Project Runway Star Talks Houston, AIDS & Stigma

Former Project Runway contestant Jack Mackenroth's been to Houston before, although he doesn't remember us. "I know I've been to Dallas, Austin and Houston, but in my brain, I can't remember which is which. So I look around while we're driving and I think, 'This looks familiar,' but I don't know familiar to what," he laughs.

"You might not wanna tell too many people you can't tell us apart from Dallas," Hair Balls warns.

"Oh. Well, I don't wanna piss off any Texans ... ah, Houston's my favorite, is what I meant say."

Sure, sure.

Still it's easy to understand why Mackenroth might not spend a lot of time memorizing skylines and taking note of landmarks (even ones as big as the Astrodome). He's criss-crossing the country with Living Positive by Design, a campaign battling the stigma of HIV/AIDS that he heads up for the Merck pharmaceutical company. This weekend, he'll be participating in the 20th Annual AIDS Walk Houston, and he's spending the week talking to as many reporters as he can

Mackenroth is a young, happy, successful, gay, white guy who happens to be HIV-positive. It's a two-edged sword for him and the Living Positive by Design campaign. On the one hand, he puts a happy, healthy face on HIV and that's a good thing. On the other, he puts a happy, healthy face on HIV, and that's a bad thing.

Some [people] say that I'm glamorizing HIV and I'm like, "I really can't help what I look like. I can't help that I'm a white, gay male."

And really good looking ["You said that, I didn't!"], and happy and successful and famous.

"I am who I am and I'm doing as much as I can with the body and the voice that I have," he sighs. "I would love for a black, straight, female counterpart to join me. HIV affects everyone, and I want to speak to everyone, but I happen to be gay and white."

Don't forget good looking and healthy. "There's a fine line that we walk around that. We're saying, 'Look, I may be healthy and doing all these great things, and, hopefully, you can too. Hopefully, your health can be maintained, but it's still a very serious disease. We want to make it very clear: This is not glamorous. It's not fun.' I've been traveling for two weeks now and I've got to take this huge bag full of pills everywhere."

Mackenroth says the main focus of Living Positive by Design is, despite being backed by a pharmaceutical company, not medical but social aspects of living with HIV/AIDS. "I've been positive for 20 years, so it's sort of a non-issue for me at this point. But for other people, it's not. I still have people coming up to me after I've given a speech and they'll whisper in my ear, 'I'm HIV-positive also, but I can't tell anyone.' I'm most surprised at gay men who come up to me and whisper 'I'm in a similar situation.' They won't even say it. And I'm like, 'I just spoke for 20 minutes about being HIV-positive, so if there's anyone you can tell, it's me.' But some people have a really hard time saying it even to themselves. And I empathize with that. That's why a program like Living Positive by Design is so important.

"I just want to say this over and over, 'Listen, it's a disease, it's not a moral judgment. Talk about it as much as you're comfortable with. Explore your options. Become your own health-care advocate, partner with a doctor that you really trust and get on a treatment program that's individualized. Everybody reacts differently to different medications; you need to make sure the side effects are minimalized so that you'll continue taking the medication.

"I just did a radio show and someone said, 'Do you really still think there's a stigma?' I was like, 'Think about it. Yes!'"

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