May 25, 2023

14 Presidents, Popes and PMs Who Held Weird Jobs Before Taking Power

The world's most powerful leaders are generally churned out of law offices, think tanks, boardrooms, and the occasional military coup. It's boring.

But on their way to high office, a handful of world leaders have tasted more interesting lives across a variety of fields — whether it's hawking goods, driving buses, or recording a funk album.

Some have leaned heavily on this to feign a popular touch while campaigning. For others, their surprising pasts are now all but forgotten.

Insider's completely subjective ranking here takes into account the weirdness of the job, the humility of their beginnings, and the sheer incongruity of their pasts with their future roles.

Despite being the son of a longtime cabinet member, Mokgweetsi Masisi didn't look like he was destined for politics.

According to New African magazine, the younger Masisi had a passion for acting and, per Deutsche Welle, starred in several South African B-movies before entering politics.

In 1984, he also won critical acclaim for his role in a theatrical production of "Cry, the Beloved Country," New African reported.

Since becoming president, Masisi has frequently tweeted in support of theater and the arts:

When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was 13, his family moved to Istanbul from the coastal Turkish city of Rize, where his father had been a coastguard, according to the BBC.

He would go on to study management — as well as have some success as a semi-professional soccer player.

But for a rough few years as a teenager he sold watermelon and simit, a circular, sesame-dotted bread eaten as a popular street snack in Turkey, to bring in some cash.

The humble background contributed to his popularity early in his political career, and made him a local hero in the neighborhoods where he was a street vendor.

"Erdoğan sold bread, I sell tea," Ahmet Kara, a distant cousin of the president, told Al Jazeera in 2011. "He has proven that it doesn't matter what kind of background we come from."

Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian rule was cemented in late May 2023, when he won power again in an election his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, condemned as unfair.

The son of a wealthy colonel, Andry Rajoelina went into the media business before embarking on the path that would see him become Madagascar's president.

From 1999, Rajoelina ran a music festival called "Live," which grew to host massive audiences of 50,000 by its 10th anniversary, according to francophone political journal Politique Africaine.

Rajoelina also bought up TV channels, a radio station and a digital printing outfit, it said.

It was in those ritzy settings that Rajoelina was able to rub shoulders with his future political partners and rivals, the outlet reported.

By 2007, he was mayor of Antananarivo, the republic's capital, and was later installed as head of a provisional national government in what was widely described as a coup, according to the BBC.

Rajoelina was elected to the presidency in 2018, during which he presided over the dubious launch of an unproven COVID-19 treatment in the form of a tea called Covid-Organics.

You might think that a former-armed-robber-turned-president would be higher up the list, but given that Nicaragua's strongman dictator Daniel Ortega came to power as an armed revolutionary, it kind of makes sense.

He conducted a string of robberies to fund the socialist revolutionary Sandinistas, and was arrested in 1967, according to The Washington Post. This was after a hold-up of a Bank of America when Ortega wielded a machine gun, the BBC reported.

He would spend much of his 20s in prison, where he was tortured, the outlets reported.

Having dreamed of ridding Nicaragua of its 40-year dictatorship, after multiple power grabs Ortega has today more or less become what he sought to overthrow.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel had already entered municipal politics when he hosted the "Sunday at 8" show on a national cable TV channel, Der Spiegel reported in 2007.

The show invited "both celebrities and ordinary people to share their passions and highlights of their lives," according to an archived page on the now-defunct TV network.

If you happen to speak Luxembourgish, you can catch an episode from 2005 here, where Bettel interviews the president of a local association for guide dogs for the blind.

At that point, Bettel — a lawyer — was alderman of Luxembourg city.

He would later become its mayor, and then in 2013 would be catapulted into the prime minister's seat, becoming the country's first openly gay person to hold the post.

Long before President Adama Barrow took office in The Gambia in 2017, he earned a degree in property management in London.

To fund that degree — ultimately a stepping stone to a better-known career in real estate — Barrow worked three years as a security guard for British budget chain store Argos.

"Life is a journey," Barrow told French newspaper Le Monde while on the campaign trail in 2016. "What I did in England really helped me become who I am today," he said, adding: "Working 15 hours a day builds a man."

Returning to The Gambia in 2006, Barrow started his real estate business before winning presidential elections in 2016 and 2021.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro didn't graduate from high school, but was politically active in its student union from the start, according to The Guardian.

It was as a bus driver for the Caracas Metro company that he began advocating for other workers, forming an informal syndicate at a time when trade unions were outlawed, the newspaper reported.

That experience eventually led him into the inner circle of then-President Hugo Chavez, becoming a loyal foreign minister and then vice president.

Narrowly winning the presidency after Chavez' death in 2013, Maduro has presided over a catastrophic drop in democratic and living standards in Venezuela, and has been widely described as a dictator.

President Bashar al-Assad's name has been synonymous with brutality and repression for a generation.

His legacy — presiding over the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Syrian civilians — is made all the more astonishing given that he was once a member of the medical profession.

