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‘Project Runway’ winner & out HIV/AIDS activist Mondo Guerra

The artist in him cries out for design: Mondo Guerra is all about empowering people who are living with HIV.
The artist in him cries out for design: Mondo Guerra is all about empowering people who are living with HIV.

Taking Responsibility: ‘There is a lot of crossover between my HIV-education work and my art.’
by David Goldberg
Photo by Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

On Project Runway’s eighth season, which aired in 2010, fan-favorite designer Mondo Guerra made reality-television history when he revealed his positive HIV status to the nation. Though he may have started on the series as something of a mousy introvert, the designer has bloomed into a creative force and, more potently, a full-on HIV/AIDS activist. In June, the Project Runway: All Stars winnerwas honored by the Pride Houston Committee with the title of Celebrity Grand Marshal. OutSmart spoke to him last month, before the parade festivities began.

David Goldberg: You never really struck me as the kind of person who dreamed of becoming a parade marshal.
Mondo Guerra: Dreams do come true. My dreams are kind of private, I guess. I never thought about this, either. A lot of opportunities in my journey have never been preconceived. When I was on Project Runway, it was really a gift from myself after having come out of the hospital six months before and almost dying of HIV complications. I had a cell count of 14 at the time, and it was really important for me to make goals. Now I don’t go into situations with expectations; I go in with intent.

You are one of the most prominent HIV-positive media figures right now. Do you feel like the media ever try to put you in a box, or that they misunderstand you?
Coming off the show, I was overwhelmed with support by the viewers and the fans. That’s why I teamed up with Merck to join the I Design campaign. The wonderful thing about this campaign is that it really falls in line with my messaging and my own story. It’s about empowering people who are living with HIV to take a tailored approach to their treatment plan by having an open conversation with their doctor. For me, it starts with the inner dialogue. It’s not just about talking about the treatment plan, but also about talking about your life. I’ve been with the same doctor for eight years. My doctor was a person I trusted before I revealed my HIV status to him. It was really important, and always has been, for me to have an open dialogue with my doctor.

There’s been so much publicity around HIV lately because of the release of Truvada as a PrEP drug. Are you able to comment?
Whatever is good for you is what you need to do. It’s about having an open conversation with your doctor to find out what treatment works for you. Everybody living with HIV is an individual, and their treatment plan should reflect that.

Your line of glasses with SEE eyewear benefits HIV/AIDS research. How do you arrange for those sponsorships to go to a good cause? I don’t see many other celebrities doing that with their endorsement deals.
With any collaboration that I do, it is a priority to give back. It is just in my nature to help other people, and it’s about people that don’t have the voice. Luckily, I have the visibility, coming off the show, to be able to be an advocate for such an important cause. But the thing about it is that every individual affected—not even infected—is important, and they should take the initiative to really help themselves. So why don’t I take the first step? I’m trying to give everyone the courage to take responsibility.

Before Project Runway, you were in a private bubble where you could make your art on your own. Now that you are in the media, you are obviously very busy and very much in the spotlight. Has it made the creative process more difficult?
In the beginning, it was very difficult for me, because by nature I am an introvert. I am very awkward, and I don’t really do well in big group situations. But when I was on the show, I was really empowered by being around other creative people who loved the same things that I did. It was very scary for me to expose my process. It is a very private part of my life. It’s hard, as an artist, to really proceed with a vision when you know that you are providing a product, because you want to succeed with personal endurance but you also want to be able to survive. The wonderful thing about it is that as a creative person I am able to pick my projects. That is what keeps me going. There is a lot of crossover between my HIV-education work and my art.

What is it like to be gathered with the other Runway alumni? It always seemed like a summer-camp reunion to me.
The show is like summer camp because you are there the entire summer. I was in summer camp for three years in a row, and it’s always a different experience and always a different opportunity. I don’t consider it a family; I consider it more of a sorority. We’ve seen each other on TV and we know each other as personalities, but when you meet certain people in person, it’s a very different situation. Some people are different in front of a camera. That’s all I can say.

What has your experience with the fans been like?
This is my first time in Houston. A woman came up to me at breakfast today and said, “Oh my God! Are you Mondo? Can I take a picture?” I asked how she recognized me, and she said, “I heard your voice!” It was super-embarrassing; I didn’t know that my voice was that annoying. [Laughs]

I don’t know if this means you should come to Houston more often, or never come back.
That’s a good point. And it’s been less than 24 hours.

David Goldberg also writes about Damienn Jones in this issue of OutSmart.

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David Goldberg

David Goldberg is a queer journalist and the host of The Luminaries podcast. His work is collected at davidgoldberg.online.

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