|Stitching together fashion and HIV education|
|By DAN RENZI
SEP. 25, 2008
Jack Mackenroth entered the world of pop culture as a contestant on Bravo TV’s “Project Runway.” He was embraced quickly as a fan favorite, both for his sharp design skills and his refreshing, optimistic demeanor. (The pecs and biceps didn’t hurt his appeal, either.) Then he came out as being HIV-positive—a first for the show, and a topic that has been rarely discussed on reality-TV since Pedro Zamora in the mid-1990’s.
Unfortulately his role on the show was short lived: during taping of the program he developed a case of MRSA, “methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus,” a highly-contagious (but not HIV-related) staph infection, in his nose and upper lip. As a result, he bowed out of the competition to receive treatment; but his legacy remains, both as a beloved contestant from the show and as an advocate for the HIV+ community.
Mackenroth is now the spokesperson for a national HIV/AIDS educational campaign, called “Living Positive By Design.” Sponsored in part by drug manufacturer Merck, the Blade spoke with Mackenroth about the campaign during his stop in Fort Lauderdale for the 2008 US Conference on AIDS.
Tell me about “Living Positive By Design.”
It’s a really great educational program revolving around HIV/AIDS, that speaks to the HIV-positive community. I talk about how I designed my life, and how I went about facing this illness on my own. I don’t think there’s a lot of role models who are speaking about it, so the program is a method to get people talking about it.
How is the program structured?
We give people a loose road map to manage their disease, by having an open discourse with their doctor, knowing that there are lots of treatment options out there. I was diagnosed over 19 years ago, and the outlook at the time and the treatments available were very bleak. But in order to cope, I quickly partnered with a doctor—the same doctor I still have—and I’ve been lucky, I’ve been healthy. I know that’s not always the case, I don’t want to paint a picture as being glamorous, like “You can be me if you follow these steps!” But hopefully for most people it’s a manageable disease. You just have to take the responsibility of owning it.
With all the progress in treating HIV, you would think people would be more comfortable talking about it.
There’s still a lot of shame around the disease, which is unfortunate. I would use stronger language if I wasn’t being interviewed. People are in denial, they won’t get tested, they won’t go to the doctor, they won’t tell their sexual partners—or anyone—because they are embarrassed or ashamed.
But there was a time when HIV/AIDS was in the forefront of the news. Why don’t people talk about it anymore?
There’s not such a sense of urgency, because people see it as a manageable disease, which we are saying to a certain degree it can be. The messages years ago hit home with us because people were dying a lot. My boyfriend at the time passed away in 1996. When you see all of that and witness it, you listen to the messages, and you take it very seriously. I think now, with this generation, they don’t see that.
Do you think race plays a role? This used to be a disease of gay white men, but now the new infections have shifted to ethnic minorities. Critics say that has a lot to do with the loss of public interest.
Well… I live in Harlem, in New York, and in the ethnic minority communities, the issue is the stigma. They won’t talk about it, they often won’t talk about being gay—period. Some have girlfriends! If you won’t talk about your sexuality, how are you going to talk about a disease you may have?
So how do you eliminate that stigma?
There’s just so many HIV-positive people who don’t talk about being positive. Even at my last job no one knew, and I’m so honest and open about it. But I worked with all straight people, and although it’s not a gay disease, we’re still disproportinatley affected by it, and if I said ‘Oh, I’m HIV-positive,” then everyone would freak out. But that’s because we don’t talk about it. I think we really need to start a dialogue, on an international level.
When you were on Project Runway, you were quoted as saying “I’m HIV positive …
and I’ve never been healthier.” But then you had to quit the show because of an infection. Do you find people doubt that statement?
The MRSA had nothing to do with me being HIV-positive. Anyone can get it, and it is highly contagious. And I monitor my t-cells every three months, and the normal range is 800-1500, and mine has always been around 900. And my viral load is undetectable. Like I said, I’ve been really lucky.