Every day, Raif Derrazi balances bodybuilding, speaking to his thousands of followers on social media, and hosting a fitness segment on TV. Derrazi describes himself as an introvert in public; however, YouTube lets him be unfiltered about dating, wellness, and living with HIV.
Two things that bother Derrazi about the misrepresentation of HIV are the stigma with dying and emphasizing a cure, which make people abandon the conversation. But he lets his 18,000-plus YouTube subscribers in to a daily dose of how being HIV positive is different today, and how one can be a bodybuilder while advocating for the issue.
His platform doesn’t necessarily just focus on HIV—followers reach out for advice in dealing with a sexual experience and diet tips. Being an influencer can be rewarding and overwhelming with the positive feedback and answering questions. When asked about how he takes good care of himself, Derrazi laughs and says, “Isn’t that the ten-million-dollar question?”
Of course, like most people, Derrazi is relearning the meaning of balance under COVID. Derrazi has lost jobs and influencer partnerships during the pandemic, which has meant he has had to hustle even more, putting himself under more stress. People close to Derrazi worry about his vulnerability to COVID. But when it comes to bodybuilding, Derrazi gasps with an upbeat tone that it’s been hard to discipline himself without the gym and competitions, especially being at home most of the pandemic.
“I just realized how little discipline I have if I don’t have a competition that I’m getting ready for, or, you know, the gym to go to everyday that’s kind of like this place that’s only for working out,” he says.
Before the pandemic, Derrazi was taking stock of his life in regard to physical health, after knowing his status in 2012. In a video on his YouTube channel uploaded in 2018, Derrazi explained some of the symptoms he felt before his diagnosis, including fatigue, blisters in his mouth, and muscle loss. At the time, Derrazi wasn’t thinking of sexually transmitted infections and assumed that he was in a monogamous relationship—which turned out to not be true.
Derrazi didn’t have insurance, and Los Angeles’ Healthy Way LA program helped him get access to a doctor. Once he was able to see a doctor, Derrazi was diagnosed with HIV. A week later, the doctor told him—on his 27th birthday—that he also had AIDS. It took him a short time to cope with his diagnosis, as his doctor reassured him that it’s a manageable condition with the proper care and medications. From there, Derrazi’s mindset changed, which led to major changes in his life—and one of them was the desire to build physical strength.
Prior to his diagnosis, he would go to the gym, doing basic exercises for energy; he didn’t know his energy loss could be attributed to HIV/AIDS. Over time, he dove deep into watching online videos of other fitness influencers. A personal trainer at LA Fitness noticed his progress in the gym and approached him about individual training and competing as a bodybuilder.
Derrazi described his trainer to be the stereotypical bodybuilder with the muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s a societal assumption that a bodybuilder’s muscular physique is non-natural due to steroids, but his trainer introduced him to federations that monitor for performance-enhancement drugs.
Men’s physique is the division of bodybuilding that Derrazi competes in. Rather than focusing on being huge, the physique division evaluates a body’s leanness and proportions. Derrazi walked off the ellipticals and picked up bench pressing, deadlifts, and squats; that’s where he learned to properly take measures toward physical strength and being good to his body. Before becoming pro, he placed first and second in the beginning of his career and competed for five federations. In the fall of 2019, he competed for a bigger federation, INBA PNBA Natural Bodybuilding, at Muscle Beach, and won third place.
On Instagram, he shared the news that he’ll be competing in the Gay Games at Hong Kong in 2022. The Gay Games promotes LGBTQ+ inclusion, with competitive games worldwide since 1982. Originally, Derrazi was approached to be a brand ambassador for the Gay Games by a board member who read his cover story in A&U. When bodybuilding was listed on the program, he also decided to compete while interviewing people and representing the U.S.
Gay Games is a year away, and the pandemic has him losing muscles; currently, he’s investing more energy into working out at home with a Peloton, dumbbells, and weight bench. “I feel like there’s a sense of accountability with my followers and subscribers,” he says. “For example, I gained 35 pounds. I can’t continue to promote and talk about fitness and health and wellbeing while I’m kind of being negligent about my own. It reminds me that I’ve got to stay on track.”
Next to his HIV medications, he regularly consumes a number of supplements: amino acids, creatine, whey protein, and many more. Supplements have become a contentious topic for HIV-positive athletes, because some doctors discourage them from taking it. The conversation led to Derrazi showing his doctor the list of supplements he takes, and he was given the stamp of approval.
Every six months, Derrazi regularly goes to the doctor for blood and lab work, next to getting ready for competitions. Over the years, there hasn’t been a negative impact on his body, kidney, and liver with intake of both supplements and medications. At the end of the day, Derrazi believes that people are in control of their decisions when it comes to their health, whether it’s seeking a second opinion or working with your doctor.
“The way my doctor explained it is creatinine is what they look for in lab results for kidneys. If the creatinine is elevated, you might have issues with the kidneys. When taking creatine, the creatinine level might go up; but it’s not necessarily [a problem]—there’s correlation with kidney problems, not causation.”
Living with HIV for almost nine years, Derrazi has become undetectable, meaning he cannot transmit the virus to another person sexually. In 2016, he started a YouTube channel that focuses on reclaiming his health while vlogging his career as an influencer and pro bodybuilder. In a couple of videos, he films medical visits where his HIV doctor walks him through medications and physical check-ups—even during COVID—to ensure he’s taking care of himself. In other intimate settings, he discusses with his audience what he reads about HIV-related news in connection to his personal life, like disclosing to a potential partner.
YouTube allowed Derrazi to take an educational approach with his content while connecting with other people who have those similar experiences. One of the people he connected with was Karl Schmid, another HIV-positive and Australian journalist, who’s the founder of +LIFE, a “local-ish” TV show on the ABC7 network on ending HIV stigma and pursuing wellness. Derrazi hosts a small segment with +LIFE interviewing fitness experts and demoing a workout, while on the other half of the show Schmid talks to the HIV community and doctors. There hasn’t been necessarily a focus on HIV-positive athletes, but moving forward it was an idea that he thought of on the spot to pitch to Schmid.
“I’m creating visibility for our community, showing that someone living with HIV is healthy, fit, and can be considered as a fitness expert,” he says. “That doesn’t limit you in that regard.”
His followers look at Derrazi as someone who gets them on the other side of the screen.
Lately, he’s juggling his social life, relationship, and working 60 hours a week, which makes it hard for him to be consistent online. Derrazi told himself that he needed to reset and believes social media will always be there for him to return—till today, he still gets many responses and is at a place right now to slowly get back on track.
“Wow, I’ve got to keep going. These people are kind of looking to me—‘We need you to speak to us, help us, and make us feel better about ourselves,’” he says. “If I don’t post, I feel like I’m letting these people down who come to me for this kind of content.”
In 2012, Derrazi feared dying; today, he has reinforced his health and is currently learning a new thing—how to be consistent as an influencer and pro athlete with this online medium. Even though he’s open about his status, Derrazi would never tell an HIV-negative person it’s their obligation to educate others on what it is like living with HIV, because it’s a personal experience and everyone handles it differently.
“The reality is, it’s nowhere near the way it was in the ’80s. But we certainly don’t have a cure yet,” he says. “It’s certainly still an epidemic—there’s just a lot more education that needs to happen.”