Okay, I admit it. I’m intimidated. Interviewing another interviewer.
But… not just another ordinary interviewer. Karl Schmid is a nationally respected, seasoned, highly regarded television host and expert journalist. He’s spoken to numerous notables, worked red carpets, covered the Academy Awards and is no less than a descendant of a seventeenth-century Austrian Empress’ royal courtier. I mean, c’mon!
What switches on my Klieg light, though, is that Karl is a trendsetter in the epidemic. The suave and handsome reporter is living with HIV and a die-hard advocate for slashing stigma.
Born to a Hungarian mother and Austrian father, Karl Jeno Schmid is first-generation Australian. Originally from Geelong, Victoria, an itty-bitty town south of Melbourne, he and his parents (his two older brothers, Adam, lived in Europe and, Kristian, was a working actor in Melbourne) journeyed when he was ten to the Fiji Islands for a time then eventually settled in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was here that Karl contracted an incurable desire: the love of show business. Cast in several television children’s shows, the lad was utterly smitten.
After graduating high school in 1998, Karl traveled Europe for several years, living and working in England and Scotland. He returned to Australia for a time working in event management and television. Then in a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood film, he was hired by Dame Edna (Barry Humphries) as a personal assistant. Karl was twenty-one. Schmid accompanied the Dame on her global tour, as well as her second appearance on Broadway, Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance. Their relationship grew and they are comrades today.
“Karl was an invaluable assistant and is a dear friend both to me and my wife,” recounts Barry Humphries from his West Hampstead, London home. “In recent years he has earned my deep respect for his courage and honesty in dealing with the extreme challenges in his life. Karl’s sense of humor, and his brilliant gift of mimicry made him a popular and valued member of our touring company, and he will always have my support.”
In 2005, Karl moved to London. He worked in entertainment, hung out with celebrities, partied at clubs, and ingested drugs——“every letter of the alphabet,” he discloses. At the time, Karl described himself as “cheeky” and “smart-alecky,” and like many other guys at the age of twenty-seven, he felt invincible. Two years lapsed, then Karl heard those abominable words ….“You tested positive.”
Straight away, Karl clearly had a vision, “a red digital countdown clock, ticking backward.” His second thought was, How in the world was he going to tell his parents? Not only was he gay but he now had acquired the virus his mother cautioned him about. Ugh. He was filled with shame and disappointment in himself.
To his then twenty-three year old boyfriend of eighteen months, Karl’s first true love, who was traveling in a world tour production of Hairspray, the anxious man revealed the news. Instantly, Karl’s sweetheart broke up with him.
In hindsight, Schmid understands his beau’s reaction. Back in those days an HIV diagnosis was much different than it is today. The boyfriend came from a religious background, had no exposure to the disease before, was very young, and he felt scared, thinking that it put him in an extremely precarious position. Now years later, his former boyfriend has apologized and they’re good friends. Karl has not been in love since.
At the end of 2008, Karl moved to Los Angeles. He worked for TV networks in front of and behind the camera, as a producer. He was also a publicist for Stand Up To Cancer. In 2013, he was hired by ABC7. For several years he thought about being transparent about his status, but many media professionals advised against it, saying it’d be career suicide.
Then one day in March 2018, after being out with friends for drinks at a bar, a photo was snapped of Karl. He later went home, looked at the picture, decided he looked pretty cute and wanted to share it on his social media accounts. Weary of keeping HIV a secret these ten years, he merely wrote down his truth…and, “click,” the post appeared on Facebook.
Karl’s words seared to the heart. “…[f]or anyone who has ever doubted themselves because of those scary three letters and one symbol, let me tell you this, you are somebody who matters….don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I’m Karl Schmid, and I’m an HIV-positive man!”
Karl didn’t ponder on it at all, just that he was sharing with his social media friends.
Alongside the message was an image of Karl seated at a table, leaning in, sporting jeans and a black AIDS Memorial t-shirt, which he purchased from The AIDS Memorial Instagram site, which is dedicated to honoring those who’ve died from the virus. Karl had no idea that bearing his soul in an everyday post would make headline news. What an impact it made.
His declaration exploded and went viral. Karl received positive comments and “thank you’s” from strangers in every nook of the planet. Even though the announcement was news to ABC, they didn’t blink an eye and were incredibly supportive. To borrow a critic’s term, the kid KO’d it!
Karl is living his truth and living it to the fullest. Thanks to meds, Karl is undetectable and untransmittable. According to the CDC and the World Health Organization that means zero risk to a sexual partner. Zero risk. Quite a growth-spurt since Karl’s diagnosis in 2007. Undetectable equals Untransmittable: U=U.
Karl’s making worldwide news about his status is a true testament to the horrifying stigma still present in our society today. Several days after his posting, even Karl’s boss at ABC was stunned that this was still…news. C’mon folks, it’s been nearly forty years since AIDS came to public view!
