Oct 25, 2013
10:28 AM
Health & Wellness

'Project Runway' Alum Helps Launch National HIV Testing Effort Via Connecticut

The last time you heard of Jack Mackenroth may have been while watching season four of “Project Runway.” The winner was Christian Siriano, but the role played by Mackenroth, a standout swimmer, model and fashion designer, was notable.

He won the menswear challenge early on—creating a three-piece outfit that guest judge Tiki Barber wore during an appearance on The Today Show. He also revealed his HIV-positive status on the show, and he left amid the competition because of an infection unrelated to that status.

Mackenroth, who has worked for Tommy Hilfiger and designed for the Levis Slates brand, among many other fashion industry credits, is not in the design business these days. Instead, he is Director of Public Relations and Special Events for the Norwalk-based nonprofit World Health Clinicians, which this weekend is launching an innovative new national photo campaign entitled HIV Equal.

Its tagline is, “Everybody has an HIV status. We are all HIV equal,” and the effort is designed to raise about awareness about HIV and the need for HIV testing, specifically among younger people, while reducing the stigma surrounding the disease, which these days can be managed effectively.

Doing all of that requires getting the attention of the generation WHC is trying to reach, and of the MSM subgroup (men who have sex with men), as Mackenroth and WHC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Blick explained in interviews Thursday at the WHC offices in Norwalk. Founded in September 2010 by Blick and Executive Director Scott Gretz, WHC’s mission is to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases worldwide.

Reaching the target audience for HIV Equal is where the photo campaign comes in. Conceived by Mackenroth and celebrity photographer Thomas Evans, HIV Equal is creating a “social art movement” consisting of high-style photos—first of celebrities and eventually of people from all walks of life—in order to reignite the national dialogue about HIV/AIDS and to connect with, test and protect young men ages 13 to 34 (along with people of all ages and sexual orientations).

Blick, who has done significant work with HIV and AIDS in Africa, has been the principal investigator in more than 110 clinical research trials designed to benefit people with HIV/AIDS and chronic Hepatitis C infection (HCV), said, “It’s crucial to restart the national dialogue about HIV and HIV testing since recent [Centers for Disease Control] statistics suggest that the younger generations are most vulnerable when it comes to new HIV infections, as data from the 2010 cites that over 90 percent of new HIV infections are found in young men ages 13 to 34.”

To reach that demographic, the HIV Equal campaign brings with it a bit of glam and a sense of cool—as the photos artfully demonstrate.

Those photographed, which include Broadway star Nick Adams (“La Cage Aux Folles,” “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”), Connecticut U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, AIDS and gay rights activist Peter Staley, Tony Award-winning actor/singer Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots”), and drag superstar Bianca Del Rio, support the concept that a person’s value, or status, is equal no matter their HIV status. Those involved in the photo campaign choose their own “original” status to be printed at the bottom of their photo—labels such as “authentic,” “activist,” “sensualista,” or the more straightforward “Congressman.”

“To help promote HIV testing, every person who takes part in the campaign will also be tested for HIV,” the WHC explains in press materials. “As the campaign grows, this will help take the fear out of HIV testing. And as young people see their role models in the photos, they will want to become a part of the HIV Equal movement, as well.”

To give the effort a big kick-start, WHC is launching the photo campaign as part of a LGBT Health and Wellness Event Saturday (Oct. 26), from noon to 5 p.m. at its headquarters (618 West Avenue in Norwalk), that will feature an exhibit of the images, along with drag superstar Titania Steele, DJ T-BOY, Mackenroth, State Sen. Bob Duff and others.

 

 “Our goal is to photograph people from all walks of life who support ending HIV stigma, regardless of their personal HIV status,” Mackenroth said in announcing the event, adding Thursday that he expects a couple of hundred people to attend Saturday, and as many as 100 to be photographed and tested.

In line with the anti-stigma message and in the spirit of appealing to a younger demographic, the postcard invitation for the event says “Let’s play doctor!” and features a photo of Titania Steele, the event’s host, sporting a naughty nurse look. In addition to free and confidential testing for HIV, and a free STI panel (sexually transmitted infections), the event offers “fabulous” door prizes, including Botox treatments, the opportunity to meet Mackenroth, food and drinks and entertainment by DJ T-BOY.

As the Facebook invitation shows, WHC wants anyone to attend the launch.

“The message of HIV Equal is that it is vital that we all know our HIV status but that we should not be judged because of it,” Blick said.

 

After the launch Saturday, HIV Equal will take its photo shoots and testing initiative to cities across the country, where, Blick said, WHC will partner with health-testing or public-health entities in each location.

 “We launched the campaign with celebrities, politicians, artists and many recognizable faces in order to draw attention to our mission, but we plan to include everyone since HIV affects us all,” Mackenroth said, adding “We need to take care of ourselves and each other, as well as to reignite the global conversation about HIV to stop the spread of misinformation, fear and judgment.”

Toward that end, even Dr. Blick's mother, Gloria Blick, was photographed to represent all the great-grandmothers in the world and make a statement that HIV affects everyone. 

In explaining HIV Equal, Mackenroth emphasized that Congressman Himes’ participation was meant, in part, to show how easy it us to get tested with a mouth swab. The test takes less than 20 minutes, he said.

To connect or learn more see the HIV Equal website.

 

'Project Runway' Alum Helps Launch National HIV Testing Effort Via Connecticut

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