Canada’s ABOUT Magazine interview

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Cover Shot

Project Runway Season 4 Contestant Jack Mackenroth forgoes sleep to chase success outside the “competition reality show” bubble. Link to abOUT site.

INTERVIEW BY DUANE BOOTH / abOUT

When it comes to so-called “competition-based” reality shows, few are more popular than Project Runway. Like American Idol, Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, these shows have made stars of their series regulars and have given their gay contestants – many of whom get long forgotten quickly – a quick boost of notoriety. Amazing Race gave Reichen Lehmkuhl his 15 minutes of fame (stretched to 30 on the back of his relationship for former boybander Lance Bass when he came out) and Runway brought Christian Siriano to fame along with a resurgence of the word “fierce.” One of those contestants who had the potential to be a breakout star was Jack Mackenroth.

His sexy looks, personality, buffed body and design prowess made him an early favorite on Season 4 (eventually won by Siriano). Mackenroth, who was open about his HIV-positive status, however, pulled out of the show a few episodes in after he was hospitalized for treatment of a contagious staph infection. He has since fully recovered.

Now the designer, who turns 40 in April, continues to cultivate and build on his fame and success brought on by his time in the reality show bubble.

It’s been a couple years now since we saw you on Project Runway. Bring us up to speed on what you have been up to since you left?

Wow! It has been crazy. I can barely remember the whirlwind. Besides a ton of appearances and speaking engagements – here’s the laundry list: I was in an episode of Law and Order SVU as a corpse (super fun!). I had a cameo in the Sex and the City movie (love SJP!). I was in a video for the band Telling on Trixie. I did a Saturn commercial for which I made my own outfit inspired by the car. I’ve been on magazine covers. I made a dress for Heather Tom for the daytime Emmys and walked the red carpet with her. I went on the Today show with Tiki Barber. I’ve designed t-shirts for three different companies. I covered this past New York Fashion week and got to interview amazing designers and models for LOGO’s PopLab ….

One of the most exciting things I’ve been a part of is the Living Positive By Design HIV education campaign (livingpositivebydesign.com) which is sponsored by Merck. I hope to fight the stigma of HIV by increasing visibility and speaking openly about living with HIV for almost 20 years. I’ve been touring all over the country with the program for the last year. Our next stop is Seattle in May. I also just found out that I will be developing a design TV show with Monument TV and Film and Project Runway alum, Kevin Christiana. We have been pitching various incarnations of the show and are finally inking a deal. That is very exciting! I also just signed on as the east coast correspondent for Fashion News Live (myFNL.com) so I will be covering all things fashion in New York.

And my latest project is co-hosting the internet radio show POZ I AM every Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST. Listeners can log onto blogtalkradio.com/poziam and hear the live stream. It’s a great show and source of information for the HIV community. I am also in the middle of training for the Outgames in Copenhagen. I am swimming all the breaststroke events and some sprint freestyle. In my spare time I blog about random stuff I am doing or cool artists and stuff I find online. (blog.jackmackenroth.com/) Whew! Did I get it all? Oh, and it’s my 40th birthday on April 29. No, I don’t sleep.

Evidently not. And an early happy birthday! Looking back, what was the experience on Project Runway like?

It was surreal and amazing. We were in this bizarre fashion vacuum with no external distractions. No phones, no TV, no music or reading material. We couldn’t even talk to the production staff. We were only allowed to talk to each other. However it was conducive to some amazing friendships. I am still tight with Kevin, Kit, Sweet P, and Christian. It was like fashion camp on crack. I don’t think the public even understood a modicum of how insanely difficult it really was.

Of course everyone wants to know what Heidi and the judges are like. Give us some dish!

Heidi is just like you see on TV. Gorgeous and kind, although she has a kind of goofy, quirky side. Maybe it’s her German roots. Maybe Seal is giving her a little special somethin’.
Nina is the one who gets the bad rap. Everyone thinks she is mean, but in real life she is probably the warmest one. Whenever I have seen her since the show she always gives me a big hug. I adore her.
Michael is witty as hell, but he was obviously there to do a job. He was the best judge technically because he knows all about construction, but I don’t even think he knows our names.
Tim is a delight. He is everything you would expect him to be. And off camera he’s hilarious. He loses a tiny bit of his prim and proper persona and he can dish with the best of us.

Though you emerged as an early favorite,  Christian Siriano ended up winning your season and became a media darling. Do you ever look back and say “I should have stayed. That could have been me?”

Truthfully, yes. If I would have stayed I think I could have made a good go at the final three, but everything happens for a reason. Christian is an amazing talent and I knew he was going to win early on. I’m so proud of all he has accomplished. My life is headed more into the TV realm and I don’t think that would have happened if I had won. So, in a way, it was a lucky accident.

