God bless America Ferrera. For the past three seasons on ABC’s Ugly Betty, her frumpy, orthadontically challenged underdog Betty Suarez has proved a foolproof foil to the sitcom’s bitchy fashionistas hell-bent on breaking her. Chief among them: Amanda Tanen, Mode magazine’s scheming, schadenfreude-in-stilettos receptionist, played pitch-perfectly by Becki Newton.
The role has been nothing short of transformational for Newton, who, before Betty, was a TV novice with just a few credits—the New York actor’s requisites: Cold Case and Law & Order: SVU cameos. Not only does Amanda allow Newton to flaunt a seamless blend of superficial cattiness and sharp comedy, all arched eyebrows and nasally sneers, but she does so done up in costume designer Patricia Field’s particular brand of high gloss, often outré, fashion.
This story first appeared in the February 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Pat’s been really great about it being a dialogue,” says Newton, who was faced with a rubber and spandex dress in season one. “But I learned very quickly to stand there and wear whatever Pat puts on me. She’s so smart and confident in her risk-taking that there’s no point in questioning it.” Nor should she, considering Field’s track record of turning television actresses into style superstars.
The clothes are essential to achieving the show’s nimble parody of fashion’s alluring, if seemingly ridiculous, world, for which there seems to be an insatiable audience. Newton herself doesn’t pretend to be the type of actress who’s above it all. “No way,” says Newton, 30, who grew up in Connecticut and has a degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania. “Those people are lying anyway. I’ve always loved fashion. It was just a matter of access.”
That’s no longer a problem. Thanks to a major case of life imitating art, Newton is regularly exposed to the designers, fashion shows, shoots, parties and premieres that appear on Ugly Betty. Her red-carpet count is up—some might say too high: WWD tallied her at 34 events in the last year, with appearances at everything from the Marc Jacobs and Victoria’s Secret fashion shows to the star-studded Gucci-sponsored UNICEF benefit to the grand opening of Casino of the Wind at Mohegan Sun, all of which require a wardrobe.
STYLING BY ROXANNE ROBINSON-ESCRIOUT; HAIR BY CHARLES STRAHAN AT ARTISTSBYTIMOTHYPRIANO.COM; MAKEUP BY BEAU NELSON AT ARTISTSBYTIMOTHYPRIANO.COM; MANICURE BY BETHANY NEWELL AT MAGNET NY; FASHION ASSISTANTS: MARCIE QUINTANA AND SYDNEY EISENSTEIN
In the beginning, Newton worked with stylists in Los Angeles. “The whole red-carpet world was very new. I went from zero to the Golden Globes right away,” she says, now perfectly acclimated to the primp-andpose lifestyle, fielding questions while a stylist festoons her head with extensions and a manicurist takes to her nails for this shoot. Which is not to say Newton’s become a spoiled prima donna along the way. While her on-screen persona and these pictures prove she’s a natural at camp and vamp, the real-life Becki has her feet firmly on the ground.
Now that the production of Ugly Betty has moved to New York for season three, Newton, who lives on the Upper West Side with her husband, actor Chris Diamantopoulos, is on her own, fashionwise. “The cool thing about New York is that people encourage you to figure it out yourself,” she says. “If I’m going to take a risk, I’d rather have chosen it myself than have had a stylist tell me what to wear.”
As for Newton’s personal taste, today she’s casual cool in a version of downtown lumberjack chic—flannel shirt, skinny Genetic jeans, flat Chloé boots and a Margo Morrison charm necklace. Fancier occasions have seen her in Gucci, Versace, Marchesa and her prized possession, a Marc Jacobs cuff, gleaned from her number-one fashion moment, attending Jacobs’ spring 2009 show. “They let me keep this amazing, huge, heavy silver, black and dark blue thing,” she says. “I just love a big, cool accessory that you wouldn’t immediately think goes with whatever you’re wearing. I know it can’t possibly go with everything, but so far it has for me.“
Newton is also quite proud of a new pair of Balenciaga heels. “I bought them last month, and I’m so scared to wear them because I love them so much,” she says, just after copping to a major Dolce & Gabbana fixation. The duo is responsible for her favorite everyday bag, as well as a sexy corset dress she wore to a recent James Bond premiere, something she says playing Amanda gave her the confidence to try. Meanwhile, Newton hopes to requite her fashion crush in person this season, as she’s heard rumors that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana might join Betty’s designer-cameo ranks.
“We’ve had designers who have absolutely no problem making fun of themselves,” she says. Among them: Vera Wang, Zac Posen and—one of Newton’s personal favorites—he of “ferosh” fame, Project Runway’s Christian Siriano. “He walked into the room with an entourage of people and said something like, ‘Worship me, bitches.’ He went for it.” Whether Dolce and Gabbana share Siriano’s sense of humor remains to be seen. “Even if they don’t,” says Newton, “I just want to stand near them and wear a corset.”
In terms of other projects, Newton says that, for now, she’s content to focus fully on Ugly Betty. And when the time comes to move on, she’ll have more than acting experience to leverage. Consider a recent episode in which she sashayed in 5-inchers with gazellelike grace across the clumsy cobblestones of Gansevoort Street. “It’s a skill I’m going to put on my résumé,” Newton says. “I’m convinced it’s going to get me hired in the future.”