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You Don't Know Jack!

You Don't Know Jack!


Certainly the most poignant moment so far on season 4 of Bravo's runaway hit show Project Runway was the sight of a distraught Jack Mackenroth bowing out of the competition due to health reasons. (Many fans had already picked up on the rumor, first reported in New York's Daily News, that the openly HIV-positive Mackenroth had suffered from a staph infection in the midst of filming.) But there was an even bigger mark that he left on the world. The 38-year-old Mackenroth, who's been positive since 1990, gave the American public a new look at HIV, not only challenging expectations of what a 'sick' person looks like but showing the complexities and seeming contradictions of living with the disease as well. Numerous lingering shots of his shirtless body firmly established him as the resident hunk--and a lovable one at that. Yet his apparent robust health was in part thanks to a successful medication regimen, as viewers would see when he lined up about a dozen pill bottles on his bed in one episode (most actually contained only vitamins, he says) and methodically took his meds before dashing off to 'make it work.' Today, an ebullient Mackenroth says his health has never been better, and he's geared up to face life's next challenge head on, whether Heidi Klum will be judging him or not. (He's been invited to audition for season 5 because of the unforeseen circumstances this season.) The longtime New Yorker and Seattle native has already survived not only HIV but a difficult childhood, including his parents' divorce and his unhappy struggle as an offbeat teenager trying to fit in as one of the few scholarship students at Lakeside, the same posh private high school Bill Gates attended. He learned to fight for himself and thrive, going on to the University of California, Berkeley, and then to Parsons School of Design, which led to a successful career during which he opened his own shop in New York City and designed menswear for various labels, including Tommy Hilfiger and Slates. How has sudden fame treated you? The part I really like is I get a lot of e-mails from people who are struggling with HIV or people with other difficulties--people saying, 'Thank you for being honest and open and on TV. It's really inspired me to do things, and it gives me strength.' Any negative reaction to your HIV announcement on TV? Not really--apart from people on blogs who make stupid comments. Now that Dale [Levitski from season 3 of Top Chef] and I are kind of seeing each other, people are like, 'Oh, Dale's so brave. He must really love Jack for risking his health.' People who are ignorant say stupid things. How did the other contestants react when you told them you were positive? The thing is, I never told them--because there was really no time to do it. I talked about it in my [solo, on-air] interviews, and after the show was over I e-mailed the entire cast. They were all amazing. They were like, 'You're awesome.' 'I appreciate your honesty.' 'I love you even more.' Let's go back further in time. How did you find out you were positive? I was having ulcers in my throat, so I went to a gastro doctor here in New York. He actually tested me [for HIV] without telling me. And he basically just sat me down and he goes, 'You're HIV-positive.' He was a jerk about it. I'm sitting there, I'm 20 years old, and I'm like, 'Oh, my God!' I didn't cry. I thought, Fuck! What the fuck! And back then--that was 1990--the prognosis was really bleak. I just figured I'd never make it to 25, but I ended up finding some great doctors who really helped me along. Were you totally surprised by the diagnosis? I remember thinking, There's no possible way! I haven't engaged in any risky behavior. I was only 20. I'd slept with such a small number of people that I was really, really shocked. Actually, I can work back, and I know exactly when and where it happened. In Berkeley, I caught pneumonia, which wasn't such a huge surprise, because I have asthma as well. I think I was actually seroconverting. How did you deal with the fear once you found out you were positive? The human mind can deal with really intense things. And in a sense, when people are dying all over the place, it actually--in a horrible way--becomes commonplace. Yes, it's devastating. You would go to see the [Names Project AIDS Memorial] Quilt, and it's just horrific. All my friends, people around me, were dying all the time, and there's nothing I could do about it. You can't function with that weight on you. So your mind has to find a way to cope. What were your coping mechanisms? I think [my competitive] swimming helped. I think friends are a huge support system. The gay community really rallied too at that point and was really strong. And there was a lot of activism going on. And what about today? How do you feel about where that kind of activism and energy has gone? I think people have become apathetic--because you can see people like me. I look really good. I take really good care of my body. I think I look good for my age. And I certainly look good for someone who's been HIV-positive for going on 18 years. But don't let that fool you. Having HIV is still not fun. I have to take my pills wherever I go. It's still not a picnic. I run into people all the time who are like, 'Well, you don't look sick.' What the hell does that mean! That's so stupid! Young people now aren't educated like they used to be. I think it's really shocking. I had a