You don’t get to be where Karl Schmid is without being media savvy and camera ready. But when the 37-year old former child actor and LA red carpet host told the entire planet that he’s been HIV-positive for a decade, he had no idea what he set in motion.
Ready or Not, Here Comes Karl!
While Schmid had been thinking about coming out as poz for some time, he decided to reveal his status on a Friday night last March almost on a whim. He liked the way he looked in a photo, then decided to share it to social media, along with a surprisingly candid message.
“Labels are things that come and go,” he posted to Facebook, “but your dignity and who you are is what defines you. I know who I am, I know what I stand for and while in the past I may not have always had clarity, I do now. Love me or hate me, that’s up to you. But, for 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. Your feelings, your thoughts, your emotions count. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I’m Karl Schmid, and I’m an HIV-positive man!”
By Sunday afternoon, Schmid’s disclosure had been shared over 250 times and received more than 3,500 likes. And that was only the beginning.
Although he’s a familiar face to some 350,00 viewers in the Los Angeles area for his ABC-7 celebrity interviews at the Oscars, Golden Globes and elsewhere, Schmid was not a household name to most Americans. His simple and candid revelation is changing all of that — and the conversation that people (especially gay men) are having about what being poz means in 2018.
Yes, it helps that he’s handsome, healthy, articulate and boyishly masculine. He is everything you could want in a poster boy, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how each of those elements contributed to his post going viral. But what seemed to take everyone by surprise, including Schmid, is just how ready the world is for the conversation he wants to have.
A Kid in an Adult World
Much of Schmid’s story seems unlikely: He was born and raised in Geelong, a city he diplomatically describes as “bohemian,” 90 miles outside of Melbourne, Australia to parents he remembers as “lovingly hands-off but deeply supportive and encouraging.” His eldest brother Adam went off to boarding school when Karl was still a schoolboy. Then out of the blue, middle brother Kristian got cast on one of Australia’s biggest TV hits of the day, Neighbours — the same program that launched the careers of fellow Aussies Russell Crowe, Kylie Minogue and Guy Pearce.
“We went from having a whole family around all the time to a completely different kind of life overnight,” Schmid recalls. “Kristian would be gone Monday through Friday with my aunt and uncle in Melbourne, then be at home on the weekends.”
But when he finally got the chance to see where Kristian was spending his time, Schmid was smitten. “For me, it was a huge thrill to walk onto a soundstage where I’d seen all these interiors on TV, and here they were all stacked next to each other,” he recalls. “I fell in love with this amazing world of make believe at seven. The spell of television with the fame and all the excitement was pretty mind-blowing. As a family we were thrust into the limelight, traveling a lot and staying in fancy hotels.”
The family encouraged Schmid to follow his passions. “My grandmother on my mother’s side was and always is very interested in the theater,” he says. “She emigrated to Australia after fleeing the 1956 Hungarian revolution in the middle of the night while being shot at by Russians. My Mom was five or six at the time, and she had to kiss her father goodbye — not knowing if or when she’d ever see him again. They relocated to the other side of the world and didn’t get to see each other again until she was in her 20s. So my grandmother really is the true hero and matriarch of our family and took a very active role with us.”
The next years’ changes were swift and seismic. The family relocated — first to Fiji, then to New Zealand, and the young Karl found himself immersed in drama programs and “little acting things,” he says with a chuckle. “I went to a high school in Christchurch with very liberal photography and music programs; it was all very progressive. I fell into drama and ended up on a kid’s show called Mel’s Amazing Movies.”
This would lead to his own big break on one of New Zealand’s top-rated childrens’ shows, What’s Now?, where Schmid romped on live TV through most of his teens. “I was the youngest there,” Schmid reflects. His exposure to live television would later prove invaluable, but for the moment, a youthful wanderlust plucked Schmid up and deposited him halfway around the world.
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There Is Nothing like a Dame
“Once I turned 18, I decided I wanted to see the world and discover myself, so I moved to London and just worked in bars,” Schmid recalls. “By the time it was all done, I was working in this tiny town outside Glasgow, and I placed a call back to New Zealand, where I was told, ‘No, you’ve been gone a year, that ship has sailed.’ So I returned to Australia instead.”
For a time, Schmid says, life was a blur of work, self-promotion and live events. Eventually, he found his way into event creation and promotion, and his next big break appeared just as serendipitously as the others had.
“I was doing events for a fellow named Michael Shepard and we were doing events for [Australian Cable and Satellite channel] TVOne, and he and I just clicked. Michael was in his 40s, gay and deeply in the closet,” says Schmid. “But while I was there, I got offered a job to travel as Barry Humphries’ personal assistant.”
