At 14, Elijah Mack is learning the lessons of Karma, that is, from the HBO Max reality series of that name that had him competing against other teens in a game that emphasizes the importance of good deeds. The series, shot in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, features teens who represent a cross section of America’s youth. Mack, a dancer with an affinity for the beauty and rigor of ballet, didn’t actually come out to the other kids of Karma, but he brought with him his experience as a gay teen in the world, which ultimately offered some contestants the chance to challenge their perceptions about LGBTQ+ people.
Mack (pictured above with his teammate Skylie Thompson in a photo by Tyler Golden) recently spoke with Inside With the Advocate about his experience of being thrust into a wilderness environment without the use of phones and social media and having to rely on face-to-face communication to navigate the competition.
“My strategy was to play the game as best as I could and do the best I could in every challenge, and try to just show myself for my strengths and who I was,” Mack said.
The official synopsis for the series now streaming on HBO Max reads:
“Karma takes eighteen contestants, ranging in age from 12 to 15, completely off the grid away from parents and the normal comforts of home to solve puzzles and overcome physical challenges, with the laws of karma setting the rules. This adventure competition series, hosted by YouTube influencer Michelle Khare, will test the mental and physical stamina of its young contestants as they unravel how their social actions impact their success in the game. Focus, giving, humility, growth, connection, change, and patience are the path to becoming the ‘Karma Champion.’ But more importantly, the players learn one of life's most profound lessons: ‘What you give out, you get back.’”
Early on, Mack was offered the opportunity to test how what he put out in the game would come back to him when he won the first competition, which allowed him to pair the rest of the contestants together for the duration.
“My strategy going into it was ‘Let me just give all of these people contrasts. Like, who is the exact opposite from them and that my work in their favor for them, and they may also butt heads,’” Mack said. “Looking back on it, the teams that I picked were all so perfect for each other because all of them got to connect with someone who they really wouldn’t connect with before.”
“I gave a lot of people their last choice, I was like, ‘Why is this person your last choice? You barely met this person? You’ve known them for 36 hours. How could you make such a strong judgment that you don’t want them as a partner because you haven’t really seen what they can bring to you yet?’” Mack said. “I wanted to give everyone a challenge, but I also wanted to give them an opportunity to learn and grow from something besides themselves, something totally different.”
Regarding his identity, Mack, who said that since the reckoning around police brutality and systemic racism he’s participated in several events with Black Lives Matter, explained that while he is out, he did not come out to his fellow contestants per se.
“As a part of my personality, it just shows. I think some of the kids were definitely taken aback from that because they’re from different parts of the U.S.,” he said. “Some of them are from Middle America, where their ideals and their teachings from their parents might have been to think that, Oh, this person is a threat, or This person is different from me, so I need to get him out because it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
While Mack encountered kids who may have initially viewed his being gay as something other, he was able to change some hearts and minds by being true to himself, he said.
“I think my presence on the show changed the ideas of some of these kids in a sense that I may be different from you, but I’m still the same at the end of the day. I can still hold my own in a competition challenge,” he said. “I can still be wise and smart. I think they all learned that through the contrasts there’s so much similarity between all of us.”
Watch the interview with Mack above. And watch other episodes of Inside With the Advocate, which features an array of virtual stories with LGBTQ+ artists, trailblazers, and allies including Rosie O'Donnell, Emily Hampshire, Harvey Guillén, Ross Mathews, Kalen Allen, Sherry Cola, Fortune Feimster, Brandy Norwood, Bruce Richman, Tonatiuh, Josh Thomas, Ser Anzoategui, the Indigo Girls, Sara Benincasa, Dustin Lance Black, Alphonso David, Jonica "Jojo" Gibbs, Lena Hall, and Mary Lambert.