Design Offers New Details On Past, Present and Future

Jack Mackenroth Lets It All Out

Jack Mackenroth needs no introduction, we’re sure.

We all know the designer from Project Runway. We all know he left the Bravo reality show after developing a antibiotic resistant staph infection, but bounced back like a champ. And, of course, we all know he looks good naked.

We bet there’s plenty you don’t know about handsome Mackenroth. For example, do you know how many siblings he has? Do you know what went down when he found out he’s HIV positive? Why doesn’t he talk to his father? What’s his next step? These questions and many more will be answered in this installment of The Home Issue!

(PS: Mackenroth appeared on NBC Nightly News last night to talk about MRSA. The video’s after the jump – on page three, to be exact.)

Andrew Belonsky: Hey Jack, how are you? What’s happening?

Jack Mackenroth: You know, just email and crap all day today. How are you?

AB: I’m good. As I mentioned to you, we’re currently in the midst of The Home Issue, so tell me: what is home to you?

JM: I recently – well, two years ago this February I bought an apartment in Harlem. That was a huge goal of mine, because buying in New York City alone is a huge hurdle and I just love it. Physically that is home to me and I feel really at home here. On a broader spectrum: New York is home to me. My family lives in Seattle, but I’ve chosen to live here. I’ve chosen my new gay family. [Laughs] I’ve had the same friends for fifteen, sixteen years – I think that’s what makes a home: having people who care about you around you. I love my family dearly, but Seattle just never – I never felt [right].

AB: Was coming to New York essential to your coming out?

JM: No, I came out during my freshman year in college. I went to Berkeley before I moved to New York to come to Parsons. I love Berkeley and San Francisco’s an amazing city, but I’ve always wanted to move to New York ever since I can remember.

AB: How was coming out for you?

JM: Um, it was okay. I didn’t have a horror story that a lot of people have. I was at Berkeley and I had all these images of people doing their own thing. As soon as I left home, I kind of experimented with everything and had a couple girlfriends for brief periods of times. I just knew that it wasn’t right for me. So I got a fake id and I started going to the bars in San Francisco. As soon as I walked into The Stud, I saw two guys dancing together and I was like, “Okay, this is what it’s supposed to be”. Shortly after that I started telling my friends and then the summer I came home after my freshman year, I told my mom.

AB: And?

JM: She’s very liberal, but she just – surprisingly, if had seen me as a child, you would think she would have expected it – but she was kind of shocked. I was like, “Oh, come on, lady! I was wearing your nightgowns when I was five!” But, you know, it’s suburban Seattle back in the early 80’s – there weren’t a lot of – gay men were hairdressers and florists. There was no real imagery. There was nothing for her to compare, so she was really kind of surprised. Of course she gave me the whole “I love you, anyway” speech and we hugged. And then I didn’t really talk about it for a year: just giving her time – I didn’t push it in her face and I just lived my life, went back to school. And my mom didn’t talk about it, either. I guess – I don’t know what happened in that one year interim, but she must have read some books because now she’s a member of PFLAG, she’s been to parades and she sends me pictures of her with leather queens! She’s the best mom you could have.

AB: What about your father?

JM: My father is not really in my life. My parents divorced when I was eight and I kind of never got along with him. I don’t know if it’s because we didn’t have a lot in common. I’m not going to bad mouth him, but he just is not very present. He wasn’t abusive necessarily in the sense that he was aggressively abusive, but he just wasn’t a very present father figure. So, when I was thirteen, the court said I could decide if I wanted to keep – we had forced visitation up until that point – and I decided that was enough for me. I’ve never had the conversation with him. I know that he knows that I’m gay, but he’s never talked to me about it or not. I don’t know if he cares or not, so I just don’t really think about it.

AB: You mentioned your siblings – where do you fall in there?

JM: I’m the oldest of three. I have a younger sister who’s in the middle and my brother’s thirty-three.

AB: Did you like being the oldest child?

JM: Yeah! Well, you know, it was weird because my mother was a single mother. She was very, very strict. I think she felt the need to control where we were at all times, so I had swimming and soccer and piano lessons. My whole day was filled with activities so she could basically control us. Even as a senior in high school, my curfew was 11pm. I always so jealous because as it went down the line of siblings, my mother got more lenient. By the time my brother came around, she was like, “Whatever, see you tomorrow.” I was always sneaking out and lying because she was so strict!

AB: Did you ever get caught?

JM: You know, it’s funny – she’s going to kill me when she sees this – she caught me twice. One time I had forgotten to put the seat – she’s a little woman, she’s 5’2” and I’m six feet – I got so good at sneaking out that I would take the car – which was underneath her bedroom window – put it in neutral and roll it out into the street and then start it and drive away. I would come back at five in the morning, park it and sneak back into my house to go to bed. One time I forgot to put the seat back and she went out to go to work and came to my bedroom – I had just fallen asleep – and she was like, “Where were you last night don’t lie to me!?” I told her I was out dancing! She was like, “How did you think you could get away with this?” Meanwhile, I had been doing it for six months!

AB: Let’s talk about HIV for a second. You’ve been positive for seventeen years, correct?

JM: Yes – eighteen, actually, as of August 18th.

AB: Can you describe finding out – getting the test back, what went through your mind?

