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Zelensky's old reality TV clips show he's got talent, don't predict how he's using it to rally Ukraine, EU

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was best know in the U.S. as the leader former President Donald Trump asked a political "favor" of while withholding military aid to Ukraine — the focus of Trump's first impeachment. In Ukraine, Zelensky was known as a comedic actor and performer who played an accidental president in a hit TV show, Servant of the People.

After being elected with 73 percent of the vote in 2019, Zelensky's popularity steadily declined. Now, according to a poll taken over the weekend by the respected Rating Sociological Group, he has the backing of 91 percent of Ukrainians, with 6 percent not supporting and 3 percent undecided.

"Full support and respect came, I think, after Russia started its war — all Ukrainians have closed ranks around Zelensky," Novoye Vremya editor-in-chief Yulia McGuffie, a former critic, told BBC News. "He is playing a uniting and I would say inspiring role, partly by his own example." One of her good friends "has just written, 'Zelensky has suddenly grown cojones of cosmic proportions,'" she added. "And this really reflects the attitude to him right now."

But while he is popular at home and newly admired abroad, Zelensky's background as an actor still draws some sniggers. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro mocked him Sunday, saying Ukrainians "placed the hope of their nation in the hands of a comedian." And some of his performances on Ukrainian reality TV that have resurfaced after the invasion are kind of silly (including one that involves, well, his cojones).

But Zelensky's performative ability has been an asset to Ukraine.

European Union leaders meeting Thursday night to discuss Russia sanctions had stalled on hard-hitting proposals when Zelensky called in "with a bracing appeal that left some of the world-weary politicians with watery eyes," The Washington Post reported Sunday. "In just five minutes," the Post adds, "Zelensky's personal appeal overwhelmed the resistance from European leaders to imposing measures that could drive the Russian economy into a state of near collapse."

"It was extremely, extremely emotional," a European official briefed on the call told the Post. "He was essentially saying, 'Look, we are here dying for European ideals.'"

"Of course, he is an actor," communications consultant Yaryna Klyuchkovska tells BBC News. "I don't know whether it's his true persona or not. But whatever he's doing, it's working." Which is a lot to ask, perhaps, of a comedian.