As we connect on video chat for the interview, Raif Derrazi announces he just came back from a run. That’s no surprise—he is a fitness expert on +Life, a new weekly half-hour lifestyle program, and a competitive natural bodybuilder. But, as viewers of his long-established vlog and social media presence know, Derrazi is transparent about the ups and downs of navigating physical, mental and emotional health, and he quickly adds, when I wonder out loud if I should go back to my reopened gym and renew my workout routine in earnest, that he had stalled during the lockdown, too.
“When the gyms closed, I rebelled,” he says, with his signature forthrightness. “I was used to doing it every day; it was my life. And then I didn’t care about working out, really, until recently, and I started up again. I started running and swimming and doing all that, on my own. I [had] gained thirty pounds.”
The gyms in California reopened but then, in light of a COVID-19 surge, the state government shut them down again. No matter the status of the gyms in the coming months, the West Hollywood resident will surely find a way to stay on top of his health and wellness—and encourage others to do so, too.
And if he hits another bump in the road, he will share that with viewers, as well. His vlogging is honest and intelligent. He is the friend you sometimes wish you could be to yourself. And he wishes that you be that friend. His videos all seem to circle back to a core message: Be gentle on yourself; allow yourself to discover how amazing you are and can become.
From the start of his vlogging, Derrazi shared insights about his HIV diagnosis (an AIDS diagnosis, in fact, when he found out on his birthday in 2012), his fears that death was a given, and his subsequent commitment to self-care. As viewers learned, he refused to be a victim and, with some help from affirmations, meditation, Louise Hay and Oprah, and books like The Artist’s Way and The Secret, he tapped into inner resources to make a positive change in his life and move forward, saying yes to new experiences and envisioning his goals and working toward them. He became dedicated to “living life as best he could.” Building this inner strength manifested in a commitment to building outer strength.
He strives to realize his fullest potential, willing to be delve into the past in order to forge ahead. In one video, he talks about coming to terms with his sexuality and a suicide attempt, and how he moved beyond his downward spiral. In another video, he speaks bluntly about fear, its stranglehold on his life, and how to overcome it.
Through his YouTube channel, he shares much of himself, the dark moments and the light, how he ended up in Orange County by way of Utrecht, The Netherlands, thanks to his mother’s escape from his father, an abusive husband, to help to ensure for them a life free of this threat, but also linking up with an inspiring trainer and becoming a professional natural physique bodybuilder.
He strives for wholeness. In one of his videos, he resists those who try to reduce him to a medicalized body: “HIV does not define you, does not determine your value as a human being.” And while we all may have a-ha moments, he stresses that the journey is a process of becoming. He uses his experiences and information-gathering to educate, reminding viewers how “steep” the learning curve of HIV can be. Viewers share his steps along the way: taking meds and switching meds because of potential side effects, visits to his primary care providers for lab work, his insights about sex and romance and U=U, HIV stigma, and the fact that sometimes he does not even think about living with HIV. And he also shares insights about working out, diet and supplements, getting face fillers, and overall self-improvement. With every video, he models self-empowerment.
He strives to amplify his advocacy by joining his voices with others, whether that means at last year’s United States Conference on HIV/AIDS (USCHA), 2019’s L.A. Pride and World Pride in New York City (“Living with HIV” emblazoned across his chest), this fall’s virtual AIDS Walk LA 2020, or last summer’s first annual Black Queer Town Hall, an event he coproduced this past year.
Now, he has joined +Life, bringing his fitness expertise and motivational spirit to the new digital media platform. Produced by AO Media and executive-produced by cocreators Karl Schmid (ABC7 Los Angeles’ “On the Red Carpet” correspondent), Brent Zacky and Mike Spierer, the series provides viewers the tools that will help them add to their lives. (Note: +Life is often written as Plus Life on social media and elsewhere.)
“The ‘+Life’ television series is all about finding unexpected ways to live life to the fullest, which is more important than ever before,” stated Schmid, who is living with HIV, in a prepared release. “Each episode will entertain, inspire and uplift our viewers, with easy takeaway and fun ideas for anyone to make their days a little brighter.”
+Life will feature interviews with celebrity guests such as Andrew Bell, Judith Light [A&U, July 2007], and Melissa Rivers [A&U, May 2018], and newsmakers like Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others, as well as informational segments on living with HIV, food, fashion, health and fitness.
Viewers may watch it nationally on ABC’s Localish network as well as on other platforms, including @PlusLifeMedia on social media and PlusLifeMedia.com.
Recent segments featuring Derrazi cover simple exercises one can do in one’s living room, COVID-19 and living with HIV, and practicing self-care during the lockdown.
Derrazi brings to +Life the same expertise, clarity and empathy he has been bringing to his long-running and popular YouTube vlog. You might even say +Life might have been one of the resources Derrazi had looked for when he was first diagnosed.