Now, the name Barry Humphries may not ring a bell for most Americans, but a sizeable chunk of the civilized world knows (and adores) his alter-ego: Dame Edna.
“So I went to meet while they were shooting a commercial for the U.S. tour,” Schmid intones in his husky baritone. “And I knew you never refer to Dame Edna as ‘Barry’ when she’s made up. She sized me up and asked me if I was good with e-mail. She said, ‘I need protecting. Everybody is always trying to get something from me.’ And I said back, ‘Well, you’re a woman with a lot to give.’ A few days later, I got a call saying: Barry would like to meet you.’”
Schmid and Humphries/Dame Edna saw the world together several times over and remain close. But, as Schmid found himself becoming more immersed in production, he also felt an itch to be back in front of the camera.
Simply the Test
Schmid began doing red carpet work for TV Guide, and once he was back in London, finally found enough time to take a dip in the dating pool as well. “I had a good job, I was enjoying my 20s, I had an actor boyfriend who lived in another country, and I was making all the kinds of mistakes you make when you make when you’re having a good time and not paying enough attention, which led to me picking up this… little gift.”
Schmid recalls meeting up with his boyfriend in Japan, “and after I got back, I heard from a friend who said, ‘You probably don’t want to hear this, but your boyfriend has been hooking up.’ I confronted said boyfriend, and asked what was going on. He admitted it — then took the whole conversation down the path of HIV, and I didn’t really think anything. Somehow I left my office in Soho on this miserable October day, walked over to the Dean Street clinic and got tested.”
As the world now knows, Schmid’s HIV test came back positive.
“My first thought was really about my parents,” he says now. “I thought I’d let my parents down. On the ground floor was a conference room, so I tried to call my boyfriend in the States, He wasn’t answering my calls. Then I called a colleague. I never went into self-pity, or said it wasn’t fair. And I didn’t have some digital countdown doomsday clock ticking in my head either. I got very rational. I said to myself, ‘What are we going to do?’ I called my straight, rugby-playing brother living in Warsaw who said, ‘Get yourself to the airport. There’s a ticket waiting for you.’ Then we called my parents, and my grandmother was there, too. She heard the news, and said in her heavy Hungarian accent, ‘Yeah, so what?’”
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This Is the Moment
Soon medicated until the virus was undetectable, Schmid tried to resume as normal a life as possible. Because he believes that being up front about your sero status is an important threshold to cross with dates, he’s had a lot of surprising responses since his diagnosis — including people stopping the date instantly and, on another occasion, having a drink tossed in his face. Small wonder it took him ten years of deliberation and discretion to come out as poz.
But the final steps in that process began when Schmid simply asked someone to snap a photo of him wearing his AIDS Memorial shirt. “I just thought I looked cute in the pic,” he says in that same Aussie accent that charms the entertainment elite.
But once his post was out there in the world, it took on a life of its own. “I had no concept that it would do what it did,” Schmid confesses. “I had – hand on my heart – no clue. And that’s by no means why I did it. I can only say that it felt like the right time to say, ‘Enough.’ I’d spoken to colleagues, some of whom advised me to keep quiet, but it just felt right in the moment. I never have considered myself a public person or someone who has a modicum of fame, so it genuinely surprises me to think of myself of somebody who is somebody.”
When complete strangers posted homophobic remarks “and really had a go at me, I knew word was getting around,” says Schmid. Nonetheless, he describes unburdening himself of his secret as transformative and liberating. And he believes that his post being seen and shared across the globe can only be a good thing, haters be damned. “When people ask about it going viral, I always say, ‘Yes, I’m aware of it, and the 15 minutes I’m in the zeitgeist is a moment that I’m passionate about. I will do whatever I can to make the mark that I can make while I have this opportunity. Now is the time to shine a light on this thing called stigma. Give it another month or two, and the public conversation will have moved on.”
Changing the Conversation
Schmid’s news has once again ignited a debate among gay men about what it means to live with HIV in the Age of the Cocktail. We’re finally discussing how much has changed with the current state of medical science — including that it’s a near medical impossibility for someone who is poz and faithfully taking his meds to infect another person with HIV. Undetectable, say the experts, means the virus is effectively untransmittable. No one in the world of medicine speaks in absolutes, but that’s the closest thing to a guarantee you can get.
It’s a far cry from the rising death toll days when people had yet to comprehend the disease, how it was transmitted or how to treat it — though far too many people continue to act like we are still living in that terrifying era. “People need to understand,” Schmid says, “it’s not 1991 anymore. And we need to have a new conversation because stigma is still damaging too many lives.”
How many more will follow in his footsteps? Magic Johnson came out as HIV-positive in 1991 — when Karl Schmid was 11. Now, nearly thirty years later, we’re still holding out for more poz heroes.
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Last modified: July 25, 2019