It’s hard to imagine that Jack Mackenroth was only 4 foot 11 in high school, but it’s a fact his younger sister, Sarah, likes to share with the media. (And the fact that Mackenroth liked to steal her Barbie dolls.) The muscled designer turned pinup turned activist was kind of a runty late bloomer. But boy, has he bloomed.
After a childhood in Seattle with a single mom and two siblings, Mackenroth entered the world of fashion via the famed Parsons School of Design. He began modeling, and through the 1990s he appeared in dozens of publications, including Men’s Fitness and Paper magazines. Not long after leaving Parsons, Mackenroth ran his own menswear store (Jack, in New York’s West Village), then had stints designing for Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s, and Weatherproof. Somewhere along the way he found time to swim competitively, winning three all-American titles, setting a national breaststroke record, and finishing 12th in that event at the 2006 World Masters Championships. This was a man who succeeded in everything he did.
But priorities changed for Mackenroth in 2007, when he became a contestant on Project Runway’s fourth season. He was never in the bottom three, and in episode 3 he won the menswear challenge. He was a designer to beat. Then in episode 5, Mackenroth became the first designer to leave Project Runway for medical reasons; he had developed a contagious drug-resistant staph infection. Mackenroth came out to his castmates—and America—about being HIV-positive and needing to take extra care with his health. He left the show, spent a week in a hospital, and found his calling.
Today, Mackenroth, who still designs, especially for charity (in 2008 he created a wedding gown made entirely of condoms for San Francisco’s Project Inform), is an HIV activist and one of the few HIV-positive celebrities who uses his status to change how people think about HIV. He’s worked with a number of HIV/AIDS charities, and now he’s started a dating site for HIV-positive men, Volttage.
You wear a lot of hats—designer, swimmer, model, activist, and now founder of Volttage.[Laughs] Yes, I do, hopefully very stylish hats. You described me pretty well. I would move “activist” to the front of the line because that’s what I am most proud of, and activism and HIV awareness is what I’m really focusing my energy on. My new dating site for HIV-positive men is also another outlet for HIV visibility and awareness.
Why are you involved in so many different things?
I’ve always been an overachiever. I think it was drilled into my DNA when I was a kid. I’m happiest when I’m working on multiple projects. I’m sort of fearless, so when an interesting opportunity presents itself I say yes. And I’m constantly thinking of new ways to reinvent myself.
What was your thinking behind launching Volttage?
Volttage.com, soon to be a mobile app as well, was a response to the nonstop messages and emails I receive about the difficulties around disclosure and discrimination in the dating scene. Online dating is particularly attractive to HIV-positive guys because it’s easier to disclose and risk rejection online rather than deal with it face-to-face. I wanted to create a community where HIV status was a nonissue, thus removing the stigma altogether. On Volttage we do not ask HIV status. We believe that everyone should always assume their partner is HIV- positive and proceed accordingly. Volttage is clearly marketing to HIV-positive gay men, but we do not discriminate against negative guys.
Is it the first of its kind?
Volttage is not the first dating site for HIV-positive individuals, but it is certainly the first of its kind. We are the first to target HIV-positive MSM [men who have sex with men] and we are the first to create a sexy, healthy, sex-positive community that gets real about sex and relationships. We are currently building the blog portion of the site because we also want Volttage to be a hub for information, resources, and support. The potential benefit to the HIV community is massive. I’m really excited about the potential.
What’s the response to Volttage been?
The response has been amazing! We have reached over 8,000 members in less than six months with zero advertising, so clearly the need was there. The personal messages I have received on the site are very encouraging. The general opinion is that it was long overdue. Now we are looking for investors so we can finish the mobile app and really expand the brand and boost the membership. Then Volttage will become a really powerful tool in raising awareness and increasing HIV visibility. We just signed on Ji Wallace as one of our Volttage men. He is the Olympic silver medalist who came out as HIV-positive this past year.