His own practice of seeking out YouTube videos when he wanted information about a topic prompted his vlogging presence, he tells A&U. When he was diagnosed and looking for guidance, he discovered he could not find exactly what he was looking for about HIV. He found some videos but none that were relatable. He wanted a role model who was out, not a dry PSA from an organization.
Everyday people had the wrong message, he recalls. “I remember talking to people in my life,” he says about those close to him and also customers at the restaurant where he worked. When I would tell them I had HIV…everyone always wanted to say, ‘Oh, yeah, isn’t Magic Johnson doing so well?’ I kept thinking like, That’s thirty years ago! Where is everybody in between?! Where is everybody?
“And I instinctively know that if people aren’t visible and we’re not seeing it in media, then that has an impact on your psyche. On how you feel about yourself, your self-worth.”
With his background in theater and acting (he is a graduate of the Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program at UCLA), and knowing he has always been honest and transparent, he knew he could make a contribution. Be visible. Be vocal.
“It was ironic for me how little I knew, because in my early twenties I was doing volunteer work in the O.C. in a nonprofit that was specifically targeted toward 18-24 year old males for HIV prevention. That’s what I was doing, and I still didn’t know anything about [living with HIV]. So I realized, you learn that it’s bad and how to not get it, but you don’t learn that it isn’t that bad, what happens if you do get it, and that it’s treatable. You don’t learn anything past actually geting diagnosed.”
Sharing your story in a vlog is one thing; being vulnerable and unafraid to show emotion during your talks, whether it’s joy and sadness or fears and struggles, is another.
Asked how he found the strength to be so vulnerable, Derrazi responds: “I went through a lot as a kid. I had a pretty traumatizing childhood. For example, I was using a completely different, fake name for the first eighteen years of my life. At four and a half, five years old, my mom brought me here to the U.S., ran away from her husband at the time, who she was convinced would kill her. We were basically in hiding and I went by a different name, Timmy Zimmer. Everyone in Orange County knows me as Timmy Zimmer,” he explains. “Timmy” was the most American boy’s name his mom could think of, he relates in a video, and “Zimmer” was his mom’s new husband’s last name. “I went through so much bullying in high school, and also I was the ‘poor, brown kid’ in an Orange County neighborhood. It was like I didn’t fit in. And I wasn’t ethnic enough to fit in with the ethnic groups, so I was very much in the middle,” he says. In a video, he traces his ancestry: his mom is Dutch-Indonesian, with perhaps some Chinese and Malaysian in the family, and he believes his biological dad is Moroccan. “It was awkward. I didn’t fit in with anybody. I didn’t get the social norms because my mom’s from Europe, and so it was just a very difficult childhood. I went through a lot. So, I think that having gone through that I gained a lot of empathy and compassion.”
He adds: “Even as a kid, I remember telling myself that no matter what I go through I’m never going to let it harden me. I don’t where I got that from but I was hellbent on making sure I always had this softness inside and I wouldn’t let circumstances change that.”
Asked what he hopes to achieve by being so public, as a vlogger, motivational speaker and social media influencer, Derrazi responds: “Some of it’s selfish and some of it’s selfless. And I think it works together. Part of it is [that] I’ve just always loved being on a platform, whether it’s onstage or in front of a camera—I just feel like that’s where I belong. I need to be there and give of myself, my energy, and have that interaction with others, as a result of that. I love that. I feed off of that. So [vlogging] kind of fulfills that for me.”
Derrazi relates that what started off as a hobby turned into a vocation. “The reaction was very immediate and instense. People validated how needed [speaking publicly about HIV] is, how important it is, and how it impacts others. That has fueled it into now—this is what I do; this is what I love to do,” he says about connecting with people. “I love being a source of comfort and inspiration and education and entertainment for others. It’s so fulfilling that it’s not just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I love watching this person. It feels good.’ It’s an honest impact.”
Derrazi cites a recent example of the kind of impact he wants to continue making. The sister of one of his fans, a young man who is part-Dutch (like Raif, who mentions it as a point of connection), reached out to him and said, “‘I’m worried about my brother because he was recently diagnosed with HIV and I see a shift and a change in his personality. He’s much more negative now, and quiet and distant.’” Derazzi explains that the young man, a resident of the U.S., was going to school abroad, disconnected from his family, and in a downward spiral. After corresponding with his worried sister, and then his mother, Derrazi offered to talk to him if they thought it was appropriate. “‘He would love that,’” the sister averred.
He reached out to the shy fan. “Such a sweet, sweet kid. But his fears were that he couldn’t come back to the U.S. because he wouldn’t have access to healthcare and he wouldn’t be able to get medicine. [He had] no knowledge of all the programs that are available to him here in the U.S.” Derrazi reassured him that the programs existed and he would help link him to care, if needed. His advice helped; the young man returned to the U.S. and his sister sent Derrazi a bouquet of thank-you’s. He takes a moment in the interview to cry, and then he composes himself.
