Patterns of His Life
Jack Mackenroth—Designer, Swimmer, AIDS Advocate—Continues to Bring His Positive Message Out into the Open
by Angela Leroux-Lindsey
Jack Mackenroth, the designer, smiles big when I ask him about swimming. We’re meeting for the first time in an office tower in Chelsea, and I recognize him instantly from Season 4 of Project Runway. “I’ve been a competitive swimmer since I was six,” he says, his bright blue eyes keen and expressive. “I have a really hectic life, and swimming is an escape. It’s an hour-and-a-half a day when I can just think about nothing.” He’s being modest, because his time in the pool is about a lot more than distraction—his athletic accomplishments are phenomenal. He’s been ranked in the top 10 by the U.S. Masters twenty-two times; he’s been named All-American three times; he was part of a relay team that broke the national record in the 200-meter mixed medley in 2006; and most recently, he competed in eight races at the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne, Germany, and came home with seven medals.
Have I mentioned that Mackenroth just turned forty-one, and that he’s been HIV-positive since 1989?
“When I get to these big meets, I’m so focused, and I’m just a swimmer, a competitor. But when I sit back and think about it, two of the members of the team [in the 2006 record-setting relay] were HIV-positive. That kind of stuff is really cool. And to have this gay visibility in sports, it sets a great example for gay youth. Hopefully I can be a positive role model and say, ‘Look, I won seven medals in this international sporting event,’ despite the challenges I had as a teenager.”
Despite the fact that an MRSA infection (unrelated to HIV) forced him to withdraw from Project Runway early, Mackenroth’s talent, likability and charming good looks earned him a ton of fans and emerging fame. Like many before him, Mackenroth capitalized on this newfound visibility, but not in the way you might expect—he directed his energy to a selfless cause, launching a national HIV education campaign called Living Positive by Design (in partnership with the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., which manufactures several antiretroviral drugs). Through this venture, Mackenroth travels the country to speak about the importance of having an open discourse about HIV, especially with a doctor, but also with friends and family. Combating stigma is also a big part of his messaging, an issue that looms large over our discussion in the wake of a horrifying spate of homophobia-induced teenage suicides. “It’s heartbreaking,” Mackenroth says. “When you’re a teenager, when you’re [being bullied], it’s really hard to see that there’s a future. For me, swimming really saved me. I went to a really small high school, and everyone knew who I was, I was the gay one in my class, I was an effeminate boy, and I was the punching bag. So the only thing that kept me from losing it was that I was good at swimming.” Now, years later, Mackenroth’s incredible success as a designer and athlete sets an outstanding example for young people and is living proof that HIV doesn’t have to limit physical or creative potential.
As part of Living Positive by Design, Mackenroth visits American cities that are hardest hit by the HIV epidemic, which, according to the CDC, affects more than one million people in the U.S. These areas are often less progressive on social issues, and may not be exposed to the kind of fundamental information that Living Positive by Design emphasizes: have an open dialogue with a doctor, make sure you’re on appropriate treatment, get your viral load to an undetectable level. Mackenroth’s honesty with his own disease management touches people in every city. “I got a message from someone who said, ‘Thank you so much for what you do, you’ve inspired me to tell my family, to move forward and be honest.’ Hopefully I can be an example of someone who has maintained a healthy lifestyle, and proof that HIV can be a manageable illness—if you know. It’s when you don’t know that your T cells drop and you get the really high viral load. Knowledge is totally power.”
Another recent statistic released by the CDC estimates that one in five gay men are HIV-positive, but only half of that number have been tested and know their status. The negative associations surrounding HIV still exist, are still pervasive, and at times prevent education that could save thousands of lives. “Coming out as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, we’ve made a lot of progress in those arenas,” Mackenroth says. “If everyone got tested [for HIV], found out their status, and knew, it would start to normalize, a ripple effect would kick in. People would not fear being judged, and would be honest with their partners, their families. I can count on one hand the number of public figures who are out about their HIV status. I’m glad there are people who are making a statement now to gay youth, but I just wish it was every day, that it didn’t take teen suicide to get celebrities out there with positive messaging.”
When Mackenroth was in his early twenties and starting school at Parsons School of Design, as it was called then, there wasn’t really a positive role model for him to look up to. Instead, there was a lot of mystery and misinformation about HIV and its treatments, and it was a tragic time for the HIV community. “I was sort of lost,” Mackenroth says of the year after his diagnosis. “I mean, statistically I knew I’d be dead in five years. I’d just moved to New York, I was poor, I was in one of the hardest schools in the world…for a while I was just treading water. And then I had a lot of friends who died. It’s weird how your brain copes, it sort of normalizes in this gross way that should never happen. After you go to your twentieth funeral, you’re just numb.”
