Jack Mackenroth is many things: model, actor, athlete, designer and TV star ( having been on the reality show Project Runway ) . However, he is also an HIV/AIDS activist who has started Living Positive By Design ( www.LivingPositiveByDesign.com ) , an educational program about the disease that also emphasizes the importance of having an optimistic outlook on life while managing the illness.
While in Chicago recently ( where, among other things, he attended the AIDS Foundation of Chicago Junior Board's "Design for a Cure" May 7 ) , Mackenroth met with Windy City Times at the W Hotel, 644 N. Lake Shore. He talked about the event, Living Positive By Design, his own seropositivity—and former America's Next Top Model winner Jaslene Gonzalez wearing chocolate.
Windy City Times: How did the connection with "Design for a Cure" come about?
Jack Mackenroth: Well, we reached out to them. Actually, the more interesting story—just to backtrack a little—is how the whole Living Design partnership with [ pharmaceutical company ] Merck came about.
Basically, after I was on Project Runway and was open about my HIV status, I did an article in The Advocate and they asked me about being a role model for HIV-positive people. I've always done things like AIDS walks or swimming to raise money. Merck read the article— [ where ] I said I wanted to do more work in HIV—and the partners said, "Let's talk to this Jack Mackenroth guy." So we worked together to form Living Positive By Design.
The basic infrastructure is sort of similar to how I got to where I am; it's for HIV-positive people. Part of what we do is come to cities like Chicago and meet with service organizations, like CALOR, TPAN [ Test Positive Aware Network ] and Howard Brown [ Health Center ] during this visit. So you meet on a grassroots level and talk to people, and talk about Living Positive By Design. We put our face out there—not that I'm the face of HIV, but I'm a face of HIV and I'm doing well; I'm [ also ] open about it and am trying to fight the stigma by just being out there.
And when we come to cities, we like to tie [ the program ] to events that are happening—and [ Design for a Cure ] is a perfect fit because I'm a fashion designer. I wish I could attend every fundraiser but you have to pick the ones that fit. If I didn't have to sleep, I'd be doing it all the time. [ Laughs ]
WCT: It seems that [ Living Positive By Design ] hits the larger cities. Will you go to smaller cities as well? In a sense, by going to the larger cities, you're preaching to the choir.
JM: I think the issue is that we launched last year and we go the cities with the highest HIV infection rates. You are preaching to the choir but, even listening to the organizations, the message still isn't out there. We still need to keep telling people. It's great to go to smaller cities but I'm only one person. For me to go to Podunk, Somewhere, would be great—but we're trying to reach as many people as we can.
WCT: So do you feel that people have gotten complacent?
JM: Oh, yeah. We talked about this a lot last night at CALOR because there were a lot of young people there. [ According to ] a recent survey, opinions of the disease have gone down, which goes hand in hand. It's a double-edged sword because, with healthcare, there's a lot of treatment regimens to make the disease more tolerable; but you don't see people dying like they did when I was diagnosed in the late '80s. We were really seriously about protection, activism and all that stuff. I think that's why Living Positive By Design is important; you have to let people know that it's still a serious illness and that there are other things you can contract, and there are side effects from medication so it's by no means a picnic.
WCT: Can you take me back to the day you found out you were HIV-positive?
JM: I was in New York City; it was my first year there, in 1991. I developed ulcers down my throat, and I couldn't even swallow water; I couldn't eat. So I went to a regular [ gastrointestinal ] doctor, and he said, "It's really weird for someone your age to have this." I said, "I'm going to school at Parsons, I'm really stressed and I'm not sleeping." So he suggested an HIV test and I said "OK." [ Shrugs shoulders ] I was 20; it wasn't like I had been around the block.
Two weeks later, the doctor said, "Your results came out positive"—and I was just shocked. I quickly thought it could've been a false positive; then, [ a second test ] came back positive. I just remember having that "Oh, my God" moment. At that time, [ because people were dying ] I was hoping I'd make it to 25. My main concern was for my family.
WCT: How did your family react?
JM: I told my mom in 1994, I think. I had a boyfriend who passed away; he died when he was 33. I needed support—and my mom's a nurse, so she's not stupid, obviously. I called her and we had a conversation right after the memorial service. She, of course, cried and freaked out, but I was still doing really well with my health. I had an open discourse with my doctor, I was going to the gym—and we advocate [ things like that ] with Living Positive By Design. It's [ about ] empowering yourself and getting the knowledge so you know what to ask the doctor.
WCT: I want to switch to something a bit lighter: fashion. I was advised to ask you about top spring fashion picks.
JM: Oh, God; I hate this question. [ Laughs ] Let's see—I'll talk about what not to wear anymore. I'm veering away from the Ed Hardy, overdone, bling-bling. No more rhinestones on your outfits. In L.A., everything is shiny and sparkle-y; they're easily distracted there by shiny things. [ Laughs ] I just think that dressing simpler—less True Religion and all that crap—is my thinking.
WCT: Is it true that you designed a Wonder Woman costume out of chocolate?
JM: I think I have photos of it on JackMackenroth.com, and if you Google "The Chocolate Show" [ you'll find it ] . It's like a car show for chocolate. They opened it with this big, huge fashion show—the theme was "Superheroes"—and our model was Jaslene Gonzalez from America's Next Top Model, and she worked it. She had this white-chocolate invisible jet in her hair, and they played the Wonder Woman theme song; it was like a gay dream come true. It was literally a hot mess; backstage, her big star earrings were melting. By the time she went onto the runway, we had to keep mopping her down.
WCT: I have a basic question: What does fashion mean to you?
JM: A drag queen said to me once [ that ] " [ e ] very day what we put on is drag." It's just a representation of who you want to project to the world. That's kind of what fashion is to me: It's art with clothes, and it's representing yourself to the world with how you adorn yourself.
See www.LivingPositiveByDesign.com .