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How Was Dev Patel the ‘Ugly’ One on ‘Skins’?

Like an ugly duckling transforming into a beautiful swan, Patel started out awkward and fumbling on ‘Skins,’ before morphing into the blindingly hot, endlessly alluring superstar we know today

All this week, join us for a delightfully unwell celebration of our Internet Boyfriends. They’re sweet, beautiful men we’ve never met, and we can’t wait to share the fully formed relationships we have with each of them.

There’s a scene in Skins that, for me, epitomizes how Anwar — famously portrayed by Dev Patel — was intended to be perceived. It’s his opening appearance in the first episode of Season Two, when Chris (Joe Dempsie), Jal (Larissa Wilson) and Tony (Nicholas Hoult) bump into him in the street before a rave. We hear him before we see him, tunelessly singing along to Akon’s “I Wanna Fuck You.” And, when we do finally see him, it’s from behind, through his friends’ eyes, as he dances to the track in two obnoxiously big gold chains, a patterned snapback and baggy jeans that he keeps having to hoist up. 

When his friends approach him, snapping his headphones on his head to get his attention, his trousers fall down, and he struggles to pull them up as he stammers with a laugh, “Oh, fucking hell, sorry… I gotta remember to stand pimp in these.” As the scene continues, Anwar puts his foot in his mouth about the rave, excitedly boasts about the “serious slippy slidey todger [penis] action” he’s going to get at the party and makes a poorly received joke about Jal’s tits.

From this, our impression of Anwar should be clear: He’s a goofy, clueless and sexually desperate kid who’s set up to be the class clown of the cast. Of course, this representation was solidified in Season One, during which Anwar fawns over anyone of the opposite sex — usually unsucessfully — consistently churns out stupid one-liners and moralizes about his half-assed dedication to his religion (the character is a boy of Pakistani origin who’s raised in an Islamic household). Or, to sum up Anwar in Patel’s own words, “He’s a little horny chihuahua.” 

But to completely surmise the character in this way does a disservice to Patel, who, in his first acting role ever, was outstanding, endearing and hilarious. Alongside his sometimes cartoon-esque costuming, lame quips and awkward, sweltering horniness, Anwar had moments of deep melancholy — for example, when he didn’t get into college — and grew significantly throughout the series, most notably through his heartwarming, fan-favorite friendship with Maxxie (Mitch Hewer).

“I think Anwar was intended to be a Muslim teen who’s trying to unpack the multi-layered complexities of his contrasting roles to the best of his abilities,” says 23-year-old Gabrielle, an editorial assistant and Patel fan from Washington, D.C. “For example, when he’s with his friends, he’s looser, more free and more risk-taking, but he still struggles to balance that with his love for his family and his faith. In my eyes, he’s awkward, dorky, horny and a loyal friend — that, to me, is the common narrative of a cis-male teenager.”

Unlike the Patel of today — whose luscious locks, captivating smile and well-kept beard have made him one of the internet’s most-treasured boyfriends — Anwar wasn’t thirsted after when Skins first came out. In fact, he was even regarded as the “ugly” one — something that really tormented the actor. “I was a young kid going on these chat rooms and it was quite brutal,” Patel recently told the New York Times. “There were all these lists of who’s the favorite character on the show, or who was the best-looking character, and I was always the ugliest, the least attractive. No one liked Anwar. It really took a toll on me personally.”

This, in part, is because Anwar was written as a particularly unsexy character — which, given that the role was created specifically for Patel and partly based on his personality, might come as a surprise to die-hard Patel fans. It’s worth remembering, however, that in 2007, when Skins first aired, Patel was just 17 years old — nobody is sexy at 17! Nevertheless, if Patel hadn’t been cast as Anwar, but instead as Tony — a calm, collected ladies man — would he have been deemed hotter by viewers? After all, Sid (Mike Bailey) also wasn’t particularly lusted after, as few fans were drawn to the nice-guy virgin who’s nervous around girls.

But fans believe there’s an added layer to Anwar’s “ugliness” — racism and Islamophobia (though Patel was raised as Hindu, Anwar is Muslim). “Desirability is definitely modeled after whiteness,” says 32-year-old Zanta, a journalist from South Africa. “Anwar was a brown character among a majority white cast. They inscribed the many stereotypical attributes to [Patel’s] Indian-ness, which was disappointing. I don’t think the creators intended [to portray him as ugly] in a physical way, but I think in terms of character development, they did write him to be immensely unlikable in many ways.”