Siriano recently said Runway gave him a forum, but it probably isn’t the best outlet to go if you want to become a serious designer. Do you agree?

Well I have talked to him about that. There is a bit of an illusion created that you can win a reality TV show and become the next big fashion designer. It’s not realistic, especially in this economy. To really launch a line on a massive scale takes hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. Christian is a bit of a fluke because he makes such great TV as well. There is rarely such a huge payoff for such a little bit of time spent working in the industry. To guarantee longevity in fashion design it’s probably best to go about it the old-fashioned way (pun intended). You go to design school and practice your skills and start working for another designer and learning the business. Then you branch out on your own if you want to eventually.

Even though you obviously did your time on a reality show, seriously, isn’t the whole genre getting a little tired?

You know, I thought that, too, when we were pitching our design show, which is a reality show though not competition- based. There still seems to be a huge viewership for these types of programs and they are very cost effective to make. You don’t have to pay the talent (we weren’t given a penny) and there is very little production cost. I am a big fan of the shows that involve talent, like Runway or American Idol or Top Chef. When it becomes trashy voyeurism, I tend to lose interest. Shows like The Bachelor or I Love New York or that awful one with Brett Michaels (Rock Of Love) are just train wrecks.  Even Bravo is pushing it with the whole Real Housewives series. I think the people that go on those shows aren’t in on the joke that everyone is laughing at them, not with them.

Have you been doing much designing since you left the show?

Not as much as I would like, but there are only so many hours in a day. I am working on a group fashion show with Kit (pistol) Scarbo, Kevin Christiana and Sweet P from my season of Project Runway that will be held in Miami in May. Other than that I am just doing commissions and specialty design projects. I just don’t have time (or the financial backers) to do a full line right now. I just got asked to design a gown for the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bebe Zahara Benet, but they wanted it in four days for free. Not gonna happen. People assume that once you are on a reality show you are famous and that translates to becoming rich. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. We all go back to work.

While you were on PR, you were also one of only a few HIV-positive people to be on a reality show. Did you feel an extra bit of responsibility or drive to succeed on the show because of that, like having to present a certain image of poz people?

Yes and no. I knew I would be looked to as a role model because there are so few people who are public about their HIV status and I was happy to take on that responsibility. I didn’t necessarily feel extra pressure to succeed in order to “represent,” but I did want to be seen as my best self. I think I was edited pretty true to life on the show. I am an HIV- positive man who takes care of myself and pursues all my goals and dreams without thinking twice. HIV is not a factor.

It has certainly given you a platform to talk about living poz.

Yes. It has given me the opportunity to speak to numerous people in public arenas. I also get at least a dozen e-mails a week from poz people who need advice or just want to commiserate or just say thank you. I am proud to say I have personally persuaded people to go to the doctor and get tested, and I even talked someone out of taking their own life by explaining that there is a very hopeful future after receiving a positive HIV diagnosis.

Keeping in great shape as you do and all the modeling you do must also help show poz living in a better light?

I hope so. I work out a lot because it maintains my health and my sanity. Plus I have to swim every day to get in shape for the Outgames. When I am physically powerful I feel mentally powerful, as well. I can only be my best self. I certainly don’t mean to glamorize HIV by sending a message that says: “Look at me! I’m a model and I have HIV. It’s a cakewalk!” That’s absolutely not the case. I hope I am sending the message that in many cases HIV is manageable with the right medications and I am one example of someone living a happy, successful life with HIV.

You must enjoy all the attention you receive from your exposure on the show, but please tell us you’re not like another Reichen where there seemed to never be a red carpet without his shoe print on it?

(Laughs) Well I don’t know Reichen, so I can’t comment on that, but I have to say that post-reality, demi-stardom is a hard gig. People have called me a media whore, but in other circles that’s called good P.R. Unfortunately part of the business of marketing yourself as a talent is going to those events and being photographed. It’s tiresome, but you have to do it. The public has a short attention span and if you are not on TV or at all the events they will quickly forget about you.

Had it done wonders for the dating life?

(Laughs harder) Quite the opposite. I think people who have seen me on TV have a preconceived notion about me so they don’t talk to me. Maybe they are intimidated – though they shouldn’t be. I’m a big dork. I thought that I would have guys banging down my door but it’s nothing but crickets. It takes a strong personality to be Jack Mackenroth’s boyfriend. I’m very out there. It takes a confident guy to stand by my side through all the dog and pony shows. That’s why I know when I find him it will just click. Like a camera shutter. Smile and pose.

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