Mzi Dempers' mother died when he was just 3 years old, but he still believes that he "got to have the best" when it comes to his family, the 26-year-old star of "Below Deck Mediterranean" told TODAY Parents.
The South Africa native works as a deckhand on the current season of the Bravo reality show, and he shared in an early episode that after his mother's death, he was adopted by the family for whom his grandmother was a domestic worker. Dempers is Black and his family is white, which he said "wasn't normal at all" in the mid-'90s just after apartheid ended, but his parents and siblings were always very supportive and protective of him.
Before his mother passed away, he said he'd spend weekends at the Dempers' house because his mother worked a lot and his grandmother often cared for him. His mother had to commute to and from the home where she worked a similar job, but his grandmother, on the other hand, lived in a house on the Dempers' property, so he was able to stay with her more easily. He developed "a bit of a bond" with his brother Josh, who's two years older, he recalled to TODAY Parents, the first time he shared his story with media in detail.
When his mom died of an illness that Dempers couldn't remember — "I just know that she was very sick," he said — his biological father didn't take him because they didn't have much of a relationship. It fell to his grandmother, at least at first.
"That's when my parents now almost saw it, in a nice way, as a bit of a sign for them to take me in because I'd already been spending so much time with the family," he said. "I got to have the best of my grandmother and the best of having an actual family."
As a result of what he's been through, he "(places) family very highly," he explained. "I just try to be as grateful as possible for every opportunity that presents itself because I know, coming from where I came from to where I am today ... I owe it all to my family."
Dempers is the youngest of five. His oldest brother is about 50, there's another who's around 47, a sister who's 40 and then Josh, 29.
"Our ages are all so different, so when we were growing up, it was really just myself and Josh. My older siblings would pop back every now and then," he said. "Since we've all grown up, when we do get the time, it's (as if) we're the same age, a bunch of children together trying to have a good time. It really is incredible."
He used to see his oldest brother and sister, both based in Cape Town, for dinner every other week, but that changed when the pandemic hit. His two middle brothers both work in yachting, as well, and they haven't been home for three years.
Thinking about his childhood, Dempers is quick to reflect on being the only Black person in most situations. His dad has told him stories about having to "defend" him, and once, when he wore dreadlocks to his private school, a decision his father supported, Dempers ended up in tears because the kids laughed at him. His brother was quick to call out his friends whenever they used racial slurs.
"It's not something that people were used to seeing," Dempers recalled of the dreadlocks, adding that a lot of people "didn't really understand" why his parents adopted him in the first place. "Everybody in relatively privileged societies has their own take as to what's right and what's wrong. My parents had to deal with a lot."
That said, he's never felt awkward within his family because of his race. The only struggle was when he was first adopted, he was initially hesitant to call his mom "mom" because he'd just lost his biological one. Three to four years passed before he finally started doing so.
In fact, he looks up to his siblings so much that he decided to follow the same career path as two of them. "With my two brothers that have been yachting, just them coming home and seeing them progress from strength to strength within their careers was quite mind-opening," he said.
The boating lifestyle has brought him closer to his brothers, but Dempers' parents find it "a little bit upsetting" that he's home so much less because he's "the last little egg to leave" the nest, he joked.
"At the same time, they're super super happy to see me going in that direction, and they've just been super supportive of it, too," Dempers added. "I think it's quite tough to find a situation like (mine), a family with so many children already and everyone is just so accepting and so wonderful."
“Below Deck Mediterranean” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo. New episodes drop one week early on Mondays on Peacock.