Another fan, Jasmine, 24, a writer from Atlanta, believes this was a purposeful decision by the Skins creators. “Anwar was very much an underutilized character due to his race,” they tell me, adding that he was the only straight male character who struggled romantically. “Even Sid, the ‘nerd’ of the friendship group, had a romantic relationship, whereas Anwar sought romance with one of his friend’s stalkers,” they continue. 

Such a sexless portrayal of Anwar led to him to earn a reputation as the “comic relief” on the show, says 21-year-old Clara, a student from Spain (though she adds that he was “much more than that”). This earned him fans, whether they fancied him or not. “Even though his character wasn’t as popular as the others, I liked him at the time,” explains Clara. “I thought his portrayal of a boy who struggled with being Muslim was particularly real.”

Zanta sums it up more succinctly: “One thing was clear, Dev was a talented actor even on Skins, and has gone on to give unbelievable performances since.” Whether fans perceived him as “ugly” or not is academic — ultimately, it didn’t stop Patel from landing roles in some of Hollywood’s biggest films and becoming arguably the most popular star from the whole Skins franchise (Daniel Kaluuya, who played Posh Kenneth, and Jack O’Connell, who portrayed Cook in Seasons Two and Three, are also in the running for this accolade). In 2008, the same year he wrapped season two of Skins, Patel scored the lead in his film debut, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Those who weren’t 13-year-old Skins fangirls (me) would say this was his breakout role — and, to be fair, it kinda was, earning him his first BAFTA nomination, among others. 

With this film, long gone were the days of Anwar’s frantic boyishness — post-Skins, Patel had instantaneously transformed himself from a “comic relief” character into a fully fledged movie star. According to the New York Times, Patel might owe this evolution to Boyle, who took the actor aside after his Slumdog Millionaire audition and “told him that if he were hired to lead the movie, he’d have to learn to be still.” This stillness (and intensity) is something Patel has taken into many of his most successful future performances — most notably 2016’s heart-wrenching Lion, 2019’s The Personal History of David Copperfield and 2021’s The Green Knight, which launched Patel as an A24 darling. “Now, he’s definitely delved more into his craft, creating characters on screen that have a different life experience to him,” says Gabrielle. “But he can still bring out their strengths, while beautifully playing up their weaknesses to the point where it tugs at your heart strings.”

It’s these later roles that have cemented Patel as one of the heartthrobs of the internet boyfriend era — alongside other indie-to-blockbuster stars like Timothée Chalamet, Harry Styles and Riz Ahmed. “He has a really lovable vibe,” says 24-year-old Daisy, an account manager from London. “You want to protect him, almost — I think that’s because I’ve seen him in Skins and quite vulnerable roles after that. He does emotional films really well.”

Unlike the aforementioned boyfriends, however, you won’t find Patel on social media. In a 2015 interview on The Meredith Vieira Show, Patel said he chooses to be perpetually offline because it’s too “consuming,” adding that although social media is there to “bring everyone together,” it actually disconnects people from their current realities. This air of mystique — what is Dev Patel up to right now?! — makes him all the more appealing to his rabid online fandom. With no minute-by-minute updates from his life, fans only have interviews with Patel to rely on — moments when he lets them in just a little. “The thing I love most about him is his presence both on screen and in real life,” explains Clara. “I adore watching some of his interviews and seeing how he expresses himself. [The fact that he doesn’t have social media] makes his persona more unique to me.”

Gabrielle also loves how “empathetic and kind” Patel comes across in interviews. “He gives humble vibes,” she says, “and it’s very endearing.” Though, of course, she adds, it helps “that he literally looks like a model for a Pantene commercial.” 

Gabrielle’s right. For all his “marvelous displays of vulnerability,” as Jasmine says, there’s no denying that Patel is, simply, really, really hot. Even David Lowery, the director of The Green Knight, said he partly cast Patel because “he’s incredibly appealing in every sense of the word and yes, he’s incredibly sexy. I see no shame in wanting to capture that.” Lowery added that, until his film, Patel’s “nobility” hasn’t been utilized in films “because he’s such an affable actor who’s so quick to break into this boyish smile. It’s what made everyone fall in love with him, but in addition to that, there’s a severity to him that’s really captivating.”

So, what do Dev Patel’s biggest stans want to see him do next? There’s a couple of votes for more indie films, one for Patel as the next Doctor Who, but most of his fans, unsurprisingly, want to see him in a sexy rom-com. “Dev Patel as the leading man in a blockbuster rom-com? A smash hit! Just ask the thousands of fan girls on Twitter,” gushes Gabrielle. “Once we get stan Twitter on the ‘Dev Patel Leading Man Rom-Com’ committee, I promise you he’ll win an Oscar for it.”