Mackenroth just returned from the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), the largest AIDS-related gathering in the country, where he represented Living Positive by Design. (This year, Orlando hosted the event; Florida has the third-highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the U.S.) He and Merck set up a booth that encouraged attendees to design a six-inch fabric square as part of a Living Positive by Design panel for the legendary NAMES Quilt. “It was amazing—people were really into it, they wanted to express themselves, and maybe hadn’t had a chance to say what HIV means to them, the reasons they attend this conference, why they want to be a part of the AIDS quilt. The final piece turned out amazing.” Mackenroth also meets with members of local AIDS service organizations in all of the cities he visits, continuing to tell his story and inspire others to be visible, to fight the uninformed discrimination that still affects many parts of the U.S. “Don’t own the stigma. Don’t take blame for that,” he says. “Be proud of all aspects of yourself. It may not be your favorite trait, but be proud. I’m proud of how I deal with my HIV, and I’ve been living with it for twenty-one years. By telling my story and showing people how comfortable I am, and to talk about how this is a really hopeful time in terms of all the treatment options that are available, I hope that people will work up the courage to find a support system and get the help they need.”
I ask him about Mondo Guerra, the Project Runway contestant in the current season who recently revealed his HIV-positive status during a challenge. Mackenroth largely paved the way for this kind of disclosure, as he was one of the very first reality show contestants on any program to be open about his diagnosis from the beginning of taping. “I was really proud of him,” he says. “It was great for me to watch, to be in the place of the viewer…it was a really moving moment. For people to relate to that, for someone to identify with what he’s going through, is great.”
Mackenroth’s own career as a designer is essentially on hold while he commits himself full-time to Living Positive by Design and other media ventures, including a Sunday-night internet radio show for POZIAM and a Webisode series on Gay.com called The Queens of Drag: NYC, which is about the daily lives of ten top New York City drag queens. “Right now we’re just introducing the characters,” Mackenroth explains, clearly excited about the project. “We film them in and out of drag, and we go into the mentality behind it—I mean that’s a whole other kind of coming out, and dating, what that’s like. Our ultimate goal is to have a Real Housewives series.” I tell him I would totally watch this and he grins, his enthusiasm infectious. “Their lives are truly interesting! It’s a real art form.” Mackenroth was also recently featured in a GLAAD Award-nominated PSA titled “Healthy with HIV,” which features him swimming, running, and proudly wearing his Gay Games medals while emphasizing the importance of a regimen including daily medication and a healthy diet. It’s inspiring to see someone utilize a modicum of fame as an opportunity to spread awareness about an important issue, and not just seek any excuse to get attention. Mackenroth could easily be pitching a dating reality show (right now he’s single) or banking on his Project Runway recognition to design for as many celebrities as would have him (as other contestants have done). But, he says, even though his schedule is insane, the feeling he gets makes it worth it. “Oh, I think I have to,” he replies when I ask him if he’ll remain a public advocate. “I know I’m making a difference in people’s lives. I was making a good living as a designer before Project Runway, and I’m sure I’ll go back to it. But I’ve always lived my life in terms of, ‘This is an adventure, let’s see where this goes.’ I’m so happy to be participating in this program, because if even one person can see me or visit the Living Positive by Design Web site and decide to share his story with his family, to change his life, that’s really powerful.”
Need more proof of Mackenroth’s dedicated altruism? He told me that he responds to every single e-mail he gets, even if it’s just to say, “Be brave” or “It gets better.” Even before Dan Savage’s Internet video campaign, Mackenroth had written a piece for Out.com’s National Coming Out Day that reiterated the powerful mantra in the form of a letter to his teenage self: “I know right now sucks for you, and it’s really hard, but just know there’s a place for you and you can make a family for yourself, you can choose a family for yourself. There are places like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, where whole communities are thriving and will embrace you for your individuality, and will actually celebrate it.”
Regarding his own future, Mackenroth plans to keep swimming with the group he’s been with since 1991, Team New York Aquatics, and to keep spreading the message of positivity, responsibility, and pride to other members of the HIV-positive community through Living Positive by Design. He describes a moment at a U.S. Nationals, where he saw two octogenarians swim a 100-meter freestyle in under two minutes. “That blows me away—I think it’s just the fact that someone’s doing something they’re really passionate about that moved me.” Clearly, he’s passionate about advocacy, and we’re lucky for it; and we’ll be even luckier if, thanks in part to his hard work, we’re soon able to witness a country that truly accepts the HIV-positive community.
“At the end of my life,” Mackenroth says, “what’s more important—making pretty dresses or helping someone get by?”
Learn more about Jack Mackenroth by logging on to www.jackmackenroth.com.
Learn more about Living Positive by Design by logging on to www.livingpositivebydesign.com.
Visit photographer Francis Hills’ Web site by logging on to www.figjamstudios.com.
Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.