Assad graduated as an opthalmologist in Damascus in 1988, before pursuing an advanced degree at London's prestigious Western Eye Hospital. There, according to Middle East expert Neil Quilliam, he was "sort of seen as the geeky I.T. guy," NBC News reported.

The eye surgeon who trained him, Edmund Schulenburg, told the MailOnline in 2013 that he remembered the dictator-to-be as "a sensitive young man who was incredibly polite and punctual."

But, Schulenberg said, "I remember thinking that he was really better suited to being an eye surgeon than a leading politician."

Popularly known as Lula, Brazil's president had extremely humble beginnings.

According to the BBC, he spent his childhood working as a peanut seller and shoe shiner in the tiny coastal town where he grew up.

Only at the age of 10 did he learn to read, and he got his first formal job at 14, working first in a warehouse and then moving into metalworking — a role that would claim his pinky finger at the age of 19, the BBC reported.

According to his official biography, Lula became involved in the trade union movement, becoming head of the metalworkers' union in 1975. That led him to become the leader of Brazil's Workers Party, and ultimately a two-time president — in the early 2000s, and today.

Liberia's George Weah fulfilled a dream held by millions of children: playing for the world's best soccer clubs. Oh, and then he became president of his country.

Growing up in Liberia's capital of Monrovia, Weah started playing the beautiful game at the age of 15, quickly progressing to help his team win national championships.

In 1998 he caught the attention of manager Arsène Wenger, going on to play for some of Europe's biggest clubs — including Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, and Chelsea.

This made him an international star, and a god-like figure at home.

"Back home, they call him King George and adore him so much they wish he will one day become president," sports journalist Amy Lawrence wrote in 2000, noting at that time he "wisely" opted to stay away from Liberia's politics.

That didn't last. In 2005, following the end of the second Liberian civil war, Weah announced his candidacy. He would ultimately win the presidency in 2017.

The son of a former president, Ali Bongo Ondimba has spent most of his career in politics.

But in 1977, under his birth name of Alain Bongo, he paired up with James Brown's former producer Charles Bobbit and dropped the funk album "A Brand New Man," the BBC reported.

Ondimba's musical roots lie with his mother, former First Lady Joséphine Bongo, who embarked on a distinguished singing career under the performing name of Patience Dabany after her marriage to President Omar Bongo.

Ondimba, after being given several posts during his father's highly corrupt 40-year rule, leaned on his musical reputation during his own presidential campaign in 2009.

Ondimba presented himself as the "youth candidate," rapping onstage with Gabon's hip-hop community, according to CNN.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's career change from comic actor to politician is likely the best-known on this list; it's also probably the most poetic.

Zelenskyy had a varied entertainment career from the age of 17, when he entered a comedy competition and went on to form the highly successful Kvartal 95 production company with some old schoolfriends.

He starred in a number of romantic comedies and provided the voiceover for the Ukrainian release of "Paddington" and "Paddington 2" — but one role truly demonstrated how art mimics life, with Zelenskyy's portrayal of President Vasily Goloborodko in the series "Servant of the People."

Zelenskyy — who played a history teacher catapulted by circumstance into Ukraine's presidency — would go on to name his own political party after the show.

According to Ukrainska Pravda, Kvartal 95 only registered the party's name to prevent other politicians from cynically using it in the 2019 elections.

But soon, Zelenskyy started polling almost as well as the incumbent, then-President Petro Poroshenko, the paper reported.

By 2019, Zelenskyy was leading his country, dealing with the complexities of the Trump administration and later Russia's February 2022 invasion.

Years before she ran for president herself, Nataša Pirc Musar held another high-stakes job: being Melania Trump's lawyer as the 2016 US elections loomed.

Pirc Musar — who has also worked as a journalist, a Red Cross president and Slovenia's information commissioner — found herself on the phone to Melania in August that year as the US campaign heated up, according to The Daily Beast.

In Trump's native Slovenia, a steady trade in fake Melania-branded goods — and worse, seedy Melania-themed news stories — was developing.

"She just wanted me to set [limits] about what is allowed and what is not allowed," Pirc Musar told the publication.

Pirc Musar was Melania's lawyer when the Daily Mail published a retraction of an infamous article about an unevidenced claim that Melania's former modeling agency had operated as an escort agency.

By 2021, Pirc Musar was named among Slovenia's most influential lawyers, and the next year she announced her candidacy as an independent — becoming the country's first female president in December 2022.

Today, Pope Francis oversees the spiritual paths of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics from the gilded city-state of the Vatican.

But at some point in the 1950s, he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a tango-loving Buenos Aires youngster tasked with keeping troublemakers out of a local bar, according to Italian newspaper Gazzetta del Sud.

He described this, along with several other humble first jobs, to a gathering of worshippers in a church in Rome soon after taking over the papacy in 2013, as NPR reported.

As well as working as a bouncer, he also worked as a janitor sweeping floors and as a technician in a food lab, before taking his path to becoming Buenos Aires' archbishop — and ultimately, the Roman Catholic Pope himself.

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