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Jack Is Back

Jack Is Back


Jaws dropped across the country when we found out that one of the most talented contestants on this season of Project Runway was stepping down due to a staph infection. Now Jack Mackenroth is back up and running and looking toward his future.

Atlas-sized and covered in tattoos, Jack Mackenroth muscled his chiseled jaw through the first five episodes of the current season of Bravo's Project Runway to become the resident loveable hunk. The 38-year-old New Yorker and Seattle native revealed on televised diary segments that he has been HIV-positive for 17 years, challenging viewers' perceptions of the disease. Our concept of what it means to live with HIV was given a further dose of reality when Mackenroth ultimately had to bow out of the show in the midst of filming due to a serious staph infection in his face.

Mackenroth recently took a break from reality to talk with Benjamin Ryan about his budding relationship with Dale Levitski from Top Chef, swimming in the Gay Games, and what those Project Runway cast mates are really like.

How has sudden fame treated you?

[Laughs] It depends on the day. If I'm in the mood, it's great. People I don't know come up and hug me on the subway. Some days I just sit at home and say, I don't want to go outside because my hair's a mess.

What ended up happening with the staph infection?

I went into the hospital for five days, and I had IV vancomycin twice a day. It's a really hard-core antibiotic. They actually had to cut open the inside of my face and drain it. It was a speedy recovery. I was completely fine.

Did the cast know that you are HIV-positive?

No, actually. There was really no forum for me to sit down and tell them. After the show I thought, Well, I'll just e-mail everyone and say, "I don't want you to find this out on TV and be shocked."

How did it feel having to quit the show like that?

I was crying for, like, three hours. [Bravo] made it look so quick. I was really upset about how they portrayed it on the show. Because the cast actually volunteered to finish my garment, and there was a big production when I left. That was kind of annoying to see, like, "[Lackadaisically] Oh. Bye, Jack. [Excitedly] Yay, Chris is back!" America has to remember that they're watching Bravo's edited version of every person on there. There are many sides to Chris. He's very funny sometimes. But they made him out to be this delight because they knew that he was leaving and then coming back.

So, what was the reality?

Let's just say that there are seven New Yorkers from the show this season and only four of us hang out -- and Chris is not one of them.

The four include you...

Christian, Victoria, and Kevin.

You and Rami seemed to have your share of friction.

Basically, what happens when you bash other contestants is you look bad. Rami just thinks that he is better than everyone else.

Did you try not to criticize the other contestants in your on-air interviews?

I, like a lot of gay guys, can have that sarcastic, bitchy sense of humor. And I don't mean to sound conceited, but if you're kind of quirky and like a Jay McCarroll-type character, you can get away with saying some nasty things [in the interviews], because people are like, "Oh, he's the quirky, bitchy guy." But if you're kind of attractive, you'll come off as being a really full-of-yourself bitch.

What's your take on Elisa?

Her clothes look a lot better on television than they looked in person. To some of us it was a little bit insulting that she was on as long as she was, because she doesn't have the skills that we all practiced so hard to be on the show. She has a huge fan base, once again, because Bravo edited her to be the kinda wacky girl with a heart of gold.

What did you think of the French maid dress that sealed Steven's doom in the challenge where you had to design for the weight-loss clients?

I felt really bad for him. For me, in that episode, I thought Chris March's was absolutely heinous. He's very skilled, but his taste is off. He just makes costumes.

And yet again, we see Ricky spouting the waterworks.

Oh, he cries at the drop of a hat. And he's usually wearing that hat.

You're a menswear designer, so I imagine you had to do some real prepping to get yourself in gear for the show.

I'm not someone like Rami who's got a bank of, like, 100 dresses in my repertoire. So I had to spend six months before the show really practicing all that stuff.

Do you think you could've made it to the final three?

Yeah, I think I had a good chance. I think skill-wise there are people who are better than me. Christian, by far, is the most skilled.

It must be really tricky to make a dress that is wearable, marketable, and pushes the envelope.

