Living Positive Means Positive Living for Jack Mackenroth

By Paul E. Pratt–Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Times.

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Jack Mackenroth is a busy man. Up to his crystal blue eyes in New York’s Fashion Week, which he is covering or gay TV network LOGO, the  muscular, HIV-positive designer forced off Project Runway Season 4 due to a nasty staph infection boards a plane later this week to catch the Academy Awards in San Francisco.

As part of the new Living Positive By Design program, Mackenroth appears at the Feb. 22 Academy of Friends Gala at Fort Mason. Raising monies for a dozen local AIDS service organizations, the posh Oscar’s night event is the fourth stop for spokesperson Mackenroth and the program created by pharmaceutical company Merck to spur frank conversation about HIV/AIDS.

Here Mackenroth, who was diagnosed with HIV shortly after leaving U.C. Berkeley for design school nearly 20 years ago, discusses his experience as an HIV-positive role model, thoughts on Fashion Week and passion for his HIV education partnership with Merck on Living Positive By Design.

(Bay Times) How did you get hooked up to cover New York Fashion Week for LOGO?

(Mackenroth) I’ve done stuff for LOGO before, little vignettes and pieces. I’m familiar with the people there, so they approached me to blog about Fashion Week. We’re doing two days of live shooting. They have a show called Pop Lab, which is video-based. I don’t exactly understand their format, but I was like, “I’m on camera? Sign me up!” (Laughs.) We’re taping two days live from the tents and the rest is me blogging. It actually sounds a lot more glamorous than it is. I can maybe handle six shows a day. Then you have to go home, recap, blog, download photos, and all that stuff. The shows start at 9 a.m., and sometimes they end at 9 p.m., so it’s a full day of fashion. Just watching a fashion show is super fun. I went to a show today and sat directly behind Kate Bosworth and Nicole Richie. If I wasn’t actually looking at the clothes and thinking about what I was going to say, I’d be like, “Oh, my God! I’m sitting next to Nicole Richie!” When you have actually work it, it kind of takes the fun out of it and makes it a drag – and not “drag” in a good sense either.

Your goal on Project Runway was to be at Fashion Week as a designer. You gave up that opportunity when you left the show because of staph infection. What’s it like being there in a different capacity?

First of all, the mood is so different because of the economy, I’m kind of glad I’m not doing my own line right now. I’ve been going to the shows forever. There’s no bitterness, like, “Oh, God! I wish that was me!” I know how hard it is for designers right now. About a quarter of them dropped out of Fashion Week altogether. There are tons of [designers] missing. I’m surprised, though, because the energy is still really good. There are a lot of people there covering it. It’s really crowded when there are shows. It’s kind of mayhem.

Soon you’re rushing to San Francisco for the Academy of Friends gala and fundraiser, where you’re representing Merck’s Living Positive By Design Program. Tell me more.

This is actually our fourth city. We did Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, New York, we’re coming to San Francisco, then we’re going to Houston. Anybody can go to LivingPositiveByDesign.com. It’s all about speaking directly to HIV-positive people. It’s a partnership with Merck. We’re encouraging HIV-positive people to be vocal and talk about HIV as much as they are comfortable. In doing so, it will help combat the stigma for everyone. Beyond that, we’re trying to encourage HIV-positive to become their own health care advocates, partner with a health care provider they are comfortable with and get on a treatment regimen that works for them and maximizes tolerability by minimizing side effects so they take their medication. We all know everyone responds differently to different medications, so make sure it works for you. And the ultimate goal for an HIV-positive person is to keep their viral load at undetectable. That’s kind of it in a nutshell. I think the great thing about “Living Positive By Design” is so many of the HIV education programs speak to prevention, which is important obviously. But there are a million people living in the U.S. with HIV, yet I can count on one hand the people who are “celebrities” or public personalities who are openly HIV-positive. That’s unfortunate. I think the more we talk about it takes away some of the shame. It makes those who are positive feel more comfortable, and they will more readily get the medical attention and care they need.

You were tapped as spokesperson for this program because you have lived with HIV for nearly 20 years. What kind of response do you receive about your openness on the subject?

I turn 40 in April, and then I’ll have my 20th HIV Anniversary in August. It’s a big year of milestones for me. The response has been really positive, no pun intended. (Laughs.) I usually get a dozen messages a week – there’s so many different ways with Facebook and MySpace and email now – from people. Project Runway is international now, so I get them from people in all different countries saying “Thank you for being so open about your status.”

A lot of people still, unfortunately, have misinformation that HIV/AIDS is still a death sentence. Not that I’m trying to glamorize HIV in any way, but I think people are happy to see there is someone who can be healthy, go on to pursue their dream, be HIV-positive and by following the steps in “Living Positive By Design” maintain their lives. By making my healthcare a priority for myself, I can go on and do good things. I’m not saying, “Do what I do. It’ll work for you.” That’s not what I’m pushing. There are a lot of treatment options available, so that’s why we need to advocate for ourselves and find what’s best for each person.

For more information, visit:  http://www.LivingPositiveByDesign.com

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