When you read the comments below the videos, you see the impact he has.
“I admire you, you are so great and you have a huge positive energy. GOD BLESS YOU.”
“Thank you so much for being intersectional and educational!!!!!”
“No matter the obstacles you continue to make a way and I thank you for that. Looking forward to future videos… “
Loves flows toward this heart-centered man, as well it should. He gives of himself so that others can heal.
When it comes to who inspires him in the world of HIV advocacy, Derrazi says he cannot name any one particular person. He does give a shout out to his “good friend Karl Schmid. He’s doing a ton of work and has created +Life TV and brought me on to do that with him. So I’m super thankful and excited to be doing that. It’s amazing. I’m hosting a fitness segment on it but he has plans to expand and do more interviewing. Hopefully I can start to do more engaging content like that, specifically focused on HIV.”
Derrazi likes connecting with others in the HIV community and likes the teamwork that advocacy promotes. He participated in a Jubilee video, one of those videos that ask a group of people a series of questions and then the individuals explain why they strongly agreed, disagreed or fell in between. This one focused on what people living with HIV thought. The experience bonded them and reinforced an idea of community where difference is understood as an asset and not a liability. “We all have such a positive—pun intended—outlook and we all have that connection. It is overall inspiring [to be] in that group.”
He also found community at USCHA, the first conference he attended, when he presented in 2019. “It’s funny that you ask that because as you were talking I was like, ‘Oh yeah, Mark S. King [A&U, March 2018] is also someone who inspires me,’ and I met him at USCHA.” Derrazi was heartened when the fellow advocate took him under his wing and introduced him to conference participants.
“I need to go to more conferences because I learned things there that I was unable to do, being on my own trying to gather information. Saying things like ‘full-blown AIDS’ is not appropriate anymore and learning why, and having workshops where you’re discussing certain topics with a bunch of people from a bunch of different backgrounds is eye-opening, too.”
In terms of what he feels needs to be addressed in terms of advocacy, Derrazi feels education is needed most to meet the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS. “Especially as [education] relates to stigma because I feel like that is, at least in the U.S., one of the major hurdles. There are so many things that are in place, access to care, support networks…but people aren’t taking advantage of them because of stigma. They don’t want to be seen. They don’t want to be heard. They don’t want to be associated with [HIV] due to stigma. And probably a lot of people are denying themselves access to a lot of these [resources].”
Derrazi experienced stigma first-hand when he disclosed his serostatus to a barber with whom he had developed a rapport. After that, without explanation, the barber would not come to the phone when Raif called. Derrazi was taken aback, but he soldiered on. And he found an amazing new barber, Eugene, whom he has featured on his vlog.
Asked if he thinks stigma can be dismantled, Derrazi is hopeful. “For sure. I think there’s always going to be people who have their own baggage and fear, and therefore hate, etc. There’s always going to be a percentage of people like that. But I think by and large people are good and, with education, that dissolves fear…. The force behind stigma is fear, so, if we can dissipate fear in the minds of people, then we can have an open conversation that’s objective and will lead to not getting judged on Grindr, and [other] apps, for not disclosing, as if it’s everyone’s right to know your private, personal medical information. And now, with U=U, that’s even more of an argument to say, ‘It’s none of your damn business what’s going on with me. If I have diabetes, I’m not going to tell you. That’s none of your business!’ So: education. Underlined three times.”
It should be clear to you by now that Derrazi believes education and empowerment are key to living well with HIV. Even though he had worked with young men at risk for acquiring HIV, at the time of his diagnosis he still believed some untruths about AIDS. “For instance, I thought I was going to die in two or three years. So as soon as I found out about my diagnosis I was thinking things like, ‘Do I continue going to school? Do I even continue working? Do I just sell everything I own and take a trip around the world until I’m dead?’”
What would he tell himself if Raif-now could talk to Raif-then? “‘I’m going to live a long, full, healthy, fulfilling life, as I please,’” he says. “[That] would have been helpful to know.”
He digs deeper. “My diagnosis was a catalyst for realizing that I had been living the majority of my life with a victim mindset. And it served me for a long time,” he says, noting that as a child, even though he experienced many trials, he learned could exploit them in small ways. “People would give me extra leniency in school if I didn’t do my assignments or homework…It grew into this thing that ended up becoming a crutch for me later on…I wasn’t taking responsibility for my own life. So, I feel like my diagnosis was a physical manifestation of me realizing my victim mentality….”
He explains the process: “In the first year or two it was about me rewiring my brain to take full responsibility for myself and for my life. Even [with] things happening to me that are completely out of my control, I’m responsible for the way I react and the way I respond to those situations. Do I turn it into something good and positive; do I let it help grow and become stronger as a person? That’s the most dramatic change for me.”
