Less than a minute into YouTube’s “Barbershop Medicine” video Q&A with Dr. Anthony Fauci, hosts Dr. Italo Brown and Dr. Jamie Rutland dive right in with the toughest of tough questions: “How often do you get your hair cut?”
The query, which had somehow never been posed to Fauci during myriad interviews and press briefings over the course of the pandemic, prompts a huge laugh from guest and hosts alike. More importantly, it has the effect of disarming the media-savvy Fauci, establishing an easy familiarity that remains intact when Brown and Rutland transition to thornier questions around vaccine hesitancy in Black and brown communities.
Asked about the initial exchange a day after the video’s publication, Brown doesn’t downplay its significance. “It takes a while sometimes to get that rapport,” he said. “What Jamie and I try to do is see the human in you. We go in thinking, ‘OK, let’s talk about all our commonalities.’”
It’s an approach that has elevated Brown and Rutland into the upper ranks of trusted health commentators. Whether as interviewers or interviewees, they enter into conversations around health with empathy, curiosity and an utter lack of guile. As a result, they come across less as formal white coats than as exceedingly well-informed friends.
Brown noted that, to an extent, the advisory role has been thrust on him and other healthcare professionals in the 18 months since COVID overwhelmed the country.
“If you’re a doctor, you become the doctor for everyone in your network – immediate family, extended family, friends, everyone,” he explained. “It’s hard, because there’s a sense of, ‘Hey, I’m still learning about some of this myself.’ I try to address it in plain tones for people, rather than have them dig through literature and all the different recommendations out there.”
It’s a responsibility Brown takes seriously, even as he still seems to be processing the public-facing turn his career recently took. While he noted that “Jamie has a certain type of charisma that’s rare – if there’s a halftime speech, you want Jamie to give it,” Brown himself is new to the media game. A GQ video published in January 2020, which found him giving accurate (and hilarious) assessments of movie injuries, established him as a viral star.
“I don’t want to be in front of a camera. I want to be in the street,” Brown said. “But you fail to amplify the message and work you’re doing if you can’t get it to a broader audience… You want the impact to ripple into increased interest in medicine for young African Americans, into health-and-wellness conversations becoming dinner table talk, into increased health-literacy levels for the entire community.”
Which brings us back to the moment Brown learned about the opportunity to interview Fauci. “It was random as hell, man,” he recalled with a laugh. “I was asleep and Jamie started blowing up my phone: ‘Hey, we have the chance with the NIH. They want us to meet with Fauci!’”
At the same time, with the invitation came a sense of affirmation. “What it said is that the work we’ve done, with community interventions and health disparities and social determinants of health, is so significant that we should be speaking with experts,” Brown continued. “It brings out an extreme humility, a sense of honor – ‘You’re going to trust two young Black male physicians to represent different spheres: doctors, young people, members of a community that’s typically marginalized.’”
Indeed, the Fauci sit-down represented a full-circle moment. “Representation is huge,” Brown stressed. “Seeing two young Black men, who come from vulnerable communities and actively demonstrate expertise – and are also cool as hell, walking around in Jordan 1s – that’s going to disrupt the picture of what people think in terms of your standard doctor. I’m excited to see the way that communities of color respond to seeing themselves represented on a huge platform like YouTube.”