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The funny and serious sides of Mondo Guerra: From "Project Runway" to HIV-education activist

SAN DIEGO – “Project Runway” favorite Mondo Guerra urges everybody to get out Thursday and support Dining Out For Life (DOFL) or buy his limited-edition tee to raise money for AIDS service organizations nationwide.

During a free-ranging interview with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, Guerra proves to be as open and candid as he was on the popular reality TV series “Project Runway.” But the Denver resident also flashes a funny side that did not often show its face during two appearances on “Project Runway.”

Guerra dishes dirt on his “Project Runway” experiences during Season 8 in 2010, when he finished second to Gretchen Jones, and on “Project Runway: All-Stars” in 2012, when he was declared the winner. He also discusses his blossoming career, looks to the future, and explains how he has been a longtime fan of DOLF and is now one of its spokespersons.

Guerra told SDGLN that DOFL has been dear to his heart for the past seven years. “I love this fundraiser,” he said.

The legions of “Project Runway” fans will recall the dramatic and emotional moment on the TV series when he disclosed that he was living with HIV, bringing tears to the eyes of judges, cast members and no doubt millions of viewers.

Guerra explains why he disclosed to the world that he is HIV-positive.

“It stems from my inner self,” he said. “I knew that I had to let go off this 10-year secret. I had to talk about it. I could not deny it any longer.”

The very personal disclosure has had enormous impact on Guerra and many people who witnesses this remarkable moment in TV history.

“There was an outpouring of support,” Guerra said. “There was a huge response from viewers and people who had never even met someone living with HIV.”

As a result, Guerra has been in demand as a spokesperson for the HIV community, and he talks to groups around the U.S. about how to manage the disease and live a full and productive life.

“This has impacted my life,” he said. “It opened my own eyes so much. … I’m now trying to figure out how I can do a crossover with designing and advocacy. If I could find a way to combine both of them, I would.”

Does he have advice?

“Being proactive can help you get answers, lead a healthier life,” he said. “If you’re not infected, it can help you to stay safe. Let’s face it, we may not all be infected but we are all AFFECTED by the disease.”

Guerra also describes his condition as “living with HIV.” He encourages others in his situation “not to let the disease define who you are.”

Through his journeys across America, he has come to appreciate and celebrate the stories of people who are living with HIV. “There is so much power in knowing that every story is beautiful and unique,” he said.

At the same time, Guerra is dismayed at the bias that he sees coming from some members of the HIV-negative community, such as those who post ads on online dating apps and say mean things about people who are living with HIV. “This is destructive,” he said. “They are intimating that those living with HIV are considered ‘dirty and disgusting.’”

Guerra condemns those who judge HIV-positive people and burden them with negative labels. He also is very concerned about young people who are intentionally getting infected. “I don’t know their personal story, but this is a problem,” he said.

“People [who are negative] don’t understand what it is to be positive,” Guerra said. “There is a huge responsibility, and it can really affect so many things in your life that you don’t expect.”

“Project Runway” changed Guerra’s life

“Project Runway” gave Guerra a huge platform to tell his story through his creativity and public persona that was created in the editing room. TV audiences see a 90-minute episode that has been cut down from about 14 hours of filming.

Still, Guerra thinks he was fairly portrayed by the editors of the show, although he says he was so stressed at times that his humorous side was often ignored. He laughed and made jokes throughout the interview.

Guerra joked about his “boyfriend,” who he actually had just met the night before, and shared his deepest secret: At age 34, he still sleeps with his baby blanket.

“It knows everything I’ve ever done,” Guerra said, laughing heartily. “It’s so old, it’s falling apart. It’s nasty. If only it could talk!”

The funny Guerra contrasts with the unhappy Guerra that many fans remember.

“I have to be miserable to do good work,” he said. “When I am so miserable, I do my best work!”

Guerra confesses that he “lacked motor skills” as a child and was placed in special-education classes for a while. During therapy, he had to put his hand in a bag and describe the objects he was feeling blindly with his hand. He is convinced that this helped to unleash his tactile abilities, which come in handy in fashion design.

From age 8, Guerra has played the piano, and still plays. His fantasy is to compete in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, and he thinks he is good enough to win if he practices enough and takes time off from his career. It’s part of his five-year plan, he said.

Reading music and observing the patterns of rhythm translated nicely to fashion design, he opined.

His mom is very creative and visually gifted, and designed costumes for holidays for her children. His dad is a guitarist and painter, and has an incredible vocabulary, Guerra said. He thinks his own gifts come from God and his parents.

“Creativity is all relative,” he said. “Creativity is what you put into it.”

Appearing on “Project Runway” pushed Guerra’s career to new heights.

“People recognized me more. I became more confident. It tightened up my skill set, because of the time restraints of the show. I became more experimental. I learned to push the envelope. … I allowed myself to explore more. I did not go by the book,” he said.

During both Season 8 and “All-Stars,” the normally mild-mannered Guerra clashed with the outspoken Michael Costello, a designer from Palm Springs, Calif. Many viewers were left with the feeling that the two openly gay designers were enemies.

“I love Michael Costello! Michael is my boy,” Guerra said, laughing. “I said some mean things about him on the show. I’m sorry for that now. I made assumptions about him because I thought he sucked! But when we were paired together on a project, I learned differently!

“Michael and I text on a daily basis!”

Guerra said he has great admiration for Tim Gunn, the “mother” of the designers on the show.

“He still rides the subway,” Guerra said, laughing at the image of the “stuffy” mentor riding on New York City’s crowded public transportation. “I was scared of him at first. … I called him ‘Grandfather Gunn’ and was told he preferred ‘Uncle Gunn.’”

After more than a decade of mentoring young designers, Gunn has become a brand of the show along with host Heidi Klum.

“Heidi on the set is the boss,” Guerra said. “It’s her show. She has a cold demeanor in the public eye. But in the dressing room or in private, she is warm. She’s interested in you and in there rooting for you to be your best.”

Guerra is in talks about doing a new show that he would star in, but he said he was not at liberty to discuss it in detail.

Guerra’s limited-edition T-shirt for DOFL fans

“Project Runway” launched Guerra’s public advocacy, too. He is encouraging everyone to support the nationwide AIDS fundraiser on Thursday, April 25.

Dining Out for Life International hosted by Subaru® enlisted the aid of Guerra this year as the newest spokesman to help raise awareness of the campaign and find a new source of fundraising that would be in addition to a portion of the proceeds from dining out at restaurants that support the cause. About $4 million is expected to be raised from supporters this year.

Guerra has designed a limited-edition T-shirt – a snazzy black-and-white tee seen on the right -- that is now on sale online for $25, and proceeds will benefit 60 AIDS service organizations around the United States.

Find a DOFL event near you

Click HERE to find the nearest DOFL event anywhere across North America.

Click HERE to find a participating restaurant in San Diego.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.