Wire Cover Story: Jack Mackenroth: The Sexiest Face of HIV
We’ve come a long way since HIV/AIDS first appeared on the scene 30 years ago on the West Coast of the United States. Not having any information on the newly discovered virus or the way it spread, most scientists and doctors based their assumptions on the sexuality of the first few infected people – gay men.
Over the course of the past 30 years, billions of dollars in research, prevention, and treatment has somewhat diminished the idea that HIV/AIDS is a gay disease and is, in fact, an epidemic that knows no sexuality, gender, age, or race. Over the years, there have also been a number of technological advances in treatments that have made HIV a very manageable illness.
However, that certainly does not mean that HIV/AIDS isn’t a very big threat, especially for the gay community. Last week, millions of people from around the world came together to commemorate World AIDS Day, celebrate the people who work tirelessly to put an end to this deadly virus, and remember the hundreds of thousands of people we’ve lost.
And for South Florida, it really hit home – at least for us at Wire Magazine. In fact, Miami-Dade ranks third in the country in terms of people living with HIV. And as for the gay community, 1 in 8 white men, 1 in 8 black men, and 1 in 12 Hispanic men in Miami-Dade are living with HIV.
What makes matters worse for us is that nearly three out of four people living with HIV aren’t receiving the proper treatment required to get their viral load down to an undetectable level, which would help prevent the spread of the virus. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, since more than 20 percent of the people living with HIV don’t even know they have it or are transmitting it to their partners!
Basically this means that no matter how well you know someone or how much fun it is to have sex without protection, it is important – in South Florida especially – to always play safe!
Over White Party Weekend, I had the privilege of meeting one of the sexiest HIV/AIDS advocates in the world, former Project Runway contestant and model, Jack Mackenroth.
Jack made his way into the hearts and homes of millions when he appeared on the show as an openly gay HIV positive fashion designer. Since then, he has made some major strides in changing the negative stigma associated with HIV and continues to show the world that being HIV positive isn’t a death sentence. Instead, he has used his status – both celebrity and HIV – to spark change all over the world.
The beefed up stud recently teamed up with The American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) to release a super sexy calendar, featuring incredible photos of Jack in some deliciously provocative poses, and all to raise some much needed funds for the important research amfAR continues to do.
I recently caught up with Jack to get the scoop on his stint on Project Runway, living with HIV, and the gorgeous calendar. Check out what the hunk had to say:
What was your experience like on Project Runway?
I was a working fashion designer for 17 years before I went on the show. At the time I went on Project Runway I was design director at this company called Weatherproof. I sat at a desk and had a very good job but it was fairly boring and not very creative.
Then the show Project Runway came along. I immediately fell in love with the show and went through the insane audition process. I’ve always approached life like, ‘Oh, this might be a really cool adventure. Who knows what’s going to happen?’ I had very realistic expectations and just enjoyed the process. However the process is literally torture. We shoot 14 episodes in four weeks so we never have a day off and we sleep about four hours a night. Everything is filmed and we have no help with challenges. People always ask me if we had help because there is no way you can make an outfit in 12 hours but we did. Some of the designs are jacked up and held together with glue and a prayer.
The best thing was the people I met. I am still best friends with Kevin Christiana, Kit Pistol (Scarbo), and Christian Siriano. They are amazing.
When did you find out you were positive and how did that affect your career path, if at all?
I’m the oldest child of three and my mom always stressed education over everything else, so that laid a great foundation. I was always very goal orientated as a child. It just continued into my adult life. I like to overachieve. I’m always working on about 15 projects at once. I work seven days a week. Even when I was struggling with my sexuality or when I found out I was HIV+ in 1989, I was still getting straight A’s and preparing for my career. That never stopped. I would be unhappy if I didn’t feel I was reaching my potential. Of course, we all have moments where we feel lost. I’ve dealt with depression and low periods in my life, but I have great friends and family and I just ride it out and have confidence that it will get better. Plus, I put on high heels and a tiara when I’m depressed. Sparkle always makes you feel better.
There is obviously a negative stigma associated with HIV. Did that affect your decision to be open about being positive on the show?
No! Actually it made me want to be more vocal about it. As I mentioned, I went onto the show with a healthy, realistic attitude. I knew it wasn’t “real” and I knew all I could control was my behavior and my designs. I was more focused on enjoying the once in a lifetime experience than winning. Honestly, I would have loved to win but, as you can see with past winners, winning the show doesn’t mean much. It’s more about if you are memorable. In a strange way I was memorable because I left early and because I was the first reality ‘star’ to be open about my HIV status since Pedro Zamora who passed away from AIDS in 1994. I knew I could make a massive impact on the HIV community by being out, honest, and show that you can live a happy and full life with HIV.
What has been the response to you being so open about being positive on such a public level?
Aside from one woman about three years ago, who was clearly off her crazy pills, about 99 percent of the response has been amazing. I get about two to three messages on Facebook and Twitter a day from people who are struggling and/or have questions. I respond to every single one. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I take it quite seriously. I know I have changed people’s lives and even stopped people from killing themselves, which is astounding and humbling. I know it really helps a lot of people to see someone who is open about their status and doing well in their life and career. People are really touched by hearing my personal story. I’m glad I can help if they need someone to relate to. That is the most gratifying part of this whole journey.
It seems that HIV treatments have come a long way since it initially appeared on the scene. How difficult was it finding the right regimen and how do you manage it?
Yes! It is a VERY optimistic time for those living with HIV. Deciding on a course of treatment is a conversation to be had with your doctor. Everyone responds differently and has different side effects if they have any at all. I also tell people to educate themselves on various treatments. Sites like AIDSMEDS.com are great for information. Doctors are well educated but they are not gods. It’s important to be your own healthcare advocate. I didn’t have a hard time finding a regimen because when I was diagnosed there weren’t any. I’m on great meds that work really well for me now after a bit of trial and error.