After posting on Facebook, the journalist realized that he had arrived at a cathartic juncture. He realized that he was dealing with his own internalized HIV-phobia. Karl would joke about his status, saying things such as, “Oh you don’t want to date me, I’m positive,” or “I’m damaged goods.” It’s understandable since he was mirroring our society. Karl is quick to point out that ridding oneself of this hazard is a constant work in progress. It doesn’t come easy.
At times it seems America slips backwards, after creating more freedoms in the last half of the last century. In the sixties and seventies there was the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, the gay movement, and Roe v. Wade——and today we are still battling these same issues. What?! Hard to believe that humans don’t learn from their past. Technically, AIDS has been around since the early 1900s, but became widely known in the early eighties. Then President Reagan couldn’t even say the word. Today, what has the Trump administration done for the AIDS epidemic? That’s a rhetorical question.
Stigma… is… dangerous. It keeps people from being tested; it keeps people from revealing their status; it prevents those affected from seeking medical and mental assistance. A 2017 UNAIDS report concluded that HIV discrimination and stigma undeniably creates barriers to HIV prevention.
On the brighter side, Karl feels the media might finally be getting it right, realizing people can lead happy and healthy lives being HIV-positive. Over the past year or so, HIV med commercials have cropped up on primetime network television. The journalist attributes the series Pose and How to Get Away with Murder with handling HIV in a more sensible, humanistic way, instead of the fear-based campaigns that have abounded. Remember those dreadful Grim Reaper campaign ads?!
Karl wants to continue this boost, so in September 2019 he co-founded +Life, a multi-purpose online content devoted to ending HIV stigma. It provides up to date information, health and sex facts, and fascinating conversations.
A part of the website is a weekly show, +Talk, hosted by Karl, which brings first person accounts of living with HIV, medical information, and concerns, and those involved with the community. In one episode in early January, Los Angeles-based Karl interviewed his parents via Skype from Australia, about their initial reaction to him Skyping them from London in October 2007 to divulge his HIV status. The three of them have never discussed or approached the topic in twelve years.
The conversation was insightful, engaging, inspiring, and moving.
According to his mum, when Karl broke the news to them, he delivered it in a very light-hearted no-big-deal kind of way. Then there was a painful silence. She came forth during the show, admitting that she was annoyed and angry with his fluffy attitude about covering up a serious situation. His dad said the news brought him into a “cold shock… his stomach was in a knot…(and body was in) a cold sweat”——and he was instantly hurled into luminous images of dying patients with AIDS-related conditions in hospitals.
Karl’s parents revealed that after his call, they were overwhelmed with tears and disbelief. They soon got educated about the disease and realized that the more they talked to each other about this disturbing situation, the better they felt. Once they dealt with their own emotional trauma, they resolved to be there for Karl, helping him any way they could.
“I would have switched places with you in an instant if I could have,” Karl’s mum tenderly stressed at one point in the interview. Toward the end of the talk, Karl’s dad summed up, “I’ve learned as much from my three sons than I have ever taught them.”
A few months ago, in early July, +Life was launched on ABC’s Localish Network. Hosted by Karl, it’s a weekly half-hour lifestyle program encouraging viewers to live a healthy lifestyle, and celebrity guests such as Judith Light [A&U, July 2007], Melissa Rivers [A&U, May 2018], Fran Drescher [A&U, October 2003] discuss topical issues.
+Life was a major presence at the 23rd International AIDS Conference AIDS 2020: Virtual, from July 6–10, hosted in San Francisco and Oakland, California. The theme was resilience, and over 20,000 participated from more than 170 countries. +Life appeared daily, emceed by Karl, and featured guests Dr. Anthony Fauci, Jonathan Van Ness, Billy Porter, and Dr. Deborah Birx.
Seizing his new platform and mounting it to benefit others could be akin to a gallant undertaking that Tony Stark’s Iron Man would tackle. But Karl doesn’t think of himself as a celebrity or superstar. “I just told my truth,” he solemnly states.
The Virgo just turned forty and resides in West Hollywood, California. Before COVID, he had plans for this milestone birthday with a grand celebration of friends and family on a Greek isle. Though disappointed, instead, he had an intimate dinner with close friends. Karl stays healthy by working out at the gym, popping one med a day, and supplements a healthy diet by downing a multivitamin and turmeric (an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant). And, as I discovered during our correspondence, Karl is committed to everyone’s health.
Dann Dulin: Your positive reputation precedes you….your positive spirit, that is! What in the world have you been doing during COVID-19 to survive?
Karl Schmid: Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to keep working right through the pandemic. Actually, I’d go as far to say that I’ve never been busier, which I count my blessings for.
So instead of playing Pokémon on your mobile, talking to your plants, or bingewatching The Golden Girls, you’ve been creative——the best remedy! Tell me, Karl, what’s your take on this current pandemic?
