Short Story: “The World’s Ugliest Person”

A new augmented reality app allows everyone to look beautiful. This makes Gary, who refuses to use any form of AR, the ugliest person in the world. He’s never been a particularly bad-looking bloke, so how will he adapt to his new reality?

Is reality not pretty enough to look at? © Mike_shots /

August 27, 2023 03:52 EDT

Something to consider when listening/reading: In a world where everyone was beautiful, would we be more or less shallow than we are now?

I was never much to look at, no. But I don’t think “ugly” is a word anyone was particularly inclined to use. I had a forgettable face, you could say. “Have we met before?” I got that one quite a lot. Perhaps I reminded people of other faces they’d forgotten. 

Rob, on the other hand, had a face you could never forget. We’ve been friends since school. A psychologist might tell you I’ve kept him around purely to boost my own self-esteem.

Well, as soon as this app came out, I knew he’d go for it. I can hardly blame him.

The pair of us had been holdouts on the AR revolution. We’d rejected the glasses and the contact lenses and the microchips. We wanted to see the world as it was. Grey skies and chipped paint. We didn’t need to see messages pop up in our peripheral vision, weather forecasts when we looked to the sky or subtitles whenever someone was speaking in French or Scouse.

We’d get some funny looks from time to time, yes, the two old fogeys with their smartphones. But we weren’t alone. Before the Fitter app came out, a good 15% of the population was still AR-resistant. But as soon as it launched, well, I knew I’d lose Rob and probably 99% of that remaining 15%, which, as it turned out, was a vast underestimation.

And I thought about it, of course I did. But no, I wasn’t going to crack.

And now I get far more than funny looks, let me tell you. I get people gasping. Shuddering. The other day, I’m fairly sure a woman fainted at the sight of me.

When I turned up for my table just now, the waiters made a point of putting me right at the back of the restaurant, and at least two of my fellow diners used their menus to cover their eyes. 

Rob keeps telling me how wonderful life is now. How people smile at him wherever he goes, how he wants to jump with joy every time he looks in the mirror. And the best part, he says, isn’t even his own good looks, it’s everyone else’s. Everywhere he goes, he’s surrounded by beauty. And yes, I can see the appeal of that. But come on, can you really find something beautiful if you know it isn’t real?

That woman, three tables away, in the lemon-coloured dress, she really is beautiful. I bet she’s furious about Fitter. Or maybe not, who knows. Maybe it’s a relief for her now to be just one among many, not to be gawked at by men who… hold on, did she smile at me?

“Hello Quasimodo, you ugly bastard.” It’s Rob. Enormous nose, shrunken eyes, receding hairline Rob. “I would say you look well,” he says, “but you don’t. You look awful.”

“Tell me,” I say, “that woman in the lemon dress, is she looking this way?”

“No one’s ever gonna look your way again, my friend. Which one?”

“The beautiful woman with…”

“They’re all beautiful to me, Gary.”

“But she’s a natural.”

“Yeah,” he says, bearing his yellow teeth, “so’s Megan. Even without the filter she is an absolute knockout. Just wait until you see her.”

Megan, Rob’s new girlfriend, is meeting us for lunch; that’s why we’re here. “How do you know?” I say. “How do you know she’s not Quasimodo’s sister?”

“We’ve exchanged pictures. We’re at that stage already.”

I try and sneak a glance at the woman in the lemon dress, but I don’t want to be too obvious. “Sorry,” I say, “You’ve shown her a picture of you? Unfiltered?”

He scrunches up his cotton napkin. “It was from a few years ago,” he says, “and it was… well… you remember Jason, who I used to work with?”

“You’ve shown her a picture of someone else?”

“I am technically in the picture,” he says, “just in the background… but… but what does it matter? Megan said she’s never turning the app off as long as she lives. This… this face… this is who I am now.”

Without the filter, I’m still seeing the same abrasive face I’ve always seen, but I must admit Rob does look visibly happier these days. 

From his jacket pocket he pulls out a picture of what must be Megan. She’s not a patch on the woman in the lemon dress but, yeah, she is a stunner. “And you’re ok,” I say, “with your whole relationship being built on a lie?”

He shakes his head. “I know you think Fitter is creating a shallow world, but you’re wrong. It’s the opposite. Now that we’re all beautiful, we can finally appreciate people for what’s on the inside.”

“Funny you should say that,” I say, “because now that I am the ugliest man in the world, I get a pretty good insight into what’s on the inside of most of these un-shallow people, and let me tell you, my friend, it ain’t pretty. But there are exceptions. And that woman over there, in the lemon dress…”

“She’s not looking at you, Gary. Aha, here’s Megan now.”

He’s right. She’s not. But she did earlier. She caught my eye and she smiled. And even if she was just being polite, that’s a damn sight better than what most people… hold on. Oh god. I feel a chill. And a dark shadow looming over me.

