An Interview with Mondo Guerra

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

 Mondo Guerra delivered an impressive performance on hit reality TV show Project Runway, earning him consistent praise and the runner-up title on Season 8. In addition to his fashion design success, Mondo won the hearts of the judges, fellow contestants and viewers after his emotional disclosure of his HIV-positive status on the show.  

Since his courageous disclosure, Mondo has become an advocate for HIV awareness, and is currently partnering with Merck on an educational HIV campaign called Living Positive by Design, which encourages people with the disease to maintain a positive outlook while effectively working with their doctors to manage their disease. Mondo is in Philadelphia this weekend for AIDS Walk Philly, where he and fellow Project Runway contestant/advocate Jack Mackenroth will be manning a booth. While he’s in town, Mondo made time to meet with PGC’s Alejandro Morales to chat at gayborhood coffee staple Cafe Twelve.

Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Denver. Born and raised. The art community there is really growing, but it’s not right for me right now, practically, to stay there. So I’m heading back east to New York, probably in March.

What’s going on there?

I’m going to start my brand and focus on getting back into the fashion thing. I know it sounds funny, because people feel like, “Well, you are a fashion guy,” but the thing about it is that I wasn’t a fashion guy before this — I hadn’t considered myself a fashion designer. I was a stitcher in a professional theater and I worked in the wardrobe department.

So how did you end up on Project Runway?

I’ve always been a fan of the show. And these girls where I worked were fans too, and when I joined their team, they encouraged me to go and audition. So I did.

And it just worked out!

Well, the first year I auditioned I went really far, but I got cut at the end and was made an “alternate,” so the next year, of course, I… I’m not one to quit. It’s really easy to feel defeated and not go back, but I felt like they actually wanted to see me again. So I went back and got cast on the show.

Speaking of how you got on the show, let’s talk about your design aesthetic. It was so distinct and different from what people had seen before. Where did you get your taste for color and patterns, and the way you work with them?

When I was younger, I had no hand-eye coordination, to the point where people thought I was disabled. I got held back in Kindergarten a couple times. I had no motor skills, so I had to go to these therapy classes. They would have me stick my hand in a paper bag and shut my eyes, and the therapist would ask me, “What does this feel like?” and let’s say there was a truck in there, and I’d have to feel it with my fingers and make that image come into my head. Then of course I wouldn’t know what color it was, but the therapist would ask anyway and I would make it up… so that’s how I approach design. My hands are just really good at adapting to color and pattern, and I know that doesn’t really make sense but that’s how it all started.  

Did you know going in that you were going to disclose your HIV-positive status at some point?

I went in to focus on my work and do the best that I could, and when I was there I was really taking it day to day. On that particular day, with the HP challenge where we were creating a textile based on childhood photos, it really brought me to a place where there was so much pain. Even though those photographs are happy and smiles, I was very afraid and alone as a child. So the way I approached the design was, I wanted to represent something that I was before, and something that I am now, and what I wanted to be in the future. And the biggest part of me at the time was this secret.

The producers knew because I had told them at an interview what my design was about, but when Tim [Gunn] walked around I just told him that it was all about color and construction paper and cubism and my love of patterns. The producers during the interview asked me, “Aren’t you going to talk about this?” but I told them I didn’t feel comfortable talking about the HIV, and they respected that, and I think that’s part of the reason why I was able to come out and say it on the runway that day.

What triggered me was — I’m a very spiritual guy and one of my biggest supporters is my grandmother Betty who passed away about ten years ago. And I felt like she was there, watching me. Every time I was on the runway I would look up and talk to her, and she kind of told me, you know, “This is…”

So the judges were asking me what my story was, and I was lying about my inspiration. And I heard the other designers’ critiques, and I was like, “You know what? I’m really cheating myself on this one, because this is not only about who I am as an individual, but who I am as an artist. I’m lying about my work, and that is going to effect me for a long time if I don’t talk about this.” And so when we were wrapping up the critiques and Heidi excused us, I just stopped — we were all literally walking off — and I’m like, “Nina, you asked me what my story was…” and within a minute and a half I let go of so much anger and pain, and I really felt like I had started all over again and I was so happy.  And everybody, all the designers and the judges and even the producers, were in tears, and I was there smiling, because I was so happy that I had confronted my own personal demons. It was amazing, and I’ll never forget that day or that feeling.

I realized that I had been hurting myself so much in the couple years leading up to the show, that the HIV was defining who I was, and I was letting the HIV define who I was. It was taking not just a physical toll, but an emotional and an artistic toll.  Project Runway is all about your work and all about what you can get through, and me still having these demons, these secrets — if I had held onto them I probably wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did. So that day was a real turning point for me. I was being honest about myself and my work.

You must have gotten a lot of responses from that.