Derrazi emphasizes a holistic approach to life. Fitness is not only physical but emotional, spiritual, mental. Asked how we can negotiate going to the gym and not get caught up in appearances, Derrazi responds, “I think it’s a balance. And it’s a difficult balance to maintain, especially living here in West Hollywood, in L.A.. But there is something to be said for looking good and that influencing how you feel inside and giving you confidence.
“So, I think it’s a balance of both doing the inner work and creating a foundation inside of knowing who you are, what you value, and knowing your own worth, and then also supplementing that with an exterior that supports that and gives you the ability to interact with life in a way that’s going to support you.
“Physical fitness is important; [your body] is literally your vehicle, your medium to interact with the outside world, so, if you’re on the top of your game, you have access to doing so much more, experiencing life on a much higher level,” he says. “It’s important to me to not only be healthier but the bodybuilding, for me, was like showing physically that I’d won over HIV—it’s not holding me back; it’s not limiting me.”
As a competitive bodybuilder, his most recent event was at Muscle Beach, Venice, one year ago October. “It was my first pro show. I placed third, which I was estatic about, because the other two are veteran bodybuilders, who had been competing for a long time and they’re fantastic. So, for me, that was the best I could achieve given my brief bodybuilding history. I want to continue to do that.” He is going to give himself a year or two before he returns to competing (“I’m off my game,” he says), so that he can work on building muscle and conditioning. “I’m natural, so I’ve stayed completely away from steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. That was important for me——to see what I could achieve without those things, for myself but also to show other people that you don’t need that stuff to transform in a big way. Even with HIV. Even if you’re taking ARVs.”
His passion for fitness came late in life; after a bit of “floundering,” he found himself. “Through all of this I found out who I am, this is what I love….So, I’m very grateful for having gone through everything and I look at it as a blessed thing and a gift, in many ways.”
His new collaboration at +Life TV allows him to share this passion for fitness with a new—and potentially broader—audience. +Life places people living with HIV/AIDS in the role of teachers, yet the programming is arguably not only a benefit to the HIV community but also to everyone who wants to tune in.
Derrazi agrees, pointing out that a viewer may not immediately know the programming was born from an HIV-centric creative nucleus. But if viewers who are negative are able to relate to the programming and see that what applies to living well with HIV can apply to them, then that’s a win-win. “And I think that helps bridge the gap a little bit,” says Derrazi.
“I don’t even think I mention I have HIV on the [platform] yet, because our interviews are so brief, but if you’re following someone and they’re a fitness expert on the show and they’re doing all these things and you’re learning things and that later you find out they have HIV and they’re out about it. Oh….. They have that a-ha moment.”
Derrazi has set goals for himself in the coming year. “Consistently vlogging, so I’m at least putting out one video a week,” says Derrazi as he begins to list what he seeks to accomplish.
“I hope to co-produce another Black Queer Town Hall with Peppermint, the drag queen. She’s a dear friend of mine and I’m also assisting her. And now we’re working together a lot more, co-producing different projects. I had never done anything like that. It was an intense experience; we put it together very last minute.” (If you have not watched Black Queer Town Hall, check it out because you will not be disappointed: www.blackqueertownhall.org.)
Derrazi continues: “I love facilitating a space for really fantastic, important, relevant conversations. I learned so much. It was so moving to be a part of that and so gratifying, to create a space for queer black people to talk about things.
“I want to do that with my channel! I also want to create panels and learn how to do that. I realized too that I wasn’t creating a space for older people living with HIV. I hadn’t touched on that at all, and that’s really important.
“I just want to be doing more, +Life, everything, more, more, more.”
And once the global lockdown lifts, Derrazi would love to travel to other countries with less HIV visibility and work with grass-roots efforts to create community awareness. “Also, right now, I’m working on—it’s like a book but it’s in video format. There are chapters and pages and it’s essentially a guide for people who are diagnosed with HIV or if you know someone with HIV on how to be a support system for them. There’s tons of information, tons of resources, but it’s hard to get it all in one place, as like a road map going from 1 to 2 to 3, all the way up to 100, what you need to do. So, I’m going to break it down, using my own experience and my own journey on how you deal with the diagnosis, understanding HIV, how you get good healthcare, how to find the right doctor for you, to understanding U=U, to going about dating, to creating a support system—all of it!”
Helping others—that’s literally the story of his life!
Tune in to +Life TV: @PlusLifeMedia on social media and by logging on to PlusLifeMedia.com.
Make-up by Bongbong Buan. Instagram @bong2buan.
For more information about photographer Tommy Wu, log on to: tommywuphotography.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle. He also writes fiction and poetry, and daydreams a lot about the Adirondacks.