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Bigger Bling for the Beautiful

With beauty can come better treatment -- but how far can it take you?

ByABC News
September 9, 2008, 12:17 PM

Sept. 9, 2008 — -- All of us like to look at beautiful people, but does beauty really bring you privilege?

A few people say no, beauty is a curse!

ABC's "The Bachelor," the show where women compete to win the affection of a handsome man, often provides insights into the way these incredibly beautiful people think.

On one show one jilted contestant tearfully complained that there were plenty of disadvantages to being beautiful.

Watch the story Wednesday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET

"People are mean to me because of the way I look. People hate me because I'm beautiful," she said. "It's a curse as much as it is a blessing to be pretty."

She might have a point, according to researchers Rick Wilson at Rice University and Catherine Eckel at the University of Texas at Dallas.

In a study called "Judging a Book by Its Cover: Beauty and Expectations in the Trust Game," the researchers found what they call a "beauty penalty."

"The beauty penalty is a kind of backlash that we hadn't anticipated finding," Eckel told "20/20."

"People have very high expectations of the level of trust of beautiful people. When beautiful people fail to live up to those expectations, they're punished more harshly than people who are not beautiful," Eckel said.

Wilson said pretty waitresses, for example, might be penalized with small tips.

"A beautiful waitress may provide extremely good service but not nearly the level that you might expect because of your expectations -- you may think that such a person ought to be providing fabulous service," he said. "And as a consequence, you penalize the person for not living up to your own expectations."

Rob Shuter, executive editor of OK!, the fastest growing celebrity magazine, says beauty helps everyone. His magazine celebrates beautiful people like Lauren Conrad and Audrina Patridge of shows like MTV's "The Hills."

Even politicians, Shuter says, benefit from their looks.

Sarah Palin for example. Shuter says Palin would never have been nominated for vice president if she weren't good-looking. She is a former beauty contestant.

We saw some of the advantages of good looks as we watched the beautiful people sweep into an exclusive nightspot one night as others waited.

Roxy Summers, night life editor of, a pop culture music and video Web site, arranged for "20/20" to videotape at the 205 Club in New York's SoHo.

If you didn't have the right look, you weren't getting in.

"The door staff picks and chooses who are the beautiful people and who is going to create the look for the night," Summers said.

And, as 205's doorman Henry Binge confirmed, beauty opens doors.

"A beautiful face, of course, is gonna get everywhere for sure," Binge said. "It's not about just beauty -- but beauty helps."

Summers, however, had little sympathy for the people who couldn't get in.

"I don't really feel bad at all for the people outside. I mean, you can't let everybody in."

We want to associate with beautiful people because we think their lives are so much better than ours, said Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher.

"It's just remarkable the attributes we give to a human being who is good looking," Fisher said. "We think that they are smart. We think that they're funny. We think that they're friendly and warm, and social and popular."

But does that make sense?

"I suppose it is stupid, but natural selection has evolved all kinds of mechanisms in order to win, and this is one of them," Fisher said.

By natural selection, she means thousands of years of evolution. Good looks are often a sign of health and fertility, so evolution has conditioned us to prefer certain looks.

"Don't forget, it's survival of the fittest, and if you have four children and I have no children, you live on and I die out," she said. "So this game of attraction really matters."

Fisher pointed out that we couldn't help our reaction to beauty. It's just automatic.

"When men take a look at a good-looking woman, all kinds of parts of the brain become active so that they can feel better. They want her," she said.

Steve Jeffes, author of "Appearance Is Everything," agreed.

To confirm a hunch, he questioned jewelers, who told him that very beautiful women who wear diamond rings will almost always wear larger diamonds -- more than one carat -- than less attractive women who also wear diamond rings.

But Fisher offered some hope, thanks to nice clothes, makeup and plastic surgery.

"What's nice about it is that we live in a culture where you can begin to level the playing field. Where both men and women can actually make themselves better looking," she said.

They sure do. It's the basis for the "Extreme Makeover" TV shows. When Heather Waghelstein appeared on the show in 2004, she was a 33-year-old aspiring actress who had difficulty landing roles or a boyfriend.

Among the procedures Waghelstein received from "Makeover" were a chin implant, a face-lift, liposculpting, Lasik eye surgery, tooth bonding and a hair transplant.

She told "20/20" that the makeover had changed her life.

"My relations with the opposite sex definitely changed. I got a lot of attention when I came home," she said. "I would go out to bars with my friends and have drinks bought for me."

Had she ever been bought drinks before her makeover?

"Not at 11 o'clock at night," Waghelstein said. "At 3 o'clock at night, maybe I did, but there's a difference."