JM: Yeah. It was a horrific experience, because this was – I was 20 or 21. Actually, let’s backtrack, because I know when I seroconverted. I got pneumonia when I was at Berkeley when I was twenty, but I didn’t find out until much later because back then they tested for the antibodies and I was seroconverting and didn’t have any anti-bodies, so I got a false negative. I had had pneumonia several times before because I have asthma, so I was just like, “Oh, I have pneumonia.” And then, fast forward two years, I’m in New York and I got these ulcers in my throat. I went to a regular gastrointestinal doctor – he didn’t know anything about HIV and was a jerk – and he basically said to me, “It’s really weird for someone your age to have this. I think you should have an HIV test.” I had been safe up until all those times and up until that point. I wasn’t even nervous at that point, because I thought there was no way in hell. A few weeks later I went back and he said, “You’re HIV positive.” It was that cut and dry. He didn’t even try to council me or anything – I was so young! There was really no medication to take at that point. I think AZT was the only one approved by the FDA and it was really controversial: a lot of people thought that it was killing people rather than helping them. And, you know, at that age – 20 or 21 – I thought, “Okay, I’m going to be dead in three years.” So that really was not a good feeling, obviously.

AB: Of course.

JM: I remember the doctor told me and then he was like, “I’ll leave you alone to think about it.” I was like, “What the fuck am I going to think about?” And then I was like, “What a douche bag!” [Laughs] He obviously had no sensitivity training. So, I walked out onto the street and I remember looking up the sky and thinking, “Fuck.”

AB: Right.

JM: Actually, more than thinking about myself, I was thinking about my family. I was like, “It’s so sad my family is going to have to deal with all this.” It was so awful, because the prognosis was really bleak. So, that was my experience. It wasn’t very fun.

AB: I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is 25 years old – we went to college together – and he was infected last year. He complained that there’s so much attention on getting tested, but not as much popular support or mention of life post-the test. What happens when you are positive? He brought you up, actually, and said it’s so great that you are out and putting a human face to HIV. So, that said, would go back in time and stop yourself? Or are you owning it?

JM: Would I go back in time? Of course!

AB: Really? You’re having such a positive impact.

JM: Well, that’s great, but I mean – another message I’m trying to send is that, yes, HIV is very manageable at this point. It’s really great that I’m sending this message out and I’m doing it very willingly and purposefully, but – on an individual level – I mean, I’m doing really well and my health is really great, but taking pills is not fun. Every time you get sick, worrying about – “Well, maybe my T-cells aren’t where they’re supposed to be.” There are a lot of issues that go along with it. It’s not a party. It’s still a big deal. So, yeah, I think it’s great that I’m visible and I’m perfectly happy to be the new poster boy for HIV, but if I had the chance to go back and be negative, I totally would.
AB: How do you feel about being on television? In some ways your privacy will never truly be yours again.

JM: Um, yeah – for a while, at least. It’s a bizarre, because six weeks ago I was a clothing designer that nobody knew and now, by being on this little square box in people’s homes, I garner all this attention, which is totally random to me. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel famous – I don’t even know what that means. What does that even mean: you’re famous? People know who you are? I don’t feel any different and I don’t feel like a celebrity. I don’t think that I actually am. It’s weird every time someone comes up to me and says they recognize me. Does that answer your question? I tend to babble on and on and forget the question!

AB: No, that’s great. But, how do you feel now that – if you were in Chelsea – well, actually, I ran into you the other day! Your anonymity is gone.

JM: Yeah, my anonymity is gone. I knew that going into the show. It’s fine. Actually, to a certain degree, I think the anonymity will reappear. Will people be talking to me in two years? Probably not, but, that’s fine. My main goal going into it was to catapult my career to another level. Out of this came this whole HIV reputation that I didn’t really expect so much. I didn’t really think it through – it wasn’t planned. Once the show started airing, I started getting all these emails about being an “inspiration” and I was like, “Wow”. When you sit back and think about it, there really are not any public figures that are honest about their HIV status. I think that’s powerful and I’m glad to do that. I think it’s needed. Especially for people like your friend: people who have converted recently. Like you said, there’s not a lot of follow-up. Even still, I think that because people aren’t dying the way they used to when I found out. Like, the education – unfortunately I get really uneducated emails from people.

AB: Like what?

JM: People who are in their twenties who should know all the information there is to know about HIV. Some are still unclear on how you contract it, what things are safe, what things are not. Someone wrote me a message on MySpace saying they were having sex and the condom broke. They asked, “Do you think I should get tested?” I was like, “Absolutely. Anyone who is sexually active should be getting tested on a regular basis.” So, I think there needs to be more education about that. There also needs to be visibility. If everyone that is HIV positive were honest about his or her status, then the stigma would be gone and you would see that there are tons of people leading normal lives, doing amazing things. It’s not the death sentence it used to be. There’s hope for people who are HIV positive.

AB: HIV awareness campaigns – a lot of them – rely on celebrities or a big event to spread the message. I worry that it’s become – first, that the celebrity overshadows the message and I also worry that it’s become so banal. It’s so familiar, these messages, that they’re just not doing anything any more.

JM: I think that if there’s one thing that has contributed to the apathy is that current generation of young people – I mean, my boyfriend died in 1996, I had friends dropping dead right and left. When you go to twenty funerals – that makes you want to be an activist. It makes you conscious of mortality and being careful and the rules – all of those things. I think now, because that’s not happening and people don’t see – I mean, I used to see human corpses walking on the street – and there are still people out there struggling – but it’s not like it used to be. I think it needs to be more visible. I’m glad to be a part of it.

AB: So, what’s next for you?

JM: Lots of stuff. I did a full menswear line, the samples, in the hiatus – they’re on my website. I don’t really know where I’m going to go with that, because production is really expensive. If anyone out there wants to give me a million dollars, that would be cool! [Laughs] But, you know, I’ll continue designing no matter what happens. I’ve been approached by various charities to do HIV education. I have to muddle through and find who I want to focus on, what I want to focus on. There are drug companies approaching me, as well. But, at the end of the day, I’m just going to go back and design. That’s what I like to do. I might write a book.

AB: Oh yeah?

JM: Yeah, I’ve had some weird shit go on in my life.