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ave you ever wished you knew what your new friend, business associate or partner was thinking—perhaps some extra insight would grant you the clairvoyance to see the future of those relationships? Though Reef Karim doesn’t perform any actual Jedi mind tricks on his Court TV show, House of Clues, he does use his background in psychiatry and forensic profiling to assess people’s personalities based on their homes. His sleuthing usually uncovers aspects of his subjects lives that are hidden from the rest of the world. Karim guides his viewers to critically examine seemingly mundane concepts such as symmetry, colors and clutter in the home environment in order to discover less obvious aspects of the owner’s character and personality. It’s no surprise, then, that a little investigation reveals that there’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to Reef Karim.

There’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to Dr. Reef Karim.

Hollywood has been good to Karim in the past year. People magazine named him one of the year’s “Sexiest Men” of 2004, while the South Asian community probably knows him best from his lead role in last summer’s quirky Indian American romantic comedy, Flavors. Karim has also nabbed supporting roles in feature films starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. And if acting’s not enough, he’s even a professional dancer, adept in an assortment of styles from swing to salsa. In fact, he was on the professional dance tour for the United States Ballroom Dance circuit during his college days, competing in the open Latin division. His dancing has even been featured in Gap commercials.

Reef Karim

With those kinds of experiences on his resume, it’s easy to overlook that Karim is also a doctor. But he has fused his training and talent in two seemingly disparate fields—medicine and entertainment—to fashion a unique career for himself. Indeed, Karim’s latest television projects use his training not only as an actor, but also as a psychiatrist. When he’s not profiling personalities on House of Clues, he’s serving as the new psychological expert on ABC’s Extreme Makeover and as the relationship expert on both VH1’s The Love Lounge and MTV’s Loveline.

Born in Yorkshire, England, and bred in Chicago, Karim caught the acting bug when he was very young. Like many other South Asian Americans, he faced familial pressures to pursue a more “traditional” route. Though his parents love his career now (“My parents always ask me when the next show is on—it’s very funny”), he admits that it has been an uphill battle convincing his parents that he could succeed doing what he loves. “I told my parents I wanted to be an actor. They laughed,” he says. “Both of my parents are in the medical field, and they wanted me to become a physician. I looked at medicine and I liked it, but I also liked filmmaking and acting. So, even at a young age, I looked at pursuing one or the other or both.”

Karim’s academic career allowed him to keep both options open. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where he majored in broadcast-journalism and theater. Once he entered the intense academic environment that is medical school, he took a break from the arts. But like any dedicated artist, he couldn’t deny his affinity for the arts for long. When it came time to move on to residency, he made sure he would be able to pursue his interests both in medicine and the entertainment industry. “I was very careful in choosing my residency program. Although I also liked Johns Hopkins and Harvard, I knew going to UCLA, Columbia or NYU would further my medical interests and my entertainment/advocacy interests. I ended up loving the UCLA program, and that’s where I went.”

When it came time to move on to residency, Karim made sure he would be able to pursue his interests both in medicine and the entertainment industry.

Of course, it’s no secret that Los Angeles is the place to be to break into the entertainment industry. During his (sparse) free time while working at UCLA, Karim trained in an improvisation group and took lessons from a private acting coach. At the same time, Gap started looking for dancers for its commercials, and Karim was able to score a few gigs. Next, he found an agent and started working on CBS, CNN and Inside Edition speaking as an expert on various mental health issues. But he wasn’t just a doctor in real life: He played one on TV too, on shows like Days of Our Lives. This led to his role as host of House of Clues, and Karim’s rise to stardom was sealed.

On the Tube

Watch Dr. Reef Karim on House of Clues, Tuesday nights at 11:30 p.m. on CourtTV.

Anyone familiar with the rigors of residency might wonder how Reef managed to build his Hollywood career while still interning. Reef explains, “I maximized every hour possible. There were some days I was a doctor from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then I rushed off to the set in Hollywood. I would get to the wardrobe and hair/makeup trailers by 3:40 p.m. and then be on set to start acting at 4 p.m. I would then wrap the day on set at 10 p.m. and rush to a dance studio where I’d be training from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 am and then go home and wake up the next day to do it again.”

