“I don’t mind being a poster boy for HIV,” Jack Mackenroth says, sitting in a midtown burger joint. “I was very cognizant of what I was doing when I came out on national TV a decade ago, because the HIV conversation had virtually disappeared from mainstream television.”
The model and fashion designer came out as HIV-positive in 2008 while a contestant on season four of Project Runway. Since then, his life has been all about activism. He spent two years working for the Global Forum on MSM & HIV, and five years collaborating with Merck on the HIV awareness campaign, Living Positive by Design, before raising a record-breaking $52,000 for the Braking AIDS Ride.
The Instagram hunk also launched widely successful campaigns to reduce HIV stigma, including HIV Equal and the HIV “Shower Selfie” Challenge. But now, Mackenroth says, he’s “moving away from the nonprofit sector.”
“The issue with nonprofit stuff is that you are overworked and underpaid,” he explains. “Like teachers, people expect that we should basically volunteer our services because we are doing important work. I’m getting really close to 50, and I can’t be hoofing it all the time. It’s [also] relatively thankless work. I’m not doing it for accolades, but everyone likes... to feel like something beneficial is coming from your job.”
He needs to think about his future and eventually retiring — something he didn’t even consider when he was first diagnosed with HIV at 19, nearly 30 years ago.
“I thought I was going to die at 25,” he recalls. “My boyfriend died at 27. Until my mid-30s, I was like: ‘Why should I have a 401k?’ I wasn’t planning ahead. It’s been over the past decade, where I’m like, ‘I’m going to live. I need to plan for the future.’” That’s why he returned to school to get a second bachelor’s degree (in nursing).
But in some ways, Mackenroth acknowledges he’ll always be an HIV activist, especially on social media. “Even when I’m not working in a HIV-specific arena, because I’m so public about my status, I get two to three Instagram messages a day from someone in a foreign country who just found out [they’re HIV-positive].”
The activist often Facetimes with these people, too. “And even though it’s a different time, people, especially in lesser developed countries, freak out the same way [I did when I was diagnosed]. When there are different opinions on homosexuality in their home country, it’s even worse. It can be very isolating.”
No matter who he is speaking with, Mackenroth is vocal in promoting the message that undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U). In October of last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed this message, officially confirming that HIV-positive people whose viral loads are suppressed to the point that they are undetectable cannot transmit HIV to sexual partners.
“It’s really empowering to lots of people.” Mackenroth says of that new message. He says people who are newly diagnosed still often feel like, “‘I can never have sex again. I’m going to [transmit to] my partner.’ But honey, get on your meds, get undetectable, and you — and everyone else — will be fine!”
While Mackenroth has moved away from working directly with HIV nonprofit organizations, he says he can “still make sure to help. I still respond to nearly everyone who reaches out.” He’s also found that some of the more unlikely social platforms have been great venues for educating others about HIV and helping calm the fears of men recently diagnosed. “Believe it or not, Scruff is a great tutorial platform,” Mackenroth says. “I link to PrEPster.info and PreventionAccess.org — which is the U=U campaign. Often when I’m on Scruff I’m talking to people about HIV.”
Recently, Mackenroth began an OnlyFans.com account, where he posts more explicit material. Unfortunately, this also opened the door to harassment from trolls who call him an “AIDS-faced meathead,” and much worse. Some of the site’s commenters also ridicule him and other adult performers for not using condoms. Mackenroth sees this as a teachable moment, an opportunity to let others know about PrEP and the power of being undetectable. “Men with HIV are allowed to have sex. We’re even allowed to have sex without condoms, like other gay men.” In the era of PrEP and U =U, he adds, “we can have sex safely” even without condoms.
As he steps away from more formal forms of activism, simply being out, visible, and available, has allowed Mackenroth to continue to make a difference. After all, “I’m always available to talk,” he says. “I’m very accessible. [People can] message me on Twitter or Instagram.” (@JackMackenroth)
Through those platforms he’s able to reach poz men around the world who are struggling to accept their HIV status — which may even be more beneficial than his work in the past. Thanks to social media, Mackenroth is also back where he belongs: in the spotlight.