Jack Mackenroth Talks New Dating Website, HIV Stigma and Activism
When it comes to Reality TV shows the winner isn’t always the most memorable contestant as was the case on Project Runway’s Season 4, which featured fashion designer Jack Mackenroth.
His surprise announcement of being HIV positive and his shocking withdrawal from the competition in week 5, made him not only arguably the most memorable contestant from that season but also an instant role model for the HIV community.
Since leaving the show in 2007 he’s become known for his HIV activism and for taking his clothes off – for a cause that is. He’ll do (almost) anything to fight the stigma of living with HIV.
The Mirror recently caught up with the reality star and activist, who lives in New York and South Beach, to talk about his latest project, Volttage.com, an HIV dating website.
Read on to find out about if we’ll see him join the cast of an upcoming all-stars season of Project Runway, being a role model, and growing up both gay and HIV positive. Oh and by the way, he’s single!
Can you tell us about your new project?
The website is Volttage.com.
I’ve obviously been working in HIV stuff, forever, but after Project Runway it exploded, and because I’m so vocal about my status I’m the go-to-guy. It’s awesome. I like it. I get dozens of Facebook messages a week. Most frequently from people who newly diagnosed, people freaking out. At any time I’m coaching 3, 4, 5 people who are just kind of dealing with stuff.
One of the recurring themes I encounter is dating and disclosure and stigma over and over, nonstop.
I’ve been on other sites and I find that people are just sort of misinformed. If you’re not HIV positive…I know a lot of people are educated, but they just don’t get it.
When helping newly positive people, what’s the biggest misconceptions you come across?
For the most part, health-wise, there’s not a lot of misconception. The big change in the last few years is that there is a new protocol, which is to medicate immediately. With the newer medications there is almost never real severe side effects.
It’s more that people are like “no one is going to want me, date me, everyone is going to judge me.” It’s a catch-22 situation because no one wants to live in the stigma and experience it, but no one wants to be vocal about it and fight it. It’s difficult. I don’t breeze through it everyday and be like ‘oh my God, this is so awesome.’ But I need to keep going and be visible because people need to see this is what HIV looks like, or can look like, and it can look like anyone.
People just have a lot questions because no one wants to talk about it. So it’s more like listen it’s going to be ok. There are a lot of people like you. There’s support for you. You’ll get ok with it. Try to talk about it. I tell people that kind of stuff. People are really scared to tell their parents. People are scared to tell people. That’s kind of the stuff I guide people through. I tell them they don’t need to tell people. Tell them one at a time. You should tell your doctor. Tell people who you trust.
What’s been the response to Volttage so far?
It goes in waves. We had a lot of build up to the launch. In the first week there was an onslaught of membership. One thousand people signed up in a week.
People were just desperate for a stigma free environment.
About 10,000 people have logged in the first 2 and half months and about half of those people stay and make a profile. We’re not competing with a lot of other big sites right now. It’s a different kind of community. It’s growing slowly. I think there will come a point in time where it hits this critical mass and people know of the brand and will be talking about it.
What’s different about Volttage than other websites?
The important thing I’m realizing now for me is that it’s about the visibility and fighting the stigma of HIV — anyway that I can. Whether that’s just being a visible person or talking about it, or all of the campaign and media stuff that I do.
This website is another way of doing that. Bringing together all of these people, starting this movement. We’re going to add bloggers, more staff and have more content. I’m meeting with my partners in January to figure out which features we should have. We want to give people more reasons to go to the site beyond sex.
The thing that’s cool about it is that we don’t ask about status at all. We’re clearly marketing to the HIV community and to those people that feel disenfranchised from other websites.
We’re HIV neutral which is great. Since we don’t ask about status at all it provides some freedom. You should always assume people are positive anyway, which most people don’t do.
Why should people assume that?
People have a false sense of security when they check a box that says you’re negative, or someone tells you that they’re negative. What does that even mean? Unless you go to the doctor with them how do you really even know? I just think that’s a false sense of security?
What’s the next step for Volttage?
We’re trying to give it traction somewhere. So we’re focusing on New York where 40 percent of the membership is. Then we’ll go to L.A., San Francisco, Chicago and once the buzz gets going in the U.S., we’ll go to go global. Obviously we can’t target one area at a time but we want to be viable in one community. We’ll probably have an event down in Miami in the next year.
How long have you been positive?
I found out in 1990. I sero converted in 1989. So it’s been 23 years.
Nowadays it’s much different finding out you’re positive. Right?
