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Mondo Guerra Is Going to Dress You Up in HIV Awareness

By Mathew Rodriguez

December 19, 2013

Mondo Guerra

Mondo Guerra

Mondo Guerra was once perhaps the least likely of HIV activists. After being closeted about his own HIV-positive status for 10 years and pursuing a career as a fashion designer, his disclosure of his status on Project Runway turned him into an overnight celebrity activist.

Now, his life is dedicated to Project I Design, which encourages people living with HIV to take control of their own health. Mondo sat down with TheBody.com to discuss the new designs he unveiled for World AIDS Day 2013, his experiences with the community at the U.S. Conference on AIDS, and hearing stories from fans.

Can you tell us what Project I Design has been up to in the past year?

This is my second year on the Project I Design campaign, in collaboration with Merck. This year we joined forces with Duane Cramer, who is a world-renowned photographer. He's come on as another co-spokesperson. We're really happy to have him. I feel like, with our two voices, there's strength in numbers.

The major thing that has happened is that we went to the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) in New Orleans this past year. Once again, we had a community-focused art project at the conference. We invited people from the community, not only people living with HIV, but people that work in the field -- maybe they're from local AIDS service organizations, or they're medical doctors -- they were encouraged to participate.

Over the course of three days, we collaborated on the mural through painting different shapes. Each shape represented a different step that we like to talk about in our messaging with the I Design campaign -- to reflect what we say in our messaging. I Design is a national HIV campaign, encouraging people living with HIV to take a proactive approach in their healthy life by having a completely open dialogue with their medical doctor and, this way, to really find the treatment that works best for them.

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We've spoken to you several times about I Design. Anything that fosters patient empowerment, that's exactly what TheBody.com is about, and I think that's also what I Design is about.

I'm really happy that I'm able to be part of this campaign. Because, before I joined the campaign, first of all, I didn't talk about my HIV-positive status for 10 years. It came out on an episode of Project Runway. I think you've heard the story before: After the episode aired, I was just overwhelmed by the love and support and encouragement from the community -- not just the HIV community, but the community at large. It gave me the courage to continue the conversation about HIV. And so, when Merck approached me to be part of the I Design program, I said, "Yes," of course.

I feel that on our collaboration we really built a campaign that resonates with a lot of people. If you visit the website, projectidesign.com, you can access this very important information. But for me, it was important not to make it so clinical, and so black and white. It has to be easy information that you can digest. There are certain elements of the website that you can download to help you be prepared to have that conversation with your doctor -- such as a checklist.

The fun thing about it, also, is that I had this idea that when people feel like they are involved, they have a tendency to be more empowered, like you said. There's an opportunity to create a textile on the website and upload it, and share it with the world, so to speak.

There are a lot of things that I feel have helped me move forward within the campaign -- such as being able to create and share.

It's funny. Because, I can tell you, from my experience going to the United States Conference on AIDS for the past two years: When people come into our booth and participate in these community projects, it's a different approach to opening a conversation. And these conversations that I have with people that are participating are really the conversations that encourage me and make me want to work harder.

One of the main messaging points from the campaign is having a conversation with your doctor. But I really feel like having a conversation with yourself is number one in being able to talk about your status, and talk about what you need -- not only from your doctor, but from the people around you, your support system.

Because being HIV positive is a huge responsibility. And it's OK to ask for help. As long as we continue to share stories -- at least for me -- those stories really help me.

Actually, I was at USCA. I saw you from afar in one of the plenary sessions, but I didn't get to go up and say "Hi" to you because I was working TheBody.com's booth.

The conference in New Orleans was so wonderful this year. I just felt like it was so successful, at least for the I Design program. I felt like our plenary session went wonderfully. It was nice and relaxed. And that's what our whole campaign is about; it's about being able to take it in and put it out there. So I was really, really pleased. I think everybody had a really great time.