What do you feel is the most important way to stay healthy if you are living with HIV and how do you maintain your health?
It’s pretty simple:
1) Find a doctor you trust and be completely honest with him or her about all your behaviors and other meds and possible side effects.
2) Get your blood work done every three to four months and know your CD4 (t-cell) count and get you viral load to an undetectable level. More and more doctors are prescribing meds as soon as they find out a person is HIV+, because there are less side effects with the newer meds and the belief that waiting for someone’s immune system to be suppressed is sort of an old way of thinking, but that’s a decision a person should make with their physician. Adhere to your meds if you are taking them.
3) Exercise regularly and eat well.
4) Find an outlet for emotional support like a support group or a therapist or friends. Keeping a secret is stressful and not healthy, plus we will only break down the stigma of HIV by talking about it and normalizing it.
There has been a recent spike in the number of people having unprotected sex. Do you think people are no longer worried about contracting HIV? Why do you think so many people avoid getting tested?
I think all these questions can be addressed with the same answer. As treatments get better, many people can have HIV and be healthy and “look” healthy for a long time. Because of this, and because we don’t see the devastation of the epidemic in the news like we did in the 80s and 90s, people have gone back in the closet about their HIV status. This fuels the stigma. This also contributes to the lack of discussion about HIV. People feel judged and less than and dirty. Some people think that it’s not a big deal anymore, which is false, so they are less cautious. And others don’t want to know their status for fear of judgment.
Being realistic, what is your advice for people who want to avoid contracting HIV? Abstinence is just not an option for most people… At least not for me!
Simple… Assume everyone you are with is HIV positive. Condoms work.
How has being positive affected your love life?
I guess there are a million reasons not to want to date or have sex with someone. I’m sure I’ve been rejected because of my HIV status. It doesn’t faze me in the least.
Do you think it is possible to have a successful positive/negative relationship? How would/do you make it work?
YES! Make sure the HIV+ person has an undetectable viral load and use condoms.
I understand that you recently released a calendar to raise funds for amFAR. How did that come about?
I had amassed all these amazing images from fabulous photographers, so I just decided I should make a calendar for charity and put my (ass)ets to good use. The calendar begins in January 2012 and continues through May 2013. Each month features a different photographer with a very different style. Photographers taking part in the project include Adam Bouska (NOH8), Rick Day, Carsten Fleck, Frank Louis, James Franklin, Karl Giant, Tommy Synnamon, Mattheus Lian, Richard Gerst, Ray John Pila, Sonny Tong, Thomas Evans, Krys Fox, and Preston Cros with over 17 amazing images in total.
I’m autographing and personalizing every copy and 100% of the proceeds go to The American Foundation for AIDS Research (www.amfar.org) to help find a cure for AIDS. I hope to raise a few thousand dollars for amfAR and so far the response has been amazing. You can purchase the calendar on my website at:
Why is this calendar important to you?
I want to show that someone living with HIV is not damaged goods. It’s a human disease. I think I’m definitely one of the most visible HIV activists working today. To show someone healthy and even sexy dispels a lot of misinformation. The stigma of HIV is massive which is why we need to keep talking about it and putting it out there. It’s gonna take more than just a calendar but every little bit helps and one person can make a massive difference. POZ Magazine just nominated me as one of the TOP 100 THINGS WE LOVE in association with HIV. It’s an incredible honor.
I have heard that you’re currently writing a memoir. With all of your many pursuits how do you find time to write? What has been the hardest part of writing the book for you?
(Laughing) I ask myself the same question. It’s called “Making Lemonaids” and it’s a snarky, sarcastic tell-all about my life. It’s meant to be funny, but it also addresses living with HIV for 22 years and how I used optimism and humor to cope. I really don’t have much time to write. Most of it is finished but I’m taking a month off at the end of the year to complete it. And it’s only 28 pages. More of a pamphlet really. With lots of pictures. Kidding.
What’s it like being named one of the Sexiest Men Alive by DNA magazine? Are you comfortable with that moniker?
(Laughing) I think the key to my longevity as a reality ‘star’ is that I don’t believe the hype and I don’t take myself seriously as a celebrity. I love what I do and I love that I can affect and help others. I truly, truly appreciate my fans, and though I don’t have time to respond to all my Facebook messages and tweets (@jackmackenroth), I read them all and if someone has a serious question about design or especially HIV I always write back. I take my responsibility as a role model very seriously. I’m glad people find me sexy. We all know sex sells, which is why I still do photo shoots. I work hard at the gym and in the pool so I was honored. As far as I know, I’m the only out HIV+ man in that group, so its great once again to show people that HIV is not a death sentence anymore.
What other projects are you working on?
Oh god – so much. I’m doing a movie in January. I have three TV shows in different stages of development – which means nothing until they are on the air. I’ve been doing guest spots on Style’s How Do I Look. I’m promoting my calendar until the end of 2011. I continue to speak all over the country on HIV. Then I finish my book and see where that goes. I do a radio show two times a month called POZIAM and I’m talking to Sirius Radio about doing a once a month LGBT health segment. I’m in talks with two different design houses to come on board as a consultant. I’m training with Team New York Aquatics for a big meet this summer in Reykjavik, Iceland. Is that enough? I’m sure there is more but I can’t even keep up with my life. I need a PR/PA intern if anyone in New York is interested in a couple hours a week.
Anything else you would like Wire Magazine readers to know?
Please follow me on twitter! I was recently awarded BEST GAY TWEETER of 2011 by National Lampoon. I’ll make you laugh every day. I promise.
Photo credits: Photos 1-3 by Ray John & Photo 4 by James Franklin
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