Coming off the show, and realizing how much support I have, and hearing all these stories, it was amazing. I never thought that I would have that voice, and now with the “Living Positive by Design” campaign, things have really come full circle. I get to talk about things that I’ve lived, about my personal experiences. I’m living with this, so I can talk about it — and I don’t claim to be an expert. All I know is what I’m going through and what I’ve been through, and the thing about it is that my sharing might make another person living with the disease, or someone who knows someone living with the disease, feel more comfortable about seeking the kind of information that we provide through the campaign.

How did you get involved with Living Positive by Design?

I felt like it was my responsibility to continue the conversation about what happened on the runway that day. So I teamed up with Merck and the “Living Positive…” campaign. Our message is truly simple. It’s just to encourage people living with the disease to continue to have a positive outlook on life. The easiest way to do that, for me personally, has been to work with my doctor, because that’s the person who’s taken on the responsibility of taking care of me. You have to find a treatment regimen that works for you, and that can be tough. There’s a lot of different things that you can try, but you have to work with your doctor, and be responsible, and get your numbers, and remind yourself that you want to keep a high CD4 count and a super-low viral load. Then there are the side effects, which can make you miserable. So you have to keep on top of things. Working with the campaign was a good fit, because I can add a personal message to what we’re sharing.

Not only that, but I think it’s important for me to do this because when I was growing up I didn’t know nothing about HIV. I grew up in the Latino community and we didn’t talk about it. We don’t talk about it, because there’s this whole stigma, not just about HIV but being Latino and gay. I think it’s important for the Latino community to be able to put a face to it and be a little more comfortable.

And I feel like it’s really working. Even in my own family, they couldn’t put a face to the disease, so now that they know a family member living with it, they’ve sought out the materials to educate themselves with. So, for my family that’s grown up in Denver, Colorado for five generations, to seek out that opportunity to educate themselves about HIV, it’s pretty amazing.

It’s like a wave of positive change.

Yeah, it’s awesome.  Beyond that, my whole family dynamic has totally changed. Holding back from so many people in your life really affects you, and now that I’ve come clean, they’ve all been really supportive and I can look at them in their eyes and I’m actually becoming a hugger and all this stuff, so, it’s working out really well.

Are you watching the current season of Project Runway?

I am. I think there are some really talented designers, and my favorite is Viktor, just because he’s the whole package. He’s good to look at, he’s funny, and he’s talented. But I think Anya is going to win. The judges are totally living for her.

I hear you’re involved in a “Project Runway All Stars” project.

I think it’s coming out in 2012. It’s gonna be a really good season, I promise.

What else can you say about it?

I will say that there is going to be a lot of drama. It’s intense, yeah. I had a rough time. The thing about it was, coming off the last season and doing so well, maybe I got a little too confident. I didn’t realize that until I was put right back in the situation, and it wasn’t just the talent I’d faced before, it was talent times ten. Those people were freaking amazing, so it was scary and I had a rough time.

I remember, in the beginning of season 8 of Project Runway, it seemed like it took you a while to get acclimated.

I’m kind of socially awkward, and I say weird things and I have weird mannerisms and sometimes people are like, who is this guy? And they totally didn’t understand, I mean I was wearing leather caps and suspenders and short-shorts and knee socks…

It seemed like everybody warmed up to you eventually.

I think what they realized was that I’m actually a nice guy, and especially after blowing up at Michael Costello and then being like, I’m sorry. I had been a total dick. And that was a turning point for Michael, when I talked about him, the other designers who respected me realized that Michael wasn’t such a bad guy. Before that they were all after him. So Michael and I became, like, best buds to the end together. And we’re still good friends. I love that guy. We probably text each other like twice every day.

Is there anybody else you keep in touch with?

Yeah, I keep in touch with Peach — I love Peach — and I keep in touch with Michael Drummond, Christopher Collins, Valerie, Ivy… I think I keep in touch with them all.

Did you have a favorite challenge? Or a least favorite challenge?

My favorite challenge and my least favorite challenge was the Heidi Klum for New Balance challenge, because I really had to think outside my box. Heidi had a very specific point of view, and it was taupe and brown and gray and it was sportswear, literally sportswear like workout clothes, and I was like, no. I was not into it. But then, after I applied my point of view to it, I saw the three looks and I loved them. I love a good challenge. I really do. I focus and put my best foot forward.

So now that you’re kicking off your own brand, your own project, what’s your perspective on all that?

It’s going to be really good. That’s all I’ll say. It’s coming out soon.

I just want to mention the AIDS Walk Philly on Sunday. It starts at 8:30am and I’ll be on stage sharing a few words about the Positive by Design campaign. Then Jack [Mackenroth] and I will be in our booth, so people can come and meet us and get information about the campaign, and take pictures. I encourage your readers to come out, and if they can’t, they can check out the website at and see what we’re all about. It’s a good message.

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