Yussef Rafik is a zoologist and wildlife TV presenter who hosted the BBC Earth Kids’ show Bugface (which does indeed involve a lot of bugs on faces) and narrated the documentary series Wild Bites. Here he talks about how infiltrating the daunting world of TV is worth it, but navigating the industry is a lesson in learning to deal with rejection.
What do you do?
I am a Zoologist and wildlife presenter having worked online, on the radio, and on live television.
What did it take to get here?
As a child, I think it was always pretty obvious to everyone around me that I was going to grow up with an obsession for wildlife. In fact, some of my first words as a toddler involved me repeatedly telling my parents that I used to “live with the lions” in a previous life, which I assume must have creeped them out quite a bit.
As I got older, my love for all things wild grew bigger and bigger, and my bedroom became a refuge for a whole host of weird and wonderful creatures. I would take great pride in telling people about how my geckos could lick their own eyeballs or showing them all the dead rats in my freezer that I would feed to my snakes.
I then began a degree in Zoology at Reading University, UK, which I look back on with great fondness. We were lucky enough to have our own zoology museum on campus, the Cole Museum, and studied every topic from mammalogy and entomology, to animal behavior and paleozoology. We also had a field trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa, and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so in my element! For my dissertation, I investigated the factors affecting hedgehog populations in urban environments. That essentially involved me chasing hedgehogs around the streets of Reading at midnight to record data on them, which was great fun.
After university, I landed a job working as an animal keeper at a zoo, and one of my roles was to present the daily animal education shows. This allowed me to get hands-on experience with some incredible animals. Some of my favorites included a two-meter (eight-foot) long boa constrictor, a Nile monitor lizard, a hairy armadillo, and a very cuddly skunk. I guess it was at this point that I truly fell in love with presenting, and the thrill I got out of changing people’s perceptions of some of the lesser-loved creatures.
I had always liked the idea of a career in wildlife TV presenting, being inspired by the likes of Steve Irwin and Steve Backshall, but it always seemed like one of those unreachable goals. Infiltrating the world of TV seemed like such a daunting task. I realized though that, if I didn’t at least try, I would regret it for the rest of my life, so I began making some of my own content and putting it online. I was lucky enough to get through to the final round of a nationwide presenting competition for CBBC, which involved going to their studio in MediaCity and filming alongside their presenters. I absolutely loved the experience and it made me realize that presenting was definitely the career path I wanted to go down. Unfortunately, due to schedule changes, that role didn’t go ahead. It was quite a brutal first lesson for me about the need to have a thick skin in this industry.
That taster of my dream career gave me the motivation I needed to power on, and so I put together a showreel and got myself a talent agent. From there, I was able to land a role as one of the main presenters on the brand-new online channel, BBC Earth Kids, and I was given my very own show to host called Bugface. I had finally got my dream job!
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
Essentially, my role is to try to bridge the gap between entertainment and education. My passion is making people fall in love with nature, with the aim of making my own little bit of difference to the planet, but I have to do so in a way that’s going to captivate the audience and make them actually want to listen to what I have to say. Some days are fantastic and can involve me putting some bizarre species of millipede onto a rather unfortunate Strictly Come Dancing star’s face or being hoisted 30 meters (98 feet) up into the tree canopy with a GoPro stuck on my head.
Other days are less exciting and are more likely to involve me emailing producers with pitch ideas and facing what feels like constant rejection. The thing with presenting is, it’s usually freelance work so you can never get too comfortable and always have to be on the lookout for the next job. I still have many tough days filled with self-doubt about my career choice, and I’m a long way off the success of my heroes but looking back on the things that I’ve achieved so far makes me excited for the future.
What’s the most common misconception about your line of work?
Probably that presenting is just talking in front of a camera. In reality, it’s a lot more than that and is a skill that takes time to develop. You need to be able to engage your audience, interact with any guests in the correct manner, and deal with any problems that may arise while you’re on air quickly and professionally. Not to mention that you are the face of that show, so there’s a lot of pressure to do well because if it flops it’s on you. As a wildlife presenter, you are seen as the "expert" in your field, so it’s important to stay up to date on all the latest science because you never know what might be asked of you next – I remember my agent phoning me up out of the blue one afternoon to tell me to prepare a piece on spiders because I was going to be appearing on Good Morning Britain the very next morning to talk about them.
Proudest moment on the job?
Totally going to name drop here, but when I was working on Bugface, I was lucky enough to have Dick and Dom on the show as guests. They are legendary when it comes to the world of British kid’s TV, so that was certainly one of those "pinch yourself" moments for me. And they did not disappoint! The whole day felt like organized chaos in the best way possible, with them ribbing me for not starting at the exact moment the director shouted “action”, and Dom running off set terrified when I tried to put crickets on his face. It was definitely a career highlight for me and enabled me to live out my childhood dream of wanting to be on Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow. Sadly, I forgot to ask them if we could play a game of "Bogies" though.
Any memorable missteps on the job?
I was doing some narrating on a new show for BBC Earth Kids called Wild Bites, but since it was being produced during lockdown, it had to be done from home. It wasn’t until the very end of a full day of filming in my makeshift home studio with my director on Zoom in front of me, that I realized I’d been using a broken microphone and all the audio I recorded had a horrible crackling noise running through it. Luckily, some amazing tech wizards were able to fix the issue in post-production, but safe to say I thought I would be in a lot of trouble that day.
What’s your most treasured piece of kit?
I probably shouldn’t admit to this one, but my most treasured piece of kit is likely to be my phone. Not only is it great for sourcing funny doggo memes on the internet, but I also use it for my work on a daily basis – whether that be using it to have a last minute read through of a script, help ID some random species of beetle that I’ve never seen before, type up some notes on things I need to remember to do while presenting, record some birdsong while out on a nature walk, or take selfies with all the cool people I get to work with. I never leave home without it.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
When it comes to presenting, personality is often just as important as knowledge, because nobody will listen to what you have to say if you’re not watchable. So, if you’re just starting out, I’d recommend grabbing a camera to start making your own content and taking some time to figure out the style of presenting that you feel comfortable with and feel suits you best. It’s totally fine if you’re not happy with the initial results (my first videos were absolutely awful and will never see the light of day again), just keep persevering as it’s all part of the learning curve.
In such a highly competitive career as this one, it’s important to be different and stand out from the crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you to invent a new personality, because, as cliché as it sounds, it’s important to be authentic and true to yourself, but you should find yourself a unique selling point. Perhaps you have a keen interest in marine biology and want to make content specifically about our oceans, or perhaps you have a love of gangster rap as well as a love of wildlife and want to combine the two in your presenting style. The possibilities are endless!
One final thing I’d like to add is to try not to take rejection to heart. Literally everyone in this field faces regular rejection, which, along with the feeling of imposter syndrome, can be tough on mental health. Just remember that, more often than not, the rejection is down to a circumstantial reason and not a personal reason against you.