partner die. He was 250 pounds! He was a huge, hulking guy. He never found a regimen that worked for him. He constantly had intestinal problems. We were out on Fire Island, and he said, 'I don't feel good.' We went back to New York, he checked into the hospital, and he was dead two weeks later. I get a lot of e-mails, especially now, from people who have recently seroconverted, and I always say, 'Listen, you can still do amazing things. Hopefully, you'll find a great doctor, and you'll find drugs that work for you. Look at me: I'm a prime example of someone who's, like, hyperfunctional. I do amazing things, I do high-stress things, I compete at the most elite level of swimming.' Who have been some of your HIV-positive heroes? There's Greg Louganis, who I can relate to on a lot of levels. He as well as Magic Johnson showed us what you can do, especially in athletics, and still live with this disease. I've had a lot of personal friends--my boyfriend who passed away--who really struggled. To watch someone fight, it really touches your heart. And I take my hat off to those people who I consider the HIV warriors--people who have really not had a good time of it. You do still see people who are struggling. Those are the people I'm impressed by--who get up every day and just deal with it. I've just been lucky. I've been on medication, my T cells have always been around 800, and my viral load's been undetectable. I got on a regimen that worked for me, and I never changed it. What about your family? How was it discussing it with them? I didn't tell my mom for a really long time because I knew it would just crush her. I used to go lock myself in the bathroom and take my medication because I didn't want anyone to find out. And then I dropped an AZT on the floor in the bathroom. I opened the door to let light in because I couldn't find it, and my mom came in and found it. She goes, 'What is this?' I couldn't think of anything to say. I was like, 'Um, it's a vitamin.' I knew she knew within a moment [since she's a nurse]. She gave it back to me, and she didn't say anything. She just denied. And then when she would say goodbye to me at the airport when I would go back to school, it was really emotional for her. But I did tell her when my boyfriend passed away, which was in '96. She was great. She obviously didn't want to hear it. But at that point I was doing really well. I was like, 'Mom, I'm stable, and my numbers are really good.' I'm sure all those words fall on deaf ears, because all of a sudden your son's telling you that he's HIV-positive. But every time I get my blood work done, I call her and I tell her, 'Oh, I'm feeling great.' And she says, 'That's amazing.' She's acclimated really well. We do talk about it. I've just been so lucky that I've never really been sick. There's not really that much to talk about other than when I get my blood work done. But yeah, I talk openly with my family. Are your parents divorced? Yeah. My parents were divorced when I was 8. Is your dad still in the picture? No. I haven't really spoken with him since I was about 15 or 16. What do your mom's friends say, having seen you on the show? Seattle doesn't have a lot of demicelebrities. My mom has all the doctors and other nurses coming up to her [to talk about the show]. She's loving it! So you went to the University of California, Berkeley, and were premed? Kind of following in the family tradition? Yeah, I was premed for two years. But I thought, This isn't really where I want my life to go. I was always an artist. I took a lot of art classes through high school and then at Berkeley as well. So I switched my major to fine arts and sociology. So it sounds like that's when you finally got to be yourself. I kind of always was myself--even in high school. I had crazy hair, and I was very alternative. I was a little New Waver, and I made a lot of my own clothes. I heard you were 4 foot 11 when you started high school. My freshman year I was the shortest person--male or female. I didn't hit puberty until somewhere between my sophomore and junior year. I hung around the 'alternative' arts people and the drama people and the other outcasts. But I don't look back on it with really fond memories. And you are some sort of former club kid? That sounds like there's an interesting story there. What was that all about? When I lived in San Francisco I went to the clubs all the time. I made crazy outfits, and I hung around with freaks. But then you grow up, and you just sort of realize, Well, if I want to be responsible and have a job and a career, then that sort of has to stop.What about drugs? What about drugs! Were you doing them? Um, I dabbled. But I've had a lot of friends either become addicted or die, so I realized that I could keep going and having fun or I could be a responsible adult. Next you went to Parsons. What did they have to teach you? Parsons was 10 times harder than Berkeley. I spent at least one night a week up all night. I was like, 'Why do we have to learn how to drape?' 'Why do we have to do all this stuff?'