Mondo Guerra won the hearts of Americans on the eighth season of the fashion design reality show Project Runway in 2010. Although he didn't win (he was runner-up), he did go on to win an all-star edition of the show earlier this year.
Known for his signature look -- big glasses, a bowtie, fancy socks, and of course his pompadour -- the 34-year-old designer from Denver, Colo., bared his soul on national television when he revealed that he was HIV-positive during an episode of Project Runway.
It was something he hadn't planned. Although he had mentioned his status to the producers, he told them he wouldn't discuss it. However, during a competition on the show, he was asked by judge, Nina García, to explain what his design, which was basically a repeated plus sign, meant to him. At first Guerra danced around the answer but finally admitted that he had been HIV-positive for 10 years.
"I had worked so hard to get to that point where I had some exposure for my talent, and I felt like I was really cheating myself of the honesty I spoke of," Guerra said. "I'm a very spiritual guy, and in that moment, I felt like my grandmother, who passed away 10 years ago, was holding my hand and told me that this was the time to do it."
Once he opened up, he said he was given back his freedom from shame, guilt, and fear.
Now, in addition to his work as a designer and helping to choose contestants for the new season of Project Runway, Guerra has become an activist for those living with HIV. He recently collaborated with Merck and launched a Web campaign called IDesign. The website provides people living with HIV resources they can use and lends tips on how to communicate with your doctor and others in your life.
"It really reflects my journey of living with HIV," Mondo said. "I personally had a hard time connecting with my doctor, because a lot of what is attached to being HIV-positive is emotional. Emotionally, I was not available to take care of myself. This is a reminder to take care of yourself."
Guerra may have gained the recognition needed to launch a new fashion line for Neiman Marcus that is projected for late fall, but when he's asked what he's most proud of, without any hesitation he says, "Being able to stand up for myself."
What can we expect from this season's Project Runway?
From what I've heard about season 10, there is definitely going to be some drama.
What were you looking for in potential contestants for the new season?
I want to call them designers, because that's what they are at the end of the day. When they go on the show, though, they really are contestants. Some are more competitive than the others. Some throw the towel in early and leave. My experience from being on the show is either you swim or you sink, and you can get burnt-out very easily.
But what specifically were you looking for when searching for new designers to compete?
I was really drawn to the power of truth and honesty.
What were your thoughts after you left the runway and disclosed your status?
I was so afraid of what was going to happen after talking about this on national TV, but from the time the episode aired, the response from the community, the fans, and my family was overwhelming. I just thought this was an opportunity for me to lend my voice to an important cause.
What advice would you give to others who are wrestling with their HIV status?
It's important to surround yourself with people that you trust. It's also important to seek out the care with your doctor. I always recommend going to your local AIDS service organization. When I was sick, I wasn't able to talk about it. I sought guidance from my local Colorado AIDS project. That really saved my life. It's really important to be proactive and talk to your doctor and find a treatment plan that is appropriate for yourself.
What went through your mind when you first learned you were HIV-positive?
I felt very lonely. I felt like I would disappoint so many people. I felt trapped. I didn't know what to do next. I was living in New York City when I was diagnosed. I remember leaving the doctor's office and being in a cab alone and going back to my apartment and kept thinking, "What now?"
You've often spoken about keeping a positive outlook on life. How do you do that?
My work is what really makes me want to get up and focus on my health. Without my health, I'm not able to produce and make my dreams come true. I think it's really important as a positive person to set goals, not only in your healthcare and your treatment plan but in your personal life, as well. That's the way I do it.
In Season 8 of Project Runway you placed as first runner-up, and Gretchen Jones was declared the winner. Many thought you were cheated. Did you?
I had just shown at New York Fashion Week. I had been watching the show since season 1. It was a dream of mine. I know it sounds cliché, but it was a dream to be on that show. When watching the shows I was thinking, "Man, I can be there and show against these designers."
When I did have the opportunity in season 8, it was really overwhelming. When I was on the runway and it was Gretchen and me, I was terrified, because I wanted to win so bad. They called Gretchen's name, and I kind of blacked out. I don't remember saying congratulations to her or hugging her. I don't remember Heidi coming up to me and kissing me on the cheek and saying, "I'll be a fan." The first thing I remember is when I opened the door to the green room and my parents were there with my sister, and they were so excited. They had thought that I had won, but I was crying, so they knew that I didn't. That's when it hit me that I really didn't take the prize.
