Article I did for Queeried.com.uk
Find Out What Happened Next With Project Runway’s Jack Mackenroth
Whilst many cast members from Project Runaway soon get forgotten one who has remained firmly in the spotlight is the HIV-positive gay designer Jack Mackenroth.
Forced to leave the series early due to a MRSA infection on his face, Mackenroth definitely had the potential to win if he’d remained, but unlike some who would have dwelled on it Jack has instead put all his energy into doing what he loves most – making the most of his life.
And he’s doing it in many ways, ranging from competitive swimming to creating a brand new reality show, Queens of Drag and giving speeches about his HIV-positive status as part of the HIV education initiative, Living Positive By Design.
You have become one of the most celebrated cast members of the TV series, Project Runway. What do you feel it is about you that makes people drawn to you, and do you feel that what they saw of you on TV is the true you?
I do feel that the way I was portrayed on TV was a very accurate part of my personality. I think I am a little bit wackier than they made me out to be but you have to remember that we are surrounded by cameras all the time so it’s hard to let yourself go completely. Plus, we are so focused on sewing that we really don’t have time to be doing high kicks in the workroom. Though, I did a few.
I think people responded well to me on the show for a variety of reasons. First of all I was kind and helpful to the other designers which is a bit atypical in a competition. But I went into the whole experience just wanting to get the most out of it and enjoy the process. I truly believe in sharing the spotlight. I still rope many of my friends from the show into different projects that I do.
I also think many people appreciated my openness about my HIV status and I’m sure the unfortunate way in which I left the show was very memorable to a lot of people.
You had to leave close to the end of the fourth season of the show due to a MRSA infection on your face. Did you at all think about ignoring it and continuing on to finish the show, and was there a sadness when you realized you had it and would have to leave the show prematurely?
It wasn’t really a choice. MRSA is very serious and very contagious. What the viewers don’t really understand is that we filmed a challenge every other day. There were no days off. So the infection in my face may have looked like it advanced over a period of weeks but really is swelled up in a matter of days. There was no way for me to get the medical attention I needed and stay on the show. By the time I was better I had already missed 2 challenges. Plus I was also concerned about the other designers and the crew. We were all so exhausted and sleep deprived I didn’t want to put anybody else at risk.
However, that does not mean that it was not excruciatingly upsetting to have to leave. When I came to the realization that I had to go, I sat down with Tim Gunn and the producers and I was crying uncontrollably for hours. Good times. Tim was very supportive and always has been ever since.
How do you think the season would have ended if that had not happened? Do you think there would have been much difference from how it turned out for you and the show? Do you think you would have been the winner?
I am not so arrogant to say, “I would have won.” However I do think I would have had a decent chance at being a finalist. You also have to remember that the show is heavily produced and not completely “real”. The best designs don’t always win and the worst designs aren’t Auf’d so it’s impossible to say what might have happened. I really just wish I could have stayed longer because I was having so much fun. Our season’s cast was a blast. Honestly I think the best person won. Christian Siriano is a genius and obviously the most successful winner of Project Runway in history. I adore him.
Twenty years ago, on the day of your initial diagnosis of being HIV-positive, what was your feeling? Did you feel at that time that your life was forever changed?
Yes. I was diagnosed 20 years ago and I honestly thought I would be dead within a few years. It was not unrealistic at the time to believe that to be true. People were dying all around me. There were very few treatments back then so I just assumed I would have no future. I was wrong. The best is yet to come.
What advice would you give other HIV-positive men when they go on dates? What has been the best way to disclose your status?
That’s a difficult question and I am asked that all the time. There is really no right answer. I am an extremely open and honest person, so as soon as I became comfortable with it I started talking about it. Before I went on Project Runway, I always disclosed on the first date. As cliche as it sounds–honesty is the best policy. I truly believe that. For some people HIV is a deal breaker. I understand that. But why waste time on someone who is ultimately going to reject you anyway? I also try to remind HIV-positive people that when they disclose their status, even to one person, they are helping to fight the stigma for the entire HIV community. More than likely they will also find a lot of support through disclosure. I recommend telling the world on a a popular television show. It saves a lot of time.
In terms of outreach regarding AIDS awareness to the younger generations, what do you think is the best method of breaking through the message of safe sex to youth?