--because very few designers end up actually doing all of that. But now I'm glad I know how to do all those things; otherwise, I never could have been on the show! And you've been a model as well! That was really just to make money. I actually never really liked it, to be honest. I always felt like a fake, and to be in that industry you really need to have confidence all the time because you're being evaluated on your appearance all the time. It can really eat away at you if you don't have the backbone for it. How was that for you? There you were--you're HIV-positive and showing off your body. I was thinking about that the other day. Showing off my body and being HIV-positive really never was an issue for me. I was HIV-positive so young. Once I got cool with it and realized that I was going to be OK--at least for the short term--I kind of just let it go. That's when I started weight lifting and body building. I like being strong--mentally strong and physically strong--because it makes me feel healthy. A lot of people say that's why many gay men started focusing more on developing bigger, more muscular bodies in the 1980s--because of people reacting to the fear of having visible HIV-related wasting. Yeah, I think that's true. And I also think it has something to do with masculinity--to be hypermasculine--which is so funny, since I'm a huge queen. I was teased my whole life for being a little androgynous fag. And it's sort of a 'Fuck you! Look at me now. Now I weigh 200 pounds, and I can kick your ass!' It sounds like you like to challenge people's expectations. I think I do. Yeah, I do. People said I was pretty, so I got all these tattoos. People said I was nelly--and I am--but I said, Well, look at me now. Now I'm really muscular.And, meanwhile, you've mentioned that you're a competitive swimmer. Well, yeah. I've always been able to really put a lot on my plate. And what about competing in the Gay Games? Well, that has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I first went when I was 20, in Vancouver. And just walking into that auditorium--there were probably 20,000 people screaming, which is the antithesis of the experience of being gay, generally. We're told that we're not lovable and we're not worthy and we're not as good. Since that first one, I've never missed one. Your team set a national record in 2006. At the Gay Games in Chicago! In masters swimming they have what's called a mixed relay--where there's two men and two women--and we had this kick-ass team. It was amazing. With two HIV-positive people on the team! I was like, Look what we can do!I think it's interesting to compare your experiences in life and on Bravo with Pedro Zamora from MTV's The Real World in 1994 to look at how much has changed in terms of AIDS visibility since then. He was dying on the show, and here you are, living life. Yeah, we've come a long way in terms of knowledge and public awareness and medication. I think the stigma still really sucks. In the gay community there's people who say, 'I'm only going to date you if you're 'disease-free.'_' And it's really lame. HIV is hard to catch. That's one of the reasons I'm really open about it. I just think visibility saves lives. If I'm one person who can go on national TV and say 'Yeah, I'm HIV-positive,' hopefully, there are other people who can be like, 'OK.' I would say that 50% of my friends are HIV-positive, but people just don't talk about it. I think if we all were honest and open--first of all, there'd be a lot more funding--there'd be a lot more awareness. The stigma would be gone. We still have to make a lot of progress. Tell me about your work as a designer. Parsons really trains you to want to have your own line. I was nervous about that. I thought having my own store where I sold other people's brands would teach me the business side of it first. So I had my own store called Jack in the Village on Bleecker Street. Let's move back to the show. How do you deal with all those cameras? You acclimate very quickly. As far as being filmed and being aware of the cameras, that [sense] dissipates rather quickly because you have to make a dress within eight hours! Do you find yourself feeling competitive with the other contestants? I'm very self-critical. And actually, it's a flaw. I deal with that in therapy a lot. I was out there just to do my best work, so I never really looked around the room and thought, He's better than me. She's better than me. He's my competition.Did anybody rub you the wrong way? [Laughs] I'll just say...yes. I understand that when you go on the show you basically sign your life away. The part that was really a culture shock is the fact that we don't have any connection to the outside world. It's surreal. We have no newspapers. We have no music. We have no iPods. We just basically know what time it is and how many minutes we have left. It seems like you'd be exhausted all the time. Oh, my God. I was! I think I lost 10 pounds in the first week. You're a menswear designer, so I imagine you had to do some real prepping to get yourself in gear for a competition that focuses on women's clothing. Actually, the challenge is the fact that I come from a mass-market sportswear background [where I had to design the basics that Americans will buy, rather than getting to be a trendsetter]. Plus, I haven't really sewn a whole garment since I was at Parsons. I had to spend six months before the show sewing a lot and draping and making patterns and practicing all that stuff. How did it feel to win the menswear challenge? On the runway, when they picked me, I immediately thought, Oh, my mom's going to be so proud! I didn't expect any of this to happen to me. I expected to be dead at 25. So it's a cool feeling. And you auditioned for season 3 but were rejected that time around? I loved the show from the onset. And I was like, Well, it's a women's wear show, so screw that. I'll never get on. And then I saw Emmett [McCarthy] from season 2, and he comes from