Elijah "Mack" Tyson is a 16-year-old student at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts in Paradise Hills. Last summer, he was sent to the wilderness in Northern California to compete against 15 other contestants, all ages 13 to 15. The show, hosted by Youtube star Michelle Khare, is available June 18 on HBO Max. We spoke with him just before the eight-episode series was released.
San Diego Magazine: What’s Karma about?
Elijah “Mack” Tyson: Karma is a teen reality show where 16 teens gather together in the middle of nowhere, 6,000 feet up on a mountain, no phones, no parents, just us and each other and the laws of karma. We have to overcome mental and physical challenges and battle out our differences to eventually win $50,000 shared between our partners.
SDM: Was everyone going crazy without a phone?
EMT: Definitely. In the beginning a lot of us were having some feels being away from our phones but it was really powerful that we didn’t have that. It gave us a great opportunity to connect with one another on a deeper basis than what we normally would with just like Instagram and stuff. It’s so hard for teens nowadays and that was a good part of the show.
SDM: How did you find out about this show? Why do you think they cast you?
EMT: It was a website ad—I think the title was, “Epic camping adventure.” During the casting process, I didn’t know that it was going to be on HBO Max, or that it would be hosted by a major Youtuber, I just thought it was going to be a fun time camping somewhere. Who wouldn’t want to go camping somewhere? So I signed up and they contacted me and I was just myself and it led me to the end.
SDM: What did you have to do during casting?
EMT: They made sure that the kids were physically fit enough to do the challenges, and were able to swim. They made sure we were healthy. We had interviews online but in the last stage we were all flown up to Fresno where we gave our final statements, they saw us in person for the first time, and they made their final decision on who was cast and who wasn’t.
SDM: Are you a big camper? What’s your favorite place to go?
EMT: I consider myself an outdoorsy person. I love being in nature, at the beach. I’ll go camping at local parks in San Diego. As for my favorite place, I really love Joshua Tree.
SDM: Where was Karma filmed, and when?
EMT: Last August . I was 15. I have to admit the location for Karma was epic, it was super crazy and super beautiful. Like nothing else I had ever seen. It was in Sierra National Forest. The weather was super crazy. As soon as the sun came out it was 89 degrees, and as soon as the sun set it was 40 degrees. The contrast between day and night was something I had to adjust to. The sleeping situation was uncomfortable because the only thing we had was wooden bunk beds, sleeping bags, and one pillow. Each contestant was allowed to bring one personal item. People brought a deck of cards, a ukulele. My item was a sketchbook to doodle. But normally we talked.
SDM: What was the hardest challenge?
EMT: Probably the very first challenge, called the Right to Stay Challenge. It was extremely exhausting. The altitude was 6,000 feet above sea level, so you get less oxygen. I had to adapt, especially being from such a coastal place. The challenge involved swimming in an icy cold lake, grabbing these 20-lb beams and placing them across two different platforms, and walking across and not falling, and it was a race. We were all cold and nervous. If you lost, you went home on the first day. Two people went home, one boy and one girl.
SDM: What lessons did you take away from this experience?
EMT: I think the biggest takeaway from it is, what you give, you get back in the world. The choices you make, any friendships, any ideas you have, the way you communicate in the game—it always had a way of coming back to you and you definitely see that when you watch it.
SDM: For readers who are too old to know any Youtube stars, can you tell us about your host Michelle Khare? Did you know who she was before the show?
EMT: I hadn’t heard of her before the show but a lot of my fellow contestants had been big fans of her. Michelle Khare is supersweet and her morals and beliefs are so strong. She’s so brave and open to stepping outside her comfort zone that it was really inspiring to all of us. She’s famous because she makes viral Youtube videos about trying different things. She goes to a fire department or the military and she trains as if she was going to become one of these people, just for the challenge and to see what these people go through and doing what she normally wouldn’t do.
SDM: Well, after this experience, I feel like your college admission essay has already been written. What are your future goals?
EMT: Currently I’m a ballet dancer. I study dance but this next upcoming year I plan to audition to train at the San Francisco Ballet School, which is extremely prestigious and hard to get into. I won a scholarship to train with them this summer [online because of the pandemic]. So this is a great opportunity for me, I’m super blessed. I see myself doing that in the future, dancing, choreographing, and being happy.
All eight episodes of Karma are available Thursday, June 18 on HBO Max