Yes, he was on our cover recently.
Plus all our models are HIV-positive, and we want to send out the message that having HIV is not shameful.
Since you run a dating site, what does a guy have to do to land a date with you?
Well, creating a dating site sure is a lot of effort just to get a date, right? [Laughs] But yeah, I am single. At this point in my life I’m looking to settle down. To get a date with me, you would probably have to ask me. I’m not great with small talk. I’m generally attracted to guys near my age and size. If you want a second date, you should have a job and some real interests other than circuit parties. Who the hell knows? Send me a message on Facebook.
You were the first contestant on Project Runway to come out as HIV-positive. Was that freeing to do that on national TV?
Yes, in a sense. I have been positive for 23 years, so when the show aired I was already totally out to everyone and already quite outspoken about it. Disclosing my status on Project Runway did two great things. I basically never have to disclose my status again, which is a relief, and it gave the HIV community a much-needed role model. I was on season 4, when Project Runway was at its peak of popularity, and no TV personality had publicly come out as HIV-positive since Pedro Zamora from The Real World in 1994. The outpouring of support was massive and immediate. I’m so thankful that it gave me a voice to speak about living with HIV.
You’ve been HIV-positive since 1990. To what do you credit your longevity?
Well, in all honesty, part of it is luck. Statistically I should be dead. However, I made some personal decisions early that worked in my favor. I got on the available medications immediately after my diagnosis, which seemed to work. I’ve always had great doctors that I can be totally honest with, and I take care of my overall health and wellness with medication, diet, and exercise. I also believe that being open about my status has been a huge stress relief. Living with a secret can be a burden.
What is the one thing most people don’t know about you?
I’m not very social. I think people assume I have a very glamorous life, full of photo shoots and parties. I consider those things to be work. I don’t ever go out to bars or clubs, and I don’t drink. I have a few close friends that I’ve had for many years, and I’m not great at making new ones. That’s probably why I’m single. I can also wiggle my ears individually. And my tits. Snap!
You and another Project Runway alum, Mondo Guerra, partnered with Merck on Living Positive by Design, which was about reducing HIV stigma. Has it changed?
I think stigma is changing, but really slowly. I’m a huge believer that visibility is the best thing we can do to change public perception, but it’s often uncomfortable so people stay in the closet. Try to name 10 “famous” people who are known to be HIV-positive. After Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis it’s pretty difficult. It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s just that they aren’t out. I know a lot of very famous people who are HIV-positive, but they won’t talk about it because they think it will ruin their careers.
Yes, that’s why coming out is so important.
That’s why I do what I do, so people will continue to see that you can be happy and healthy with HIV, so we are all honest with ourselves and each other.
As people with HIV live longer, does that change the public’s perception of either HIV or the people with it?
Possibly. I think it’s a hopeful message that you can live a long, full life with HIV. I’m hopeful that individuals with HIV will speak out in their own lives to influence the public on a very grassroots level. Honestly, for the most part, I think the general public has forgotten about HIV.
Do you think HIV-positive gay men have created community and support systems in a way that differs from their nongay peers?
Yes. Let’s face it. In the U.S. the infection rate of gay men is wildly disproportionate to any other community. We deal with HIV issues on a fairly regular basis, even if only in conversation. Because of that, there is a familiarity that does not exist in the heterosexual community. However, that does not necessarily translate to support. I do think the gay community is generally more supportive of those of us who are different because we can all empathize with the outcast. To anyone who needs support, it’s definitely out there, and you are certainly not alone. If you need some advice, you can just Google me. Apparently I’m the only Jack Mackenroth in the world.
What’s next for you?
This year I decided to really focus my energy on HIV activism and developing Volttage into an amazing site/app. I continue to travel around the country speaking at events and fund-raisers, which I love. I’ve been threatening to finish my book, Making Lemonaids, for years now. For now I’m just swimming, working, and husband shopping. Call me!