We need to remind them that there is no cure for HIV and though the medications may be more effective now there can still be side effects. There are also a host of other STDs besides HIV. Everyone should be responsible for protecting themselves. I also advise people that just because someone says they are HIV-negative doesn’t mean it’s true. 1 out of 4 HIV-positive individuals in the US do not know their status and people lie. It’s unfortunate but it’s true.
Is there one accomplishment in your life, so far, that you feel the most proud of?
I think being open about my HIV-positive status on Project Runway helped a lot of people. I’m very proud of that. I have received emails from a number of people that were going to kill themselves because they found out they were HIV-positive and then they either saw me on TV or found me online and they didn’t go through with it. That’s amazing and incredibly humbling.
In the past couple of years, you have started to work on the other side of television. You have finished filming a pilot for a design-inspired TV show with your co-star of Project Runway, Kevin Christiana, in addition to helping to produce Queens of Drag: NYC. Now working on the opposite side, how has that changed your perception of the television world?
God yes! It’s kind of a bummer because I loved Reality TV but I can never watch it in the same way again. I know how staged and manipulated some of it can be. I have also learned even more about the power of editing. It’s a magical tool. I’ve come to understand how difficult it is to get a show on the air. With the advent of Reality TV, basically every talented person I know is “working on a show idea.” I have yet to see any of them on the air.
Can you tell us about the new show you’re working on, Queens of Drag: NYC?
It’s amazing. We just finished editing the pilot and now we are in the process of pitching it to networks. You can check out our Queens of Drag website and become a fan on the Queens of Drag Facebook fan page and see all the info on our fabulous cast. Basically we follow the lives of the top working drag queens in New York, both in and out of drag. It’s sort of a Real Housewives type show but with famous drag queens and less make up. We film the glamorous side of the art form and the struggles the “girls” face as they try to “make it” as a performer in New York. It’s dazzling, touching, heartfelt, inspiring and really fascinating. They are all unique and incredibly talented and intriguing. We are really proud of it.
You have done so many things in your life. What made you want to transition from one into another? Do you feel that many of these industries are interrelated, or is there some kind of motivation behind your professional turns?
I have always been interested in so many things–fashion design, illustration, painting, modeling, acting, TV production, HIV advocacy, writing, public speaking–the list is really endless. So I am open to any opportunity that come my way. If it seems like a good idea at the time then I go for it. I work best when I have about 10 different projects going on in my life at once.
Living Positive By Design seems to have been an opportunity for you to discuss with people one of the more personal aspects to your professional career. What is your comfort in discussing your HIV-positive status with complete strangers?
I have absolutely no discomfort talking about my HIV status. I am well educated about the disease and I know that my health is amazing and I can do anything I want as long as I take care of myself. I think the more a person talks about it, the more comfortable they become with it. With my Merck partnership, Living Positive by Design, I have given speeches in front of thousands of people where I discuss my HIV status. If someone has a problem with it then that’s their issue. I have enough to think about. I’m not worried if someone is going to judge me. Life is too short.
In all of your travels, both professional and personal, what would you say would be your favorite, and why?
I swim competitively, so I love traveling internationally for big swimming competitions. My favorite is the Gay Games. I have been to every Gay Games since 1990. They’ve been held in Amsterdam, Sydney, and Vancouver, just to name a few. This summer they will be in Cologne. I just started training again two weeks ago with Team New York Aquatics (TNYA.org). It will be a blast. Although right now me body is hating me.
Do you have limitations to maintaining your physical fitness routine, or are you able to swim and workout at your leisure and pace?
If you are asking if I have physical limitations–then no. I work out harder than most people I know. The only limitations I have on training is my schedule. Sometimes its hard to fit everything into my day. I often swim at 6 in the morning, because it’s the only time I can do it.
You have lived in New York for so long. What has been the appeal of staying there than anywhere else in the States?
I wanted to live in New York City ever since I was a teenager. I’ve lived here for almost twenty years and I will never move until I retire to a gay assisted living facility in Palm Springs and gain 300 pounds. I just love the diversity and the energy and the pace of the city. Some people find it overwhelming but I thrive on it. I have made amazing friendships and created my life here. Plus, if you want to be taken seriously as a fashion designer in the US, you really have to be in New York. Just ask Tim Gunn.