They really applauded Jeffrey Sebelia [in season 3] for being innovative. But I come from a really mass-market background. In the modern economy it's hard for someone who's a true artist to survive and make a profit. Because who's going to buy a couture John Galliano dress? There's a handful of women in the world who could afford to or want to.

Did you consider what to wear on the show?

Oh, yeah, honey, I planned all that. [In the third episode] you see me in a tank top. I thought, Hey I could leave at any moment, I'm going to get some T and A in there. People have given me grief for having my clothes off for two seconds on the show. I'm like, whatever.

Bravo has invited you to audition for season 5. Are you going to?

The producers told me at the time that they would expedite the whole process for me, but that there were no guarantees. I just don't know. It's such a big undertaking. And the fallout afterwards, regardless of how far you go, is so big.

What's some of the fallout?

The e-mails from people. And having your private life be public. Not that I don't enjoy those things. But it's stressful at the same time.

Speaking of which, you're seeing Dale Levitski from Bravo's Top Chef. How do the two of you handle the double dose of reality?

Bravo loves it, because it's just media for them. It's been sort of blown into something it's not. We live in different cities -- he lives in Chicago -- so we don't see each other a lot. We haven't even had time to develop a real relationship yet. I hope we do; I really like him.

You have a cameo in the upcoming Sex and the City movie.

I was, like, Hot Gay Guy #2. I met Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis and Sarah Jessica Parker, who I'd already met on the show. They were just delightful and so sweet. I had to walk past the girls, they checked me out, and then I kissed my on-screen boyfriend. The fan pool [on the street] would just scream. And then I had my first taste of quote-unquote fame, because all these people came over afterward and I was signing women's purses and giving autographs, which was so hilarious. Because I was, like, "Um, I'm an extra..."

Tell me about your career in menswear.

After I graduated from Parsons I opened a menswear store on Bleecker Street [in New York City]. Later on I worked at Tommy Hilfiger. Then I went from there to a company called Slates, which is a Levi's-owned company that does office wear. The last four years I've been at Weatherproof activewear.

What are you doing for work right now?

I'm actually not working right now. The show has a lot of responsibility. Eventually I'll have to work, because the money is running out, honey.

What were you like as a teenager?

I was obviously a little gay-in-training. There was this group of about 10 popular guys that would, like, punch me in the hallways.

You later worked as a model.

I actually never really liked it. I mean, coming from being made fun of, and all of a sudden people tell me I'm attractive enough to be a model -- I always felt like a fake.

You've also competed as a swimmer in the Gay Games.

I first went when I was 20, in Vancouver [Canada]. There were probably 20,000 people screaming, which is the antithesis of the experience of being a gay person, where we're told that we're not lovable and we're not worthy and we're not as good. To have that flip side where people are being ecstatic that you're just there is really amazing.

How have the Project Runway viewers reacted to your HIV status?

The response I've gotten to the HIV issue has been very positive.

What was it like when you found out you were infected?

I was only 20 years old. That was 1990. The prognosis was really bleak. I just figured I'd never make it to 25.

How do you feel about gay men's attitudes toward HIV today?

I think people have become apathetic. Because you can see people like me -- I look really good. But don't let that fool you. Having HIV is still not fun. We've come a long way in terms of knowledge and public awareness and medication, but I think the stigma still really sucks. Even in the gay community there are people who say, "I'm only dating you if you're disease-free." It's really lame.

So, have any career possibilities come up over the past few weeks?

Yeah, a lot, actually. There's talk about reality shows. Someone who dresses Kathy Griffin and Janice Dickinson wanted me to make dresses for them. But they actually wanted them in, like, a week, and they probably wanted them for free. I'm doing a lot of charity events.

Like what?

Recently I've been really impressed with the Harvey Milk High School. A lot of the kids are transgender, and a lot of them are involved in the ball community. Every year they do a huge ball in the spring. And I was like, "Oh, my God, I'd love to help them make their costumes and help them make their outfits."

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