“Gary,” says Rob, “I’d like you to meet Megan.” 

I look up. And there, staring down at me in horror, is, without question, the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen in my life. 

She is… I mean ugly doesn’t even cover it. She’s breathtakingly hideous. She’s… it feels like the air around us has wilted. And you can tell from the look on her appalling face that Rob didn’t warn her I was an “Unfiltered.” I’m certain that, if she’d known, there is no way she’d have agreed to meet me.

“I know,” says Rob, “Some people do find Gary’s appearance a bit alarming.” Once we’ve ordered, Rob slips off to the loo.

“Lovely to meet you, Megan,” I say. 

And she’s almost in tears. “Please don’t tell him. I beg you, please don’t tell him. I’ve never had a boyfriend before, he’s so lovely and I don’t wanna… oh god…oh god…”

“Oh Megan,” I say, “I can’t bear to see you upset.” I do mean that. The way she’s contorting her misshapen features, I really don’t think I’ll be able to bear it for much longer. “Just… look… tell me, why are you showing him a picture of someone else?”

“I am technically in the picture,” she says, “just very, very far in the background.”

I laugh. I smile. I feel a warm buzz.

“It’s not funny,” she says.

“Oh Megan, yes it is. You and Rob, you’re perfect for each other.”

“Speaking about me, are you?” says Rob, “All good things, no doubt.”

“Rob I’d like to introduce you to Megan. Megan, Rob.”

They both look at me. And I try to stop myself picturing their potential children.

“Why don’t you both switch off your filters?” I say. “Just for a moment.”

Rob is furious. Megan is breathing heavily.

“Trust me,” I say, “once you’ve done it, you’ll both feel a hell of a lot better. Look, you’re sitting here staring across at the beautiful face of your beloved, each concerned that your true appearance would have them running a mile. Well, let me tell you, without your filters, you two could not be more perfectly matched. You’re both solid threes out of ten.” I’m being very generous there. “Not only that, but you’ve both decided to show each other pictures of other people, which, well, you know, it’s weird but it’s… you’re weird in the same way. The pair of you are perfect for each other.”

Rob sinks back in his chair. He can’t look at her. “The picture you showed me, that’s not you?”

“I’ve been dreaming about that man in your picture,” says Megan.

“I am in the picture,” says Rob…

“Just in the background?” says Megan. “Me too.”



They both laugh and touch hands across the table.

“You see,” I say, “perfect.”

“Yeah,” says Rob, “but I still don’t know if this is a good idea.”

“Go on,” I say, “you’ll be relieved, trust me.”

“On the count of three?” says Megan. 

Rob nods. “Three, two, one.”

From my perspective, nothing changes. These two aesthetically-challenged individuals remain exactly as they were. Only they do look slightly as though they’ve just been told their entire family has been killed and if they stop smiling they’ll be next.

“Should we put the filters back on?” says Megan.

“Yeah,” says Rob, “Good idea.”

The food arrives. I ask the waiter for some black pepper. He nods without looking at me, returns without looking at me and, without looking at me, grinds some pepper onto the napkin beside my dinner plate. “Enough, sir?”

“Perfect,” I say. 

Rob and Megan are staring at their food, unable to eat, unable to speak. 

I ask Megan where she grew up, but she doesn’t hear me. I start telling an anecdote of Rob’s schooldays, but I don’t think he hears me either. 

Looking over my shoulder I catch eyes once again with the woman in the lemon dress. She’s definitely looking at me. She sees me in my unfiltered state, the ugliest man in the world, and she doesn’t turn away. 

So I do. Gotta play it cool right? 

“Your mushroom risotto,” I say to Megan, “it looks delicious.”

She forces a smile, nods, puts a spoon to her mouth… and gags. 

“I can’t do this,” says Rob, “I’m so sorry Megan but I… I can’t do it.”

“It’s ok,” she says, “I can’t do it either.”

“It’s nothing to do with your true appearance,” he says. 

She nods. “No, nor me.”

“I think we’ve been drifting apart.”

“Yes, exactly.”

They say their goodbyes and they both leave separately. I try to apologise to Rob, but he’s not having it. I suppose I’ll be picking up the bill, too. 

I look again over my shoulder. And again, the woman in the lemon dress, this beautiful creature, she’s looking at me. I raise my hand and wave. I’m not sure where this confidence has come from, but I gesture for her to join me. 

She calls the waiter over, says something to him and points in my direction. 

I turn away, pretend to be uninterested. Help myself to some of Megan’s mushroom risotto. This sort of thing has not happened for quite some so… 

“I am terribly sorry, sir,” says the waiter, still averting his eyes, “but we are going to have to ask you to leave. Your presence here, it’s making some of the other guests uncomfortable.”

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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