea appears during office breaks in every episode in the series' first season. Meanwhile, a male actor uses Unilever's Clear anti-dandruff shampoo and Wudi its Dove beauty wash on screen and she switches from spectacles to fellow-sponsor Bausch & Lomb's contact lenses as she adapts to her cosmopolitan surroundings. Critics might accuse Chou Nu Wu Di's producers of blatant commercialisation, but one of the show's executive directors, Zhou Heng, defends its product-placement strategy. 'We are grateful for the sponsors,' she says. 'They inspired us to think more deeply about what the show should be about - what real beauty is in Chinese women, and how you face the challenge of finding it every day.' Working with specific products saves the script from formulaic television, she says. 'It helps when you can focus the story on something concrete, rather than waving your hand and talking about loving your country,' she says. 'Real brands will add to the [show's] appeal because it makes it seem closer to people's lives. Chinese people like shows that reflect the reality of what they see around them.' The 'brand integration' of a sponsor's products into a TV show is a smart marketing strategy, advertising professionals say. 'Brands are looking for more engaging campaigns on the mainland,' says Andrew Meaden, chief executive of Mindshare North Asia, the media agency that introduced Unilever to Chou Nu Wu Di's producers. 'They're tired of doing simple TV commercials,' he says. But the scale of product placement won't determine the show's success, says China Daily media columnist Raymond Chou. 'It's more about the quality of the show,' he says. Hunan Satellite has made slight changes to its version of Ugly Betty: Wudi works at an advertising agency instead of the original's fashion magazine, and she's also more shy than her foreign counterparts, says Zhou Heng, adding that 'by Chinese standards she's still very outgoing and confident'. Wudi is also an only child, reflecting the nation's one-child policy, according to Sheldon Lu, a professor of Chinese comparative literature at the University of California, Davis. 'Under the one-child policy, most Chinese families secretly wish for a male child,' he says. 'So having a female child, especially an 'ugly one', seems to be all the more significant. Hopefully this show will challenge the traditional bias that favours male offspring.' Wudi has the strengths and weaknesses of all the single children in China, says Zhou. 'We didn't make her tougher or more vulnerable because she's ugly,' she says. 'She whines and gets taken care of by her parents just like any other single child would.' Chou Nu Wu Di has no trace of homosexuality in Betty's fashion-savvy nephew and flamboyant colleagues. The majority of non-urban Chinese have only a remote understanding of homosexual lifestyles, Zhou explains. Chou Nu Wu Di is now a 'very Chinese story', she says. 'Such elements in the script wouldn't inspire sympathy or familiarity.' Angela Wong Wai-ching, a professor of cultural and religious studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says female audiences may be able to relate to the show, but hesitates to say whether it will change perceptions of beauty on the mainland. 'People like to joke about ugliness, but then they'll just turn off the TV and go back to their daily lives,' she says. If Hong Kong is any barometer, the show's social or cultural affects could be limited. A few years ago TVB aired a popular but short-lived comedy, Mei Lui Been Ju Pa (Pretty Girl Becomes a Pork Chop), with a similar ugly-girl gimmick. The locals loved the look and plot, but 'the moral was not affirmed in the real world', Wong says.