It’s horrific, and sadly something I don’t think a lot of people——especially here in the U.S.——are taking seriously. I think until it touches one of us in a personal way, we think we’re immune to it and so we don’t need to worry about it. It’s similar to how people view HIV in a way in that many people assume it won’t or can’t happen to them so they’ve not really given it much thought since the fear of the eighties and nineties campaigns. That’s why we still have this dangerous and out-of-date stigma.
Do you find any similarities between HIV and the coronavirus?
I think the fear of the unknown is similar. I would like to think that we learned how to treat people with compassion and care after the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Certainly I think people are being much more compassionate towards one another when it comes to caring for people which is a stark contrast to what we saw in the early days of HIV and AIDS, and in fact to this day with the way people are treated who are living with HIV and AIDS.
As with nearly everything in life there are people on both sides of the aisle. For example, with COVID-19, when it comes to wearing masks, conspiracy theories, lockdown vs keeping shops open, politics, etcetera. What’s your assessment?
Listen to the scientists and the doctors!
It was a former intern who reached out to me suggesting I meet with Barry about the job. I laughed it off thinking I knew nothing about being a personal assistant and the fact that it was Barry Humphries——a true icon. He’s the Bob Hope of Australia! Still, I decided to meet with him and four weeks later I was off to Miami to become his personal assistant. The job took me around the world, and I ended up becoming his agent and then producing television projects for him.
Captivating. What was the best advice Barry offered you?
The best bit of advice he gave me——as someone who interviews people for a living——to listen.
Absolutely! Karl, when did you first hear about the epidemic?
I was in Australia. It was 1987. I was at a movie with my father and before the movie started, they screened a PSA known famously as “The Grim Reaper” ad. It scared the hell out of me——and millions of others——and to this day still stigmatizes those living with HIV.
I do remember those all too well, yeah. When you came of age, the cocktails had been established. Even so, sex was still dangerous. How did that play out for you?
“Always wear a condom” had been drilled into me in every sex ed class and the PSAs seen on TV or in print. AIDS and HIV was to be absolutely feared——and for many it still is. We have not had a proper mass mainstream media campaign that really speaks to people since those early days. The stigmatizing campaigns that were common back then put the fear of god in me.
I hear you. Indeed better campaigns are needed and I know you address that on +Life. How old were you and what was the experience like when you first got tested?
I was nineteen, in Sydney Australia, and like any other person who goes through it, I was nervous and then relieved when my results came back negative. I had no reason to be nervous.
Karl, how did you become “at peace” with being HIV-positive?
When I got my diagnosis, I very quickly went into survival mode. I thought to myself, “Oh, I have this now, there’s nothing I can do to change it, so what do I need to learn and do to get on with life?” And that’s been my thought process ever since. I’ve never had a moment of having to “make peace” with it. It is what it is, now on with life.
Name a stigma-driven irritation.
When someone asks how I got HIV. Asking about transmission is insensitive. Do we ask people how they got cancer? Asking someone to explain themselves and their diagnosis of HIV is actually stigmatizing.
I totally agree and understand, but sometimes I think we can learn from other’s history. It is a sensitive area, granted, Karl.
Communicating openly and asking questions about HIV is important to promote learning and understanding of HIV. But remember, we have to do our part in being thoughtful and supportive——rather than stigmatizing or being offensive——in our responses to situations of HIV disclosure or misunderstandings about HIV. Learning more about HIV is one of the first steps to support those living with HIV. Educating ourselves about the basic facts about the virus, how it is transmitted, and treatment options available to those with HIV. That’s another reason why we created +Life.
I’m elated that you created this program! Say, what has dating been like for you these days?
Well now that I’m “out and proud” it’s a different story for me. But previously it caused great anxiety for me. Again, having to explain yourself over and over to people who believe HIV is to be feared and it’s still somehow a death sentence, and then to face rejection because of it sucks.
So what’s your opinion about PrEP?
I think PrEP is great. I wish it had been around when I was younger before my diagnosis. I would have been on it in a heartbeat! I don’t understand why people who have sex and choose to have condomless sex wouldn’t take it. It’s another tool we can use to help protect others and ourselves.
Good deal. As I said, +Life is an extraordinary concept. What sparked the idea?
It came from the outpouring of support I got when I decided to speak openly about my HIV. I still hear from people on a daily basis thanking me and saying how they wished they could be as brave. I sat down with two friends and a colleague and we decided to create a platform that shows the positive side of life——even if you are living with HIV. We wanted to create a community where people could connect via social media to see and hear people just like them who are living their best lives——who just happen to be HIV-positive.
What support! I’ll be tuning in for your interviews. Karl, who do you consider a hero in the epidemic?
All of those who gave themselves to science and medicine! Those who endured study after study and literally became the guinea pigs so that people like myself didn’t and don’t have to suffer. So many lost the battle trying to help others. Some are still alive but today suffer greatly because of the toll those tests and medicines took on their bodies. They are the heroes of the epidemic!
Tune in to +Life TV: @PlusLifeMedia on social media and by logging on to PlusLifeMedia.com.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @DannDulin.