menswear. I made it to the final stage of judging, and Tim Gunn says, 'You don't have a point of view.' And he was right. I didn't have enough to judge from. So on my second go-round, I illustrated, like, 21 garments and made seven. I had both barrels loaded. I was like, OK, here's my point of view. I'm ready.What are some of the main reasons you wanted to be on the show? I've had a great job. I worked at Weatherproof, and I was the creative director for activewear. But at the same time it wasn't very challenging. I got to a point where I thought, OK, I'm not that far from 40. What do I want to do? This is an opportunity for my life to change. Do I want to have my own line eventually? Maybe. At the very least it will re-energize my creative juices.What are you doing for work right now? I'm actually not working right now. The show has a lot of responsibility. Eventually I'll have to work because the money is running out, honey! I feel like they always get one woman on Project Runway who's never used a sewing machine or something so that we can watch her fumble. Yeah. You've met Elisa, who doesn't know how to use a sewing machine. She's an interesting person. She has methods that are different from anything that we've been formally trained in. It's difficult for her in a lot of ways. She is Crazy Earth Mother. That's admirable in some respects. Is it how I would have done it? I mean, no. But that's just who she is. She brings a whole interesting aspect to the show. I'll applaud her for that. Do I respect her methodology? Hmm, maybe not. [Giggles] And people are always crying! What's with the waterworks? You have to understand--it's a really high-pressure situation. We're sleep-deprived. We're so frantic that we forget to eat. And then they're interviewing you, and it hits a chord. Apparently Ricky is the crybaby of the season. I think most of us cried at some point. I know I did. Now, to talk about design. How do you make something that is art within the context of mass marketing and finance? That's part of the challenge of Project Runway. Nina [Garcia is] always like, 'Innovation, innovation.' I could design something really avant-garde and crazy, but I come from a really mass-market background, where it was about selling to Macy's and making it sell and selling volume. I get criticized for my designs being safe. But I know what people like. What are some of your favorite elements of fashion these days? Valentino and Oscar de la Renta. And Carolina Herrera and Diane von Furstenberg--those women come down the runway and they look ama-a-a-zing. Yeah, you can be [Alexander] McQueen, you can put on a crazy show, and there's a lot of theatrics. To me, the challenge is making a woman look her best. You want to make art? Go make art. What about trends that you can't stand? My pet peeve is Bluetooth headsets and clipping shit to your belt. Keep your technology in your purse or in your bag! There's always things that come and go. Good taste usually rises to the top. You seemed pretty excited to design for Sarah Jessica Parker in episode 2. And then you got to have a cameo in the Sex and the City movie. How was that shoot? I got a phone call from this casting agent who apparently knows a friend of mine who just suggested me. I went over and met the director, and he basically said, 'This is the scene: You're going to walk in front of the girls, Kim Cattrall is going to check you out and make some comment about you, and then you're going to walk past them and into the arms of your movie boyfriend and then kiss.' I actually got to meet [all the actors from the show]. That's quite an opportunity. Is there any time when you feel HIV has held you back in life? I think there are some stupid laws in place. Technically, an HIV-positive person is not allowed into a lot of other countries, so when I'm traveling for swimming that can be [a problem]. It's not stamped on your passport, but they can go through your luggage, and if they find your medications, they cannot let you in the country. And the United States is actually one of those countries--which totally sucks! And there's always been insurance issues. There's lots of things that make [living with HIV] hard. As far as physically limiting me? No, not really. You're going to be 40 soon--well, relatively soon. What sort of challenges do you foresee with your health as you get older? None! Yeah, I really don't. I'm more worried about turning 40! Tell me about your tattoos. Are any of them related to HIV? No. Back in the day I thought about getting a tattoo that read 'HIV+' on my shoulder and just being like, Fuck you! But I never did. I don't think I need to advertise that fully. I think I'm fairly honest and open enough about it. But I do think that the ones that I have gotten are really about taking ownership of my body and making it look the way I wanted it to look. To wrap up, what do you care most about in the world? Family and friends, of course. People I love. I'm striving for happiness. That's my goal. Yeah, art and creating is important, but at the end of your life, it's been a very short amount of time. I just want to do my best and be my best and just be a good person--as clich' and corny as that sounds. Check out Mackenroth's work, photos, news, and more on the Web at and And if you enjoyed Mackenroth's brief run on the designer series and think he should get another shot on the show, you can sign the petition that one fan has created to 'Bring Jack Back.'

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