I figured I would be dead by the time I was 25. Everyone was dying. It’s different now, and it’s the same. The challenge back then was basically surviving. Nowadays it’s more about the stigma. If you do everything “right.” If you get on medications early, have health insurance, HIV is very manageable. What it is now though is that no one wants to talk about it anymore.
HIV has been around 31 years is there really a stigma still?
Still today when I post on Facebook I get comments from gay guys that are like “oh there’s no HIV stigma anymore.” I’m like are you insane? You’re clearly neg. If you don’t think there’s an HIV stigma I challenge you to post I am HIV positive on your Facebook page. Half the people that are positive don’t want to do that. If you don’t think there’s a stigma try wearing a t-shirt that says I’m HIV positive for a day then you’ll get a glimmer of what it feels like.
What age did you come out of the closet?
Freshman year of college. I was kind of out in high school but I went to a very small high school.
And then a year after you came out you found out you were positive?
I got sick and they said you should have an HIV test…it was in the throes of the HIV epidemic. I only had sex with like 10 people. I thought I’m not positive. I can’t be. So, surprise.
How did you come out about your status?
I didn’t tell my family for about 4 years. I was freaking out. Everyone was freaking out. I finally told my mom after my partner died in 1996 and I told her at that time because I was having a nervous breakdown. She was good. My mom is amazing.
How has your health been?
I’ve been really, really lucky with my own health. I think a lot of it is luck. Because it’s just one of those things. In the early days no one knew what was going to happen to you. I just happened to make the right choices. Not because I knew what the right choices were, but because I was a competitive swimmer so I have always been very health conscious.
I got on medication really early. They only had AZT initially. I took all of the drugs subsequently in the next few years. I found a medication in the early years that worked for me and I stayed on it for about 15 years. So yeah, I don’t know the reason why I’m doing so well, but I’m glad I am.
How did you become an HIV activist?
After I finished freaking out in the early years, I felt I needed to give back and become a part of this movement, especially since I’m one of the fortunate ones doing well. I started delivering foods with Gods Love We Deliver while I was on lunch at work. Basically it’s for people who are home bound with AIDS. You bring them food.
I would run around and deliver to like 10 people and go back to work. I was supportive of AIDS walks and the charity events that would go on as well.
And then Project Runway came along. I had been positive for like 18 years already. The producers asked me if I would talk about it on the air. And I was like, “Me? Yeah, I don’t care.” I didn’t really think about the impact that would have. But the HIV community was so desperate for some person to relate to it. Overnight it exploded. Except for the winner of the season, the producers were like, “You have the most press requests of anyone we’ve ever had on the show.” People were just dying to hear my story. It was crazy. But then I started to think that maybe this is my new purpose in life, be an activist and role model for those who can’t speak on their own and don’t have a voice.
Lately, Project Runway has been doing some all-star shows. Will we see you on a future season?
[Laughs] No. I love the show and franchise and I totally support it, but that ship sailed for me.
Why do you think you had such an impact on the show despite having to withdraw from competition early?
That one moment of saying I’m HIV positive and they show me I’m taking my pills. It looks like I’m taking 500 pills but actually I was taking a lot of multi-vitamin pills as well. They made it this very dramatic moment, which is fine, for some people it really needs to be dramatic. If I would have just said off the cuff, “Oh, by the way, I’m HIV positive,” which is how I act, I think most of America would have been like “What? I don’t get that.”
For me, it’s really commonplace but for most people it’s like, “What the fuck?”
It was a big moment for a lot of people, especially young people, who can’t relate to Magic Johnson. Or don’t think they know anyone that’s HIV positive.
How did the show affect your HIV activism?
People feel really shameful and isolated. So for me just to be out there, bigger than life and say, “Here I am. Here’s my story.” I think a lot of people really appreciate that. So that’s why I continue to do it. People always say, “Oh, you’re always naked.”
Well, you know what, I’m from the Ben Cohen school of thought. He has this amazing organization, the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, and he’s like, “If I take my clothes off and people pay attention to my issues that I’m speaking about, I’m happy to do it.” I feel the same way.
I know if I do an article and just talk about HIV activism people will appreciate it, and say, “That’s nice.” But if I take my shirt off and show my ass, ten times more people will read the article so that’s my approach.
Anything else you’d like to add?
If there is anyone who is HIV positive out and are freaking out, feel free to reach out to me. I’m totally accessible. It’s really easy to get a hold of me. I have 5 Facebook pages. I’m on Twitter. I’m the only Jack Mackenroth in the whole world.
Single? And dating like a tramp. [Laughs]. 43, but feel free to typo that and I also live in South Beach. Near Flamingo Park. Lennox.