Policeman Massimo Bertozzi will be on saxophone; optician Alfonso Ioni on guitar and computer programmer Oscar behind the drums. But anyone can join Il Bandino dei Brutti - the "ugly persons' band" - and help them make as much noise as possible.

The band and a wider group of "ugly" men (and women) in the commune of Piobbico are warming up for next week's Academy Awards ceremony, in the United States. They are rehearsing their boos and drum-banging, which they'll use to drown out the self-satisfied speeches at the annual love-in of the world's beautiful people. Come next Sunday, heavy objects could be thrown at television screens. Raspberries may well be blown.

I am with them in spirit, as well as in looks, because I am officially ugly. I am an honorary member of the Ugly Club of the World (Club dei Brutti), having received the accolade in the self-nominated ugliest place in the world. The audition was a doddle, although I had to visit the heart of Italy to attend it.


"UGLINESS, JUST like beauty, is in the eye and mind of the beholder," says Roberta Iacobelli, giving me a critical stare. She doesn't take long to convince herself that I am not Brad Pitt's twin brother. And that George Clooney is not in my gene pool. Iacobelli took over from her father, Lele, who died in 2006, as president of the Ugly Club, although she has since stepped down.

Barely managing to suppress her repulsion, she gives me a hearty smack on the back and invites me to join the Iacobellis' repugnant friends in a rousing rendition of the official "Ugly Mugs" anthem.

In a damp cellar beneath the family shop, around an old wooden table under a salamis and old miners' lamps hanging from the rafters, I find myself in a space cluttered with wine, beer and stonemasonry tools, and a dozen men in red capes and hats singing, with lusty pride:

"The world is full of differences

There are the stupid and the wise

The dwarf and the giant

The poor and the rich

The black and white"

Clinking glasses and draining the contents, we end with the choral affirmation:

"And being ugly myself

makes you look beautiful!"

Piobbico is about a third of the way down the east coast of Italy, in the province of Pesaro and Urbino, in the Marche region. It was here, in 1879, that 128 spinsters - fed up with being single and believing themselves to be utterly hideous - decided to advertise for partners and soul mates. They employed a husband-hunter, who sought suitably ugly men, interviewed them, assessed their unattractiveness and made matches.

Lele Iacobelli, a shopkeeper, revived the club in 1979, to champion the cause of ugliness and challenge the cult of beauty being promulgated in the media. It now has more than 30,000 members and a branch in California, in the US.

The club's motto is "Beauty is Slavery. Ugliness is a Virtue". Every year, members stage their own anti-Oscars ceremony. It is an orgy of ugliness. There is also an Ugly Festival, on the first Sunday of each September; and there is even an unsightly and unphotogenic statue in the centre of Piobbico, befitting the town's status. The memorial to all ugly people looks like a cross between Quasimodo and what might result from a transporter malfunction in Star Trek.

"The statue is the representation of a man looking at himself in a mirror. What he actually sees is not the ugliness of his face but the beauty of his personality," says the current club president, bricklayer, plasterer and general builder Giovanni Aluigi. "This is the most important aim of the club. What's really important in our lives is not how we appear. Beauty will vanish, but what we have inside, it will never change."

The club is unisex. "A beautiful woman is paradise for the eyes, a hell for the soul and a purgatory for the wallet," says Aluigi, whose wife and daughter are members of the club.

The residents of Piobbico may support the claim to ugliness but the architecture and setting do not. The Biscubio and Candigliano rivers meet in the picturesque Appenine town, famous for its health-giving Santa Maria waters. It is an excellent base from which to explore the Montefeltro countryside and is not far from Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis and a town dominated by not one, but two medieval castles. Florence is a three-hour drive from Piobbico.

Less well known than its neighbours Umbria and Tuscany, the Marche region is split into five provinces, between the Adriatic and the Appenines. It is a mountainous area of rolling hills, gorges, vineyards and hilltop villages, such as Montefortino and Sarnano.

Although largely social, Club dei Brutti does have a serious side. Members act as agony aunts, receiving and replying to hundreds of letters every year. They counsel people suffering from self-image and self-esteem problems and run a lonely-hearts club and a marriage-guidance bureau exclusively for people labouring under the impression they are God's gift to nobody.

"There are many, many people who are haunted and tormented by what they see as their imperfect appearance," says Iacobelli. "It's absurd and illogical but, nevertheless, it is very, very common. We are fixated, obsessed and indoctrinated by physical beauty. And that leads to much destructive self-hatred.

"Beauty fades, charm remains. Ugliness is being. Beauty is appearing."

The former president is up for the fight: "The Associazione Nazionale dei Brutti is ready to take up the defence of all those who haven't had good treatment from Mother Nature.

"Us uglies must unite to overcome. We are better and stronger than the beautiful people. And there are far, far more of us. We invite people to come to Marche to celebrate and exult in their ugliness."


Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Milan, Italy, from where Piobbico can be reached in three to four hours by car or train (the nearest station is Fano, 60 kilometres from Piobbico).