And also, during the conference, I revealed this scarf that I created for the 25th World AIDS Day. It's a print that I designed that is reflective of the original Pozitivity print that I created on Project Runway. But this year I really wanted to focus on changing it up a little bit, and adding more color, representing the diversity within the community.

If you take a look at the print, it actually looks like the plus signs are holding hands. I think that represents strength. And I think it's a really wonderful print. And now, it's available on my website, mondoguerra.com.

Last year's dress that you made for World AIDS Day, which was amazing, was inspired by something that you had seen at the U.S. Conference on AIDS. What was the connection between the U.S. Conference on AIDS and World AIDS Day this year?

It's really interesting for me, in my personal work, especially when I'm approached by different organizations that want me to create work for them. Because I feel like I'm so blessed to be able to have that crossover between my creative side and my advocacy. I really do enjoy it. So I think it's not even just going to the conference and reflecting on the people that I've met; but it's me living with HIV and really sharing my ideas through an advocate's voice. It's been interesting how much impact it's had on my own personal creative life. I think people really respond to it.

I created the scarf before USCA this year in New Orleans, and we kind of involved it in our booth so people could try it on, take pictures. That was really fun.

And then, with the community project, we were painting these panels of fabric. I actually took that fabric and I created another garment for World AIDS Day this year. So there were two different projects. There was the scarf and then this other garment that we revealed on World AIDS Day on our website.

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It was really interesting, because the way we revealed it was by pledges. People could come to our website and pledge to slowly reveal the item. The item is this oversized coat, and this asymmetrical striped black and white dress underneath. What I was inspired by this year was really the impact that people had on me, and how much they shared their stories. And so I wanted to make something that was a little oversized in scale. So this coat has a lot of volume.

I used the panels from the United States Conference on AIDS to create this coat. I'm really, really happy with it. Because it's something that's wearable, and it's functional. But it's not materially something that you would walk down the street with. Definitely, if you saw somebody wearing it on the street, it would probably turn your head, get your attention. And you'd probably ask, "Where did you get that coat?" or, "What are you wearing?"

And that's the wonderful thing about it. I think that really represents what this conversation's about. You have to stop and maybe ask yourself, "What are you wearing?" -- in a different way, not necessarily clothing. Maybe you're not talking about something, or you're hurt, or whatever it is. You need to be aware of "what you're wearing." That was the jumping-off point for the coat. It got a really, really great response.

I hope that the people that visited our booth and painted on the panel recognized some of their work. I want to say thank you to the community for participating, because they are really the ones that inspired the work this year.

One of the things that we always talk about with World AIDS Day is that it's one day of the year, but every day could be World AIDS Day. So, past looking at the coat, and looking at the scarf, what do you think are ways that people can continue to be involved with Project I Design throughout the rest of the year?

It's really important to visit the website and access the information, educate yourself and know your status. I think that if you visit the website, you might get some information that you didn't know about. Or maybe you talk about the textile. Or maybe you even talk about the design that I made. And that opens up a conversation.

There are so many ways to open up this conversation about HIV. On the site there's also a video of the process that created the design. So I would ask somebody that visits the website to think about it, and think about somebody that might not access that information on a normal basis and tell them about it. Have the talk about World AIDS Day or just HIV, or what your story is.

It's not really a matter of being HIV positive, or HIV negative. It's really about having the conversation.

So what I'm trying to say is talk to somebody else. Tell them about the website. Tell them to go check it out. Because I hope that that person will see it and tell five other people. And that's really what we need to keep on the table.

Just like you said, World AIDS Day is every day of the year. Within the campaign, we would encourage you to have a conversation every day -- even if it's with yourself.

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It's interesting, you being an activist now, having taken up this advocate mantle. You started out as a fashion designer. You didn't know this was where you were going to end up. What's it been like for you, integrating your activist work into your creative career and vice versa?

It has been absolutely amazing. Before I got on Project Runway, and before I talked about my HIV-positive status, there was a point where I was ready to give up -- not only on my health, but also in my creative work. Because the HIV was really defining who I was -- it was basically not only killing me, it was killing my artistic dreams. I had to hit rock bottom to really realize that I have something to talk about, and something to say.

