Monsieur Butterfly: Jack Mackenroth embraces transformation and new purpose

Jack Mackenroth lives the turbulence, transformations and pageantry of a butterfly and the opera called, life. He may not have the colorful wings of a monarch butterfly or look like the Japanese heroine of Puccini’s opera, but the events his life parallel the stories of both creatures.

Puccini originally set the opera in two acts, but it wasn’t well received. Mackenroth had also planned his life a certain way, until love and life happened. Both men re-conceived their works of art into three acts, caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, resulting in immediate hits.

From modeling to Project Runway to social media, Mackenroth tries not to let the reality of being objectified and scrutinized have too much of an impact on him. “There are always crazy people in the world,” he said. “Part of being a public figure is getting feedback, whether you like it or not, from everyone.” But he does his best not to disappoint his audience.

“I was twirling a baton at age six.”

Act I began in Mackenroth’s late teens. “I came out when I was 18, during my freshman year of college. I came out to my new friends in the first few months of school. I came out to my family the following summer,” he said. The revelation was less than news for many people in his life. “Everyone already knew,” Mackenroth said, “except my mother who must’ve been in complete denial, since I was twirling a baton at age six.”

He’d had pneumonia during his junior year of college. The doctors tested him for HIV and the tests came back negative. Unfortunately, that was because “the test was only for the HIV antibodies and I had not started producing them yet,” Mackenroth said. “I moved to New York 18 months later and I got ulcers in my esophagus. I was tested again and it came back positive.”

The latter part of Act I was filled with more inevitable revelations and tragedy for Mackenroth. It was 1996. “That whole time period was awful, my partner had just died of AIDS,” Mackenroth recalled. “We had just attended his memorial service. I know my mother knew I was probably HIV positive, but we still had to have the conversation,” he said.

Mackenroth recalled that while the medications back then were getting better, they were far from great. “I was doing really well, but it was still really heart wrenching for both of us to face that uncertainty,” he said of breaking the news to his mother and other loved ones. “It’s always painful to see fear and hurt in the faces of people you care about but I believe they have a right to know the truth.”

“Fashion is really excruciatingly hard.”

Act II had a hopeful and sparkly beginning with new fame and possibility that found the swimmer/model/designer as a contestant on Season 4 of Project Runway.

He was open about his sexuality and HIV status on the show, but instant success in the world of fashion was cut short by a staph infection in his face. He withdrew from the show early in the season. And as far any plans of returning, there are none.

“They promised me, no questions asked that I could return the next season,” Mackenroth said. “I approached the producers the next year and said, ‘Okay, let’s talk about how we’re going to do this.’” But by that time the producers had changed their minds, he said. “They never really gave me a reason. They said it was because I knew that it wasn’t totally real and I’d have an advantage, but they started doing All-Star shows and they never approached me.”

He made it clear though that “I really still respect the show and I like the show, but I think once it moved to Lifetime it sort of lost its audience,” he said. “I did it. It was good for me. I got what I needed from it. Time to move on.” And move on he did.

This time though, the journey and adversity brought a major transformation for Mackenroth. “Fashion is really excruciatingly hard,” he said, and so his aspirations for the fashion world are on hold, for now. “It’s a talent that I have that will never go away.”

Act III finds Mackenroth as the colorful, loud and proud butterfly showing off its new-found wings. Dealing with the challenges of the first two acts, brought on a new world for Mackenroth that is perhaps more grounded and profound because of the challenges of his previous Acts.

“What exploded after my season [on Project Runway] for me was the whole HIV advocacy and awareness stuff,” he said. “That is really my full-time focus, right now.”

Looking the way he does is just part of the plan Mackenroth said, “I get a lot of attention for it, which is fine.” He actually counts on the fact that people are going to objectify “and with that attention I use it to say, ‘and by the way, I’m HIV positive,’” said. As a poster boy of what life with HIV can look like, he believes getting people’s attention first is key.

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Although it serves his purposes, his appearance is not easy to maintain Mackenroth said, “I swim about five times a week for about an hour and a half each practice. I am ramping up training for Masters Nationals this May, so I will start swimming about seven to nine times a week, in March.” He has been a swimmer since childhood, he said and “my best strokes are breast stroke and butterfly.”

He even credits swimming for his extensively photographed bottom. “I actually never thought my ass was really remarkable, until a couple of photographers were like ‘Your ass is really good. It’s so big,’” Mackenroth recalled. “It’s literally from swimming. I didn’t event start doing legs until a few years at the gym. So, people are like ‘Really bitch? I hate you,’” he said. “I’m just trying to keep it up where it’s supposed to be.”

Living with HIV “is not about survival anymore, if you do everything correctly,” he said and added that it is the stigma and the judgment that can be even more harmful. “But you don’t want to sugar coat it. It’s also a pain in the ass,” he said, “and we don’t know what the long-term effects of these medications are.”

And while his is in impeccable health, Mackenroth does hope for a cure and feels confident that there will be one in his lifetime. In the meantime though, he lends face and body to HIV/AIDS advocacy, prevention and education by making appearances for non-profits like, Impulse Group.

Impulse Group Representative, Jose Ramos said, “It was wonderful to have Jack speak at our event. For our audience to hear a first person account of how living with HIV and AIDS affects you on a daily basis was simply invaluable and inspiring.”

In addition,  Mackenroth’s  gay social networking/dating site along with announced a new collaboration on World AIDS Day 2012 that they hope will reach a broader audience and diminish stigma and misconceptions related to HIV/AIDS.

“We fight stigma everyday,” Ramos said of his team at Impulse Group, “and Jack helped put a face to our goals.”

“The cool thing about is that we DO NOT ask HIV status. We assume everyone is HIV positive as you should always do in any situation,” Mackenroth said.

“Do you trust somebody that you’ve never met to tell you the truth about anything? Just assume that people are positive.”

“What’s the point of asking someone’s HIV status, if you’re just hooking up or if you’re just online? If someone tells you that they are negative does that mean something? Do you trust somebody that you’ve never met to tell you the truth about anything?” Mackenroth asked. “Just assume that people are positive,” and act accordingly he insisted.

In the flesh, Mackenroth is a surprise. He is causal, boisterous and rather kind, but not without being certain and driven. A quick Google search exposes his lack of timidity. After all it’s a lot of work getting out of that damn chrysalis, so why shouldn’t he show off his wings.

“My purpose right now in life is if someone has a serious question about HIV,” he said. “I’m the only Jack Mackenroth in the world. You can just Google me and you find my email address. And if you need to reach out to me, I’m available.”

Mackenroth has four Facebook profiles, a fan page, twitter account and yes, he also has a profile. He is single and looking to find love, but that isn’t the reason he co-founded the site, and he said the profile is really more of a way for people to connect with him about HIV issues.

Recently on his profile Mackenroth received a message from “a young guy in Chicago who just found out he was HIV positive in the last six months,” he said. “He was telling me that he had mentioned [his status] in his profile and he received dozens of messages of support from other members and it really made him feel better. I LOVE THAT!!!!”

For MORE from Monsieur Butterfly: Jack Mackenroth, click here.

Our thanks to Art Lewin & Co., Parke & Ronen, Rex Tegelaar @ Cali Good Life for the fashions,  Alex Lynn Cornejo & Michelle Kaplan @ Red Apple Photography, Paulina Martinez & Amanda Bashist for makeup/styling, and to the Bergevin, Belletini & Margolis family for the use of their residence.

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