"We're not against beauty," insists Telesforo Iacobelli, president of Club dei Brutti. "We've had four Miss Italys join our club."

Telesforo Iacobelli is a man with a mission and a strange one at that. For the past 30 years, he has championed the cause of the ugly in society. Not normally ranked among the dispossessed in any organized sense, the ugly, Iacobelli contends, represent a maligned and misunderstood group. He says he knows from experience: Not only is he the president of the Club dei Brutti, or Ugly Club, he counts himself among its charter members.

"I'm ugly and I don't regret it," says the bold founder. "It's absurd that people must feel marginalized in society by an aesthetic that is based solely on beauty." Part philosopher, part humorist, Iacobelli pokes fun at our vain culture by presenting the No Bel prize, and takes a swipe at American TV soap operas in a campaign called "Brut-iful." (The name in Italy for The Young and the Restless is Beautiful.)

Clearly, he has hit a nerve with his outspoken beliefs and his unusual antics. Today, the club boasts an international presence with more than 20,000 card-carrying members. In a country where fare una bella figura (to make a good impression) is embraced as an ideal, there is some irony that the Club dei Brutti should have Italy as its base. A major force in fashion, design and aesthetics, Italy may have met its match in the tireless efforts waged by Iacobelli to counter and dispel the "cult of beauty."

Truth be told, the man is not one of nature's homelier compositions. His defect, as he sees it, is having a small nose in a country where broad and long snouts are praised. His own example points to one of the key tenets of the club: Namely, ugliness can be as much a factor of how we see ourselves as it is of how others see us. "Advertising and popular culture are exclusionary, and if you don't fit the mould they promote, you can be made to feel less than you are. That's not right."

The club has brought the topic out of the closet and attracts academics, doctors and sociologists interested in discussing the plight of the ugly in society. "Beauty is just one aspect in a person's makeup that can affect how they get along in society," says professor Gianni Camattari of the Centro di Psicologia integrata in Milan. "Ugliness, in itself, is not an obstacle to having an active social life or even sex life; the real obstacle is the deep conviction of being ugly, which can be overcome."

The Ugly Club is based in the small town of Piobbico, in the Marche region. Iacobelli, 65, operates a general store and has been a local booster for his community, serving as president of the pro loco (local development office). The Ugly Club has brought significant media attention to the town, largely because of his spirited effort to make Piobbico the "Ugly People's Mecca."

In 1996, Iacobelli staged a symbolic marriage ceremony between the winner of the Miss Bellissima beauty contest and the fattest man in Italy. With a nod to the region's prized local produce -- truffles -- Giuliano Bellesi, who weighs in at 478 lbs., was dressed as a truffle while Elisa Salmasi, a svelte 123 lbs., came as a mushroom.

"Truffles are the ugliest growth in the ground and yet they are precious, even an aphrodisiac, whereas the mushroom is beautiful to look at but can sometimes be poisonous, even fatal," says Iacobelli, cracking a smile. "Nature is honourable, it gives other qualities to those of us who are ugly."

A visitor to Iacobelli's house is ushered into the cellar, which is a shrine to ugliness. A slogan painted on a board reads: "The women of ugly men are always happy." The head of a wild boar -- the club's emblem -- is mounted over the door, while the club's crest features a reclining man smoking a pipe with the slogan: La bruttezza e na' virtu, la bellezza e schiavitu -- Ugliness is a virtue, beauty is slavery.

"We're not against beauty," Iacobelli insists. "We've had four Miss Italys join our club. We are regular people who want to talk about the problems of ugliness in society."

But Iacobelli has also been taken aback by the problems he has encountered. Young people began to arrive at his doorstep in despair, some on the verge of suicide, because of their appearance. He's been cast in the role of psychotherapist on more than one occasion. "I get them to face themselves in the mirror," he says.

On his mantel is a frieze of Vulcan, the mythological god and patron of the ugly. As the story goes, on seeing how ugly Vulcan was, his mother threw him over a cliff. Vulcan survived, and became a skilled blacksmith. For providing Achilles with superior weapons, he was admitted to Mount Olympus where he married the beautiful Venus, goddess of love.

The origins of the club are poignant. Thirty years ago, Piobbico had 128 unwed women. Iacobelli formed a marriage agency to try to find them husbands. A common problem was their presumption of being unattractive. Iacobelli set out to champion the cause. He took his cue from an earlier club in Piobbico, dating from 1879, that also dealt with ugliness.

Iacobelli's pretty daughter, Roberta, puts her father's work in perspective. "We can't have beauty without something to compare it to. The idea of beauty exists only because there is a contrast. In some tribal societies, the beautiful women were horrendous by our standards, so it's relative, isn't it?"

A proud father drapes his arm around his protege and proclaims, "I want the tree of ugliness to spread its branches all over the world."

Membership in Club dei Brutti is free and does not require an evaluation. You can contact the club at Club dei Brutti, via Dante Alighieri, 25, Piobbico (PU) 61046 Italy. Fax: 0722-98.65.10.

See The World Association of Ugly People