The fashion industry is very tough. How did you develop your backbone to withstand criticism?
Growing up, I was bullied a lot. I don't want to use the word "outcast," because it sounds so negative, but I was different. I was pursuing things that other kids weren't interested in. I was an inside kid. I was always painting or drawing.
And playing the piano--
That was another thing. As a Latino, there is a lot of machismo. I asked my parents if I could tap dance when I was 6 years old, and they told me boys do not tap dance. When I was 8 years old, I wanted to play the piano, because there was a piano in my house, but no one played it. It was just a piece of furniture. My mom said I could play piano, but I also had to play baseball. I played [baseball] for three seasons, and I was like, "Are you kidding me?" I just always felt like I had to prove myself to achieve the things that I wanted to do.
Has the support you've received from your family today surprised you?
When I told them [that I was HIV-positive] -- and I told them four days before the episode aired -- my mom said, "I am so proud of you." I could tell from her look that she was just waiting for me to say it, but she was never going to ask me. That's the way my parents work. They never ask questions. They wait for you to come to them to talk about a certain subject. She said, "I hope this will help other people living with the disease and struggling with their status to talk about it." I feel like on that day I was reborn, and all my relationships with my family have been developed so much more.
How did your look come about?
I pack a lot of stuff; I overpack no matter what. I always feel, with my clothes, they are just clothes. I don't really believe in outfits. I just throw stuff together. I'm a super-messy guy in my personal space, so everything was just thrown around on the floor. I just started pulling for things. Being Latino, I was very well-versed in ironing every single garment. I iron everything. I have been doing it since I was in kindergarten. One day I did the pompadour, and it kind of stuck. That show kind of created a character of me. It wasn't planned.
What has been your biggest fashion disaster?
I don't know if it's fashion, but I have really bad feet. I've never had a pedicure in my life. My personal fashion disaster -- I don't think I have one!
Then what really bothers you when you see it on others?
I don't like when people go to the store or anywhere out in public in those PJ bottoms. That is so bad! Don't throw PJs on. Don't throw flip flops on.
You have admitted to having a boy crush on Isaac Mizrahi, but who was your first crush?
No one has ever asked me this question, but I know exactly who it is! His name was Darryl Tomlinson, and he was my art teacher in ninth grade. He was this big, bald guy, and he had tattoos. His focus was ceramics and the wheel.
Oh, so you had this Ghost fantasy!
It really was. He told me that he was a wrestler all through college. He went to school on a wrestling scholarship, but he was also in the orchestra playing cello. I was just like, "This is my dream man."
Have you seen him since high school?
I've never kept in touch with him. I have tried to Facebook stalk him, and I can't find him anywhere.
So if Mr. Tomlinson is reading this, what would you like to say to him?
Thank you for giving me the tools and courage to create art.
Finish this sentence: You should wear Mondo's designs because...
Girls just wanna have fun!
If you could dress any celebrity, who would it be?
I'm not so much into pop culture. I listen to Steely Dan, David Bowie, and Grace Jones. Who's that girl who wears the candy canes and stuff?
Yeah. I think it would be fun to do something for her. Maybe a little more refined than all her gimmicky stuff. She looks good on the red carpet.
Who needs a makeover?
Yeah, she needs a makeover. I love her, but now she's kind of crossing the line. She went from crazy to almost obscure and obnoxious.
Do you think people pay attention to what Kathie Lee wears?
Well, guess what? It's not just about what people wear; it's about their personality, too.
Well, she drinks on her show.
That's what I'm talking about!
What advice would you give to others about fashion?
Do something unexpected. It's always well-received. When you're unexpected and your friends see that you're trying something new, they'll give you a compliment. Who doesn't want a compliment?
What trends should we look for this fall?
I think fashion is in a place now where there aren't any rules. I'd love to believe that. Fashion is there as a tool, and you use these tools to create a personality and an extension of who you are. I don't consider myself an expert. I feel whatever is appropriate for you is the right thing to do.
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For more on IDesign, visit projectidesign.com.
Photo credit: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images