Reality Comes to 'Project Runway'

"Project Runway," the Bravo hit that pits wannabe fashion designers against each other, recently had a dash of something you don't see too much in reality television: reality. One of the contestants, Jack Mackenroth, who is HIV positive, had to abruptly leave the competition after developing a staph infection. The show's producers replaced him with Chris March, who had been voted out the week before. But many of the show's viewers are still wondering what happened to Jack. Although the series was filmed last summer, Mackenroth watched his exit episode for the first time last night. After it aired, he spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ramin Setoodeh.

NEWSWEEK: What's the response been since the episode aired?
Jack Mackenroth:
Basically, for about two hours after the show, my phone would not stop moving--text messages and voicemail nonstop. It's kind of overwhelming because it was very emotional for me to watch the episode.

Were you by yourself?
No. I had some friends over. My brother is here visiting from Seattle. I wanted support.

Were you edited in a way that you felt comfortable with?
Yeah, and they are under severe time constraints. They have 45 minutes to convey a whole episode. I did feel like a little bit was left out. The only part that kind of upset me is that they walked me down the hall and that was the last you heard of me. There was no follow up. I wish they would've at least let the public know that I'm fine. I don't think that's clear.

When you told [host] Tim Gunn you had to talk to him, the two of you had a private conversation off camera. What happened?
I really couldn't stay at that point. It was getting to the point where the MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] was really localized. With this particular bacteria, it's very aggressive. You start to get a fever. I was concerned about myself, but I also had to take the other designers under consideration. It's a contagious bacteria.

How long were you in the hospital?
Five days.

So there was no question of going to the doctor and coming back?
A lot of people have asked that. But by the time I got out of the hospital, I missed two more challenges. So it wouldn't have been fair to bring me back.

Do you think it was fair to bring Chris back?
I understand why they did it. But I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, if you're eliminated, you're eliminated. It's a competition. But on the other hand, I do understand they had to fill a void.

At what point in the auditioning process did you tell the producers you were HIV positive?
I've been positive for 18 years, since I was 20. I think I wrestled with it in the early stages. Back then, it was much different. There was no treatment. I thought I was going to be dead in a few years. Then I got to a point in my late 20s, when I was tired of having the conversation of saying I'm HIV positive, and being rejected or not. So I've just been very vocal and open about it in my life personally. When you apply for the show, they do a whole medical history on you. They still said if there's anything you don't want to talk about, we won't talk about it. But this is part of my life and I don't want to hide it. I actually think I can do some good by being visible.

What are you working on next?
There are certain elements I can't talk about--certain things involved in the show. As far as design, I've done a whole line of menswear samples. I don't know where I'm going to go with that right now, because it takes a ton of money to do a line. I may ride out the D-list celebritydom for a while and see where it takes me.

Weren't you glad they had a challenge with male models this season?
What I don't think the public understands, and you don't really see because of the time, is that it's virtually an impossible challenge. Making a men's suit in the real world takes two weeks. We were given two days in TV time, which translates to 18 hours. The fact that people came up with what they did was really amazing. It's almost impossible to do a menswear challenge. That's why they've never done it before and I doubt they'll ever do it again.

I think they considered it a disaster. On TV, most things look pretty good. In person, it was kind of a hot mess.

I don't want you to give anything away, but who are you rooting for on the show?
My very best friend from the show is Christian. He is so talented. You've already seen on the show he's a whirlwind with the sewing machine. Whatever happens, I think he's an amazing talent. He's going to go far.

You're dating Dale Levitski from "Top Chef." How did the two of you meet?
It's an interesting question, because he lives in Chicago and I live in New York. We started talking three months ago. We were talking on the phone and we clicked immediately. He's really hilarious and we have the same sense of humor. We've both been through the Bravo reality show experience, which unless you've lived it, you don't get the full idea of. Being sequestered is no party.