It started with an e-mail from my editor: “Get yr (sic) camera ready. Online Dating Minus Ugly People is coming to Japan. Thinking Lifestyle page trend piece. Ready for the money shot?”

Online dating minus ugly people is the premise behind Beautifulpeople.net, described by a spokesperson as “an elite online social networking tool for beautiful people.” The Web site was devised in Denmark in 2003 as a way to weed out the bad-lookers that bedevil other dating sites. The concept has since spread to 12 other countries, including, since September of this year, Japan.

The application system is ruthless: submit a photograph, write a profile, then wait 72 hours while members of the site rate your attractiveness on a four-point scale ranging from “Yes, definitely” to “No way.” Nature’s finest specimens receive a welcoming e-mail and can begin networking with similarly agreeable people; meanwhile, the vast majority are mercilessly erased from the site. It’s Facebook plus Darwinian selection multiplied by beauty pageant.

A quick glance at the log-in page ought to be enough to dissuade anyone from applying. Images of current members, often scantily clothed, set an impossible standard. At this point I should confess that I wasn’t taking the practical side of my assignment entirely seriously. Years of Epicurean devotion have taken their toll on my physique, I got my first gray hairs this year, and my pecs ripple quite differently to the ones displayed on Beautifulpeople.net.

Using images of U.S. site members as my guide, I struck a pose (see top right) and wrote a profile that flirted with the truth. I submitted myself first to the beautiful people of Sweden, since that was the community I’d most appreciate access to. They rejected me with an almost unanimous “Absolut inte.”

I tried Canada next, and was accepted. But being beautiful only in Canada felt like damning myself with faint praise, so I tried Japan.

Officially, the Japanese site has the most brutal voters. In the U.K. — the most lenient, or perhaps most beautiful, country — one in four applicants gets the nod. In the U.S., just one in seven make it. Japan, however, rejects 90 percent of hopefuls.

“We’ve yet to determine why that is,” said the site’s Managing Director Genevieve Maylam, who issued a press release titled “Japanese people ugly?” to mark such exceptional elitism. “I don’t know if the Japanese are harsh critics, or they have a very high standard of beauty. What I’d heard is that Japanese people are very soft on the outside but very harsh on the inside, so maybe the truth comes out when they’re sitting alone and voting.”

And yet my host country embraced me. My photo appeared on the site’s log-in page, my name briefly entered the Three Most Viewed Profiles list, and I received two e-mails from Beautiful People complimenting me on my superior looks. The site no longer seemed a vain, objectionable form of discrimination; why shouldn’t we top-tier types associate exclusively with each other?

As Maylam put it, “The mainstream dating sites have all and sundry on them. We all want to be with someone we’re attracted to — it’s a basic human trait. It’s not P.C., but it’s a very honest thing.”

It’s also a scientific thing. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but most of us seem to behold alike. In an experiment published last month in science journal PLoS ONE, researchers at the University of Parma used neuroimaging to show that art lovers and philistines were stimulated by the same sculptures.

Classical and Renaissance masterpieces triggered reactions in the insula cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotion. Tweaked, “ugly” versions of the works produced weaker responses. Other experiments have observed a human preference for symmetrical faces, low hip-to-waist ratios and high foreheads. Confucius once opined that everything has its beauty. Clearly he was wrong.

Science accounts for my Swedish rejection in terms of facial familiarity. It’s easier to differentiate — and therefore recognize beauty in — the faces that surround us. In other words, perhaps my non-Nordic features clouded voters’ judgment. This would also explain why an unattractive face could escape detection in a completely foreign culture, for example.

Cultural variations are turning out slightly different-looking communities across the regions, says Maylam. “In the U.K., women tend to like a more rugged, scruffy-looking guy, whereas in the U.S. they go for a more preppy look. One of the clever things about Beautiful People is that it’s very democratic. It’s not Hollywood dictating, or Vogue magazine or Madison Avenue; it’s the people deciding what’s beautiful to them, so the site really gives an accurate representation of what the people think.”

Japan’s nascent community is beginning to reveal its taste. Women fare best if they have the doe-eyed look seen in manga. Site member Mayumayu, 32, explained that Japanese girls believe that rolling their eyes upwards is attractive, but adds that “some of the applicants are rolling their eyes so far back it looks more scary than cute.”

So far, so superficial, but the world is full of impressive people who weren’t packaged with ravishing good looks. Charles Darwin was one. So was Einstein. Surely a Nobel laureate who epitomizes genius isn’t such a bad catch. Maylam believes the fuzzy-haired physicist might have made the cut on Beautifulpeople.net.

“Something that’s very interesting is the different ways in which men and women vote. Men just tend to look at the picture, don’t read anything that the person has written, and just check yes or no,” she says. “Women tend to take into consideration the whole profile: the job, if they’ve written something funny, if they’re charming, if they seem to be going somewhere in their life. So Einstein may have stood a good chance.”

But not his female counterpart. “No, she would have had a bit of a harder time I think. God bless men, right?”

Still, in most cases, the more personal information available is a description of hair and eye color, salary and star sign. There’s space for a personal message, but nobody seems to be using it to relate their charitable activities or views on the Tibetan struggle. Beautifulpeople.net is a Web site for skin-deep beauties. Or rather, for those blessed both with beauty and the vanity to announce it.

“Yes, it could be called Vainpeople.com,” agreed Maylam.

It may not be obvious that such beautiful, self-assured people need a network to help them connect, but as Maylam explains, elite types have their own set of problems. They have to sift through all the unattractive people online — and fend them off face-to-face.

“Women have sent us letters saying that they’re so happy that there’s a site like this so they don’t have to go to a bar and get hit on by a drunken monkey falling all over the place to try to meet somebody,” Maylam said.

There are now 140,000 beautiful people worldwide, making it what Maylam describes as “the largest network of beautiful people in the world.” There have also been 63 beautiful marriages and four known beautiful babies.

More than a social networking tool, the site is breeding beauty. And skin deep it may be, but as playwright Jean Kerr put it: “That’s deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?”

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