At that point, I thought it was just about me getting healthy, and continuing to work hard on my creative goals. But once I got on the show and all those events happened, it really came full circle. I reflect on it now and I honestly feel in my heart that everything happened just the way it was supposed to be. When I was a little boy, I was kind of an indoor child. I didn't have a lot of friends. But I always was creating art. And even as a 6- or 7-year-old boy I had big dreams. I knew that I would be able to share my voice in a different voice. And it's just been amazing to know that I'm able to share it artistically and also through the advocate work.

I feel like once I talked about it, about three years ago now, people were concerned. I understand that and I'm so happy that I talked about it. Now, I really feel like, within the past three years, I've gained not only respect for the entire fight, but I feel like people don't look at me just because I'm HIV positive, and know it. I think they look to me because they're excited and they're encouraged to talk to me. I really, really love that. So it's just been an amazing journey so far. There's just so much more to share.

What are some memories you have of people coming up to you and telling you that your work has made an impact on them? And how does that make you feel?

The story that I hear the most is that people really remember that moment when I revealed my HIV status on Project Runway, and the work that I created. They really echo the same story, and I feel like a lot of people shared the same emotion when they saw it. They commend me for making something so beautiful with so much strength and impact.

But they also realize that it was just a representation of who I am and where I've come from and very honest to what I do aesthetically. And that is such a big compliment to me. Because I feel, as a creative person, in general, you have to share your truth, and really value that as a gift, and put that into your work. Apply what you know to what you do creatively. I think that that creates impact.

And not everybody needs to know the story behind it, as long as you know that you're putting it out there and you're sharing. I think that's just a really beautiful thing. I guess that's the story that people share with me. It's always just a jumping point for them to open up and tell me.

Another story that I really loved is that there have been younger adults that come up to me. They talk about how -- and this has happened about six, seven, eight times -- they have kids, and they tell me they watch the show together. They're like, "When we saw you create that garment that came down the runway in the Pozitivity print, and you were so emotional, my kids turned around to me and they asked me, 'What's wrong? Why is he crying?' or 'Why is he afraid?'" Because I think kids, in a sense, can pick up on emotions very easily.

And they thanked me because they said, "It really opened up a conversation about HIV. And now my kids know." I think that's just absolutely amazing.

There are so many stories that I could share, and go on, and go on. But that story for me -- to know that parents are willing to talk to their children about this topic -- is really valuable, really important, and really amazing.

What other work have you personally been involved in this year? What else has been going on with you?

I continue to do collaborations with this socks company called Sock It to Me. I also launched a line of eyewear with SEE Eyewear in October. That's proven to be very successful and exciting. I never thought that I would be doing eyewear. So that was a challenge. And I love a challenge, so that's fun, to see it come to fruition.

I signed a deal with a shoe company. I can't really say what shoe company it is, but you'll see that very soon. I continue to work hard on the I Design campaign with Merck.

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Beyond that, I am actually out in L.A. right now, filming a new show for Lifetime, which is called Under the Gunn. I don't want to give too much away, but basically Tim Gunn is playing his mentor role, but as Heidi would in Project Runway. And he's invited three past designers, including myself, to take the torch and be mentors. So he's mentoring us to be mentors for our groups of designers. We each have four designers in our group. And ... let the games begin.

It's been a very interesting and very exciting competition thus far. I can't wait till people get a taste of it, because I think they're really, really going to love it. I mean, if you love Tim Gunn, you're going to love the show.

That really does sound great. If anyone wants to keep up with any of these things that are going on for you, they can go to your website, correct?

Yes. They can go to mondoguerra.com. I also have a Mondo Guerra Official Fan Page on Facebook, and we keep it updated. We probably post three, four, five times a day. If anybody wants to stalk me, be sure to do that on my Facebook page.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.


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