As his acting career started taking off with recurring roles in television series (Force of One), supporting roles in studio films such as Laurel Canyon and Lords of Dogtown, and a romantic lead in Flavors, he took two years off from his psychiatry residency, completing it later and topping it off with a fellowship in addiction and a year of relationship/couples therapy training.

Reef & Omarosa.
Reef & Omarosa in an episode of House of Clues.

But when you work 20-hour days, you’re going to see a payoff, and Karim certainly has. As a doctor, he works weekends in his private practice, focusing on people who have difficulties with relationships, mood and anxiety problems and issues with controlled substances. He also works at UCLA as a clinical faculty member and a part-time clinician where, in addition to his clinical responsibilities, he supervises residents and teaches as the attending psychiatrist and interim medical director at a new upscale rehabilitation facility for chemical dependency in Malibu. Fitting in a flourishing acting career with a successful medical one is not easy, but he has found flexibility and support where he needs it: “Although sometimes I need to be there physically, most of my work can be done on the phone, and I do maximize weekends. I also have colleagues who cover for me when I shoot a film or television show.”

And though it wouldn’t seem likely, there has been an odd sort of overlap. His medical training has given him a distinct edge in landing roles with medically-based television shows. Still, when pursuing acting roles, Karim almost never mentions his medical training: “Most casting directors/directors/producers don’t think a fully-trained doctor should be able to act.” Of course, after seeing his work, they start singing a different tune. Being named “Sexiest Shrink” by People magazine has helped opened even more doors for Karim. In addition to his other television stints, he has recently been on the WB’s Celebrity Justice and is currently in negotiations with two high profile companies about becoming the host of their upcoming shows. He’s also been looking at a couple of high caliber scripts, whose producers are looking to Karim to possibly play a lead. Eventually he hopes to have a medical television show—”an edgier, more urban Dr. Phil,” targeted at a younger audience.

Karim isn’t just a doctor in real life—he also plays one on TV.

Not surprisingly, Karim isn’t content with just practicing psychiatry, acting and hosting. He also wants to move behind the scenes. Though he loves acting, Karim believes “the great roles are few and far between”—so he also works as a writer and director. This summer, he is directing the short feature Homeland Insecurity. “It’s about minority profiling of brown-skinned Americans in a post-9/11 climate. It’s pretty intense, and we’re hoping to have some name talent involved.” Karim has also been selected to participate in an exclusive minority directors program called Project Involve, whose focus is to promote cultural diversity in the film industry.

As an actor, director and writer, Karim doesn’t find himself restricted to some supposed mold defined by ethnicity, or even profession. Karim’s presence on screens both small and silver is helping to defy the “thank you, come again!” stereotype—the usual fate of desi representation in mainstream media. With Karim’s continued success, Hollywood is starting to recognize South Asians in the media. In other words, it “got a clue.” Dr. Karim would be proud.n

Himali Weerahandi holds a bachelors degree in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University. This summer, she will intern with CNN Medical News, followed by medical school in the fall. She loves reading stories about identity.
Published on May 2, 2005.
Photography: Courtesy of Reef Karim.
Comments are closed.
  1. February 24, 2008, 6:21 am Morishma

    hi there im morishma, and im a very big fan of your work. i think your great you do a good job wish you the best in the the coming years. take care.

  2. February 25, 2008, 9:11 am tasmia

    i am a big fan of dr karim..god bless him and inshallah all his dreams will come true..take care tataz

  3. November 2, 2008, 2:03 pm hanan

    salam doc ithink u own attractive caresma only with agood luck nt more …….dnt look up soooo much u nt perfect only god like that …be ur self doc only ,isee u on opra show it seems u actor more than doc ….nobody can focus in two things and be talent in both ..okey take deep breath and some rest …take care bye
    hanan from jordan