Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

To the rescue!


Academy of Friends throws a superhero Oscar gala

One of the golden statuettes from last year's Academy of Friends gala. Photo: Steven Underhill
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Look up in the sky. It's a bird, it's a plane – it's hundreds of tuxedoed partygoers coming to the rescue of HIV/AIDS organizations at the Academy of Friends' annual Oscar gala! This year's ultimate A-List event on Sunday night at Fort Mason, A Night of Superheroes, Villains & Divas, promises to be especially exciting. In addition to supporting HIV/AIDS groups that are financially strapped in these tough times, gala attendees can cheer on two of the most uplifting Oscar nominees in years: Slumdog Millionaire and the gay community's very own Milk.

In addition to enjoying Hollywood's finest, and hunky Oscar host Hugh Jackman, gala guests will be treated to live performances by the dance sensations of Burn the Floor and that ultimate villain/diva from the cast of Wicked .

Also on hand will be Jack Mackenroth, the HIV-positive fashion designer and TV personality from Project Runway, who's launched the national HIV/AIDS education campaign Living Positive by Design in partnership with Merck & Company.

Charming, talented, and ridiculously handsome, Mackenroth provides one of the best possible faces of HIV, and in the words of his former mentor Tim Gunn, he recently agreed to "talk to me."

"I'll be 20 years positive this August, right after my 40th birthday," said Mackenroth. "I immediately needed support when it first happened, so I came out as positive to close friends, and then to my family in the mid-90s. I was doing well on the meds, and after a few years some of the fear dissipated."

His appearance on season four of Project Runway was Mackenroth's launching pad to national exposure. "I discussed being positive on the show, and it became a great opportunity for outreach. It wasn't a big plan, I just wanted to live my life openly. Everyone who talks about it helps to alleviate the anxiety."

Through the Living Positive by Design campaign, he hopes to help combat the stigma associated with HIV, and encourage people living with HIV to have a positive outlook on life while effectively managing their disease. "The goal is to get people to work with their doctors to get to an undetectable viral load, and to be proactive about their health."

The public response, especially now that Project Runway is airing overseas, has been very, well, positive. "Once a day I get an e-mail or message on my Facebook or My Space page from people saying, 'Thank you for being a positive role model.' I expected a backlash, but there really has been none."

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Mackenroth is no stranger to San Francisco, but this will be his first AOF Gala. In addition to sharing his Living Positive by Design promos, he says, "I'm looking forward to mingling, having fun, and commenting on the Oscar fashions." And guys? I asked. He's single.

Friends of 'Friends'

The Academy of Friends has become a way of life for longtime volunteers, including current Board Chair Doug Piper. A marketing executive with Apple Computer, Piper has been involved with the organization for more than 10 years, along with his partner (and former AOF Board Chair) Scott Miller.

"We started off as donors, and when Scott joined the Board seven years ago, I volunteered on his committees," says Piper. "This is my fifth year on the Board, and my first year as Board Chair."

Piper and Miller's participation with AOF has grown more and more meaningful over the years. "I was first drawn to the fun parties that they throw every month. Everyone we knew went to them," says Piper. "Once we signed on as underwriters, it became more about the organization itself, but it still goes back to friendship. People on the Board have become my friends, and we've brought in other friends as well.

"It's great fun to use the skills you've gained from your professional life to help the community, and to do it with people you like to spend time with. And it's the rare corporate event where you can have a theme of Superheroes, Villains and Divas."

Piper says that this year, the need for community support is greater than ever before. "The challenge has always been to raise money, and the need is immense."

This year's gala will benefit the AIDS Emergency Fund, AIDS Health Project, AIDS Research Institute at UCSF, Children's Hospital & Research Center of Oakland, Food for Thought, Larkin Street Youth Services, Mission Neighborhood Health Services, New Conservatory Theater, PAWS (Pets are Wonderful Support), Positive Resource Center, Project Open Hand and The Health Trust.

"People are tightening their belts, losing their jobs, and worried about spending money," says Piper. "And there's an overall apathy building in the community regarding HIV/AIDS. While this year's No on 8 campaign was a vital cause, it sucked a lot of money and attention from health and social services issues."

On the bright side, the Academy of Friends' corporate superheroes are still in for the fight. "Companies like Levi's and Macy's have remained very loyal, and producing sponsor AT&T has been our largest corporate sponsor over the years."

With SF's top designers creating viewing salons inspired by the Superheroes, Villains and Divas theme, and guests who are just as likely to wear costumes as formalwear, Holy Hotness, Batman! This year's glamour and camp quotient should be off the hook!

A Night of Superheroes, Villains and Divas, Academy of Friends' 29th annual Gala, Sun., Feb. 22, 5-11 p.m. at Fort Mason, SF. Tickets ($250): or at Under One Roof, 518A Castro St., SF.

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