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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yuval Shemtov's rise to stardom as the hilarious but lovable children's entertainer Yuval Hamebulbal (Yuval the confused) is the stuff of fairy tales. Utilizing his awkward stance and strangely rasping, deep voice, he turned the traits that made him an unpopular child into an educational tool that would eventually teach thousands of Israeli children that being different is okay.
"I was never a popular kid," recalls Shemtov. "But I was not sad either. I found all the answers to the world in my imagination and I was always very optimistic. I always knew that I wanted to be a famous Israeli star and that I wanted to work with children."
While both of Shemtov's dreams have finally been realized, his path to the top was not so straightforward and it was only through sheer determination and a little bit of chutzpa that the Jerusalem-born singer, actor and clown's stage show has been seen by thousands of Israeli kids and his DVDs have sold more than 140,000 copies.
"I don't believe that things happen for no reason," says the 35-year-old father of two. "My name, Yuval, rhymes with Hamebulbal for a reason. All the things that happened to me up to this point happened for a reason. I'm happy that I'm not a supermodel and that I have a funny voice. It all led me to where I am now and is connected to my purpose on this planet - to make people happy and to make children laugh."
Shemtov's first step on the ladder to his new found fame was a simple trip to Jerusalem's Hebrew University on Mount Scopus back in 1995.
"When I got out of the army, I knew I wanted to work with children and I went to the university to check out courses in education," recounts Shemtov. On the way, however, Shemtov passed Beit Riklis, the home of [American youth movement] Young Judea in Israel.
"When I went inside, they told me they were looking for a madrich [counselor] for their year course program," he continues. "I applied and was given the job on the spot. Most things that have happened to me since then are related to this experience."
Working with American teenagers, and later with younger American's at Young Judea's Sprout Lake camp near New York, Shemtov says, inspired him to follow a career path that would involve entertaining and educating children.
"I had to pick a job at the camp and even though I don't have a great voice for singing, I chose to be a song leader," he says. "I think I chose the right thing because today one of the major tools I use to inspire young children is song."
And, says Shemtov, one of his most famous tracks to date is a religious song that he would sing with his campers: "Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem."
"At first my manager did not want me to include it [in my repertoire]. He said it was a religious song. But, after my experience at YJ, I knew that it was not," he says.
UPON his return from the US in 1996, Shemtov threw all his energy into children's birthday parties.
"Most of my gigs did not come through advertising but through word of mouth," says Shemtov. "Around that time, I did try out for a job as a presenter on the Children's Channel, but they took one look at my face and my quirky voice and did not want me."
He is philosophical about such rejections, taking those negative aspects and incorporating them into his Yuval Hamebulbal persona: "With most of my content, I try to aim at the awkward children. Yuval Hamebulbal is the opposite of a superhero and I think that because he is not very successful or very bright, children can really empathize with his character."
After performing at nearly every Jerusalem child's birthday party in the late 1990s, Shemtov turned his attention to the public arena and started doing gigs in shopping malls around the capital.
"I did not really know how to go about performing in the mall," smiles Shemtov. "I went to one of the malls, took a piece of card and wrote: "This Thursday Yuval Hamebulbal will be performing and you are all invited." A lot of people showed up but after the show the security guard escorted me to the manager's office. Luckily, he was not angry but instead said he had liked my show so much that he wanted to book me to perform every week."
It was a lucky break for Shemtov but the bigger breaks for the confused performer were yet to come.
In 2003, Shemtov and his recently acquired bride, Michal, took all the cash gifts from their wedding, added it to their life savings - around $50,000 - and put it all into making Yuval Hamebulbal's first DVD.
"We really believed that we were doing the right things," recounts Shemtov. It was a gamble but it paid off for the couple, because, he says, "it took less than two years for me to get noticed nationally."
"After I made the DVD, I went to [record producers] Hed Artzi and told them they did not have to invest any money, but would they help me distribute it?" he continues. "They agreed, but the trouble was that they did not do it properly. [They were] probably too focused on the big stars. I would often go into a store and there would be no copies of my DVD, so instead I would sell it after my performances or give it out for free at birthday parties." Originally Shemtov made only 1,000 copies of the first DVD, but today, he says, more than 100,000 copies have been sold.
"It just keeps getting bigger and bigger," he exclaims.
Since 2003, Shemtov's Yuval Hamebulbal character has created his own TV show on the popular children's channel HOP, put together a slicker stage version of his mall show and appeared in the Hanukka variety show, Festigal.
Last week, the entertainer saw the official launch of his second DVD, which hit stores three weeks ago. With more than 40,000 copies already sold, the launch party was a glitzy affair. Several other high profile children's entertainers came along for support, including model/actress Miri Bohadana and comedian Yisrael Katurza. And last Friday night, Israel's top-rated TV show, Eretz Nehaderet (Wonderful Country), poked fun at Yuval Hamebulbal in a skit about the value of children's entertainers.
"Some artists see work with children as being just a stop on the way to becoming famous," says Shemtov philosophically. "But that is not how I see it. Working with children is what gives me the most satisfaction. Maybe in five or 10 years I will feel differently, but for now this where I want to be."
Asked if all the fame has gone to his head, Shemtov says he's keeping his feet on the ground.
"I have lots of offers from companies to advertise their products, but I will only do something that gives value to life, something that is interesting and educational for children," he says.
"Basically, I am happy with the way things have turned out - that it happened this way. It was the right way for me," he finishes. "When you work hard for something, it's more satisfying."