From heart surgeon to comedian – via a turn on the dance floor – Egyptian Bassem Youssef aims to improve lives.
A great emphasis has been placed on the idea of success and what this constitutes. Few can attest to having swayed from heart surgeon to salsa instructor, political satire host to stand-up comedian. Yet, this is the reality for Bassem Youssef, who has recently launched a new reality show, catering to healthy living. In observing his journey, it is the dance between external forces and internal convictions that calls for attention. As a master of his own trajectory, Youssef asserts, “We should create our own narratives.” The notion that abandoning oneself to societal pressures can only limit possibilities. “I wanted to change the shape of how television viewed entertainment in the Arab world,” Youssef recalls of his earliest days on the small screen. At the height of the Egyptian revolution, Youssef, a heart surgeon, offered medical assistance to demonstrators in his native country.
Following his frustration at how protesters were delegitimized by the media, he debuted his own satirical video series on YouTube, Al-Bernameg, which led to him being dubbed “the Jon Stewart of Egypt.” It was a wild success among the people – but this popularity did not extend to Egyptian authorities, who had the show cancelled. “Suddenly I was the biggest name in Egypt,” Youssef recalls. “People saw the glamour, but all I saw was the stress. I was still a doctor and was stressed about the next episode. When the show was cancelled, I came to the US. It was one of the most difficult times in my life. I was going through a sort of existential crisis, thinking, was I talented, or was I just lucky? Was this all a coincidence?”
Considering the prolific journey Youssef has embraced, his success was no fluke. Eight years after leaving Egypt, he is touring as a stand-up comedian, writing a children’s book (The Magical Reality of Nadia) and creating his own health-based web series called Plant B. “We like to take the path that is praised by society,” he reflects. “This is something that a lot of people in the Middle East struggle with; choosing a prestigious career, like being a medical doctor or an engineer. We do it to please our parents and society. There has been a perception that entertainment is not a real career path. All my life, I went through these set rules of what it meant to be successful.”
What may be unknown to many is Youssef’s creative expression as a dancer. At the height of his career as a heart surgeon, he would lead the most popular dance classes in Egypt. “I would joke about the fact that I earned more as a salsa dancer than as a medical resident,” he laughs. “For a big part of my life, my refuge was dance. Sometimes I would have between 40 and 60 people in one class. And, of course, I was not taken seriously as a doctor because of it. It was like the knife that twists into my side whenever I do something wrong. They would say, ‘It is because you are not a real doctor, you are a dancer.’ But I continued dancing salsa, and then Argentinian tango.”
This spirit of reinvention and perseverance is also clear in his professional renaissance in the US. “I always thought about using comedy to advance a certain cause,” he says. Following years as a stand-up comedian, he later ventured into the sphere of health-themed entertainment, largely inspired by his journey towards veganism. Youssef was initially spurred into action after reuniting with a high school friend who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and who had since adopted a plant-based lifestyle. “I was a typical doctor who made fun of vegans, but I was intrigued. So, I tried it – and felt amazing.” For Youssef, this was the opportunity to start a movement. His other health-conscious web series, Ask Bassem, also became a success. “My motivation was to change people’s lives and create a movement to better people’s health. To create entertaining content, without pushing them, without preaching.”
Youssef’s upcoming transformation show promises to be a game changer for health consciousness in the region. “It’s a reality show like The Biggest Loser. But instead of losing weight, you lose medication,” he shares. Currently in production, the TV show will match up couples with health personalities, including yoga instructors and nutritionists. People with all kinds of diseases will feature, from high cholesterol to diabetes and insomnia. The show aims to change the way participants eat over three weeks, with a follow-up visit at home a month later. “It’s not just a vegan show, but a show about reclaiming your destiny. We are going to improve their quality of life,” he says of the series, which will be filmed at Zaya Nurai Resort in Abu Dhabi. In vowing to create content with a cause, the production is an extension of Youssef’s convictions. “It means a lot to me because it was something I was once dismissed for,” he shares. “Especially with today’s exposure to social media, we are subjected much more to people’s opinions. And we begin to live our lives to satisfy people we don’t even know, some ghosts on the internet. But I feel that if you believe in something, you have to push forward.” Fulfilment is a question of self-affirmation, after all.
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Vogue Man Arabia