October 6, 2010
"This print is also just symbolism for who I am now," Mondo Guerra, a Project Runway contestant, explains during deliberations. "It's just very, very personal and it tells a story."
The contestants were asked to make a pattern based on something from their own life. Guerra's creation -- a black-and-white silk halter, tucked ever so neatly into high-waisted, magenta bell-bottoms with black and yellow plus signs -- wowed the four judges. "I wish you would tell us the story," Nina Garcia, the editorial director for Marie Claire, urged.
After the rest of the judges -- Heidi Klum, Michael Kors and Rachel Roy -- weighed in, Guerra addressed Garcia's request. "The symbolism in the pants are these pluses are positive signs and I've been HIV positive for 10 years," the 32-year-old designer said with great emotion. "When I saw these pictures of my family, it brought back a lot of emotion, so I wanted to pull from the past, but also give something back of who I am now. ... I feel free."
Guerra, the front-runner in the contest and the winner of that episode's challenge, had only disclosed to his deeply religious family five days prior to filming that episode. The day after the episode aired, Guerra was interviewed by StyleList to talk about the impact of publicly disclosing. [Editor's note: Also be sure to check out TheBody.com's exclusive interview with Mondo in which he talks about living with HIV, dealing with stigma and fear, and the disclosure seen around the world.]
On why he did it:
"I was dancing around it the entire time. When I was on stage I felt someone just say, 'Go ahead.' It was a very cathartic moment. I was so happy. I felt there was so much weight off my shoulders, but I had to stay focused on what was ahead. The competition wasn't over."
His family's response:
"There was a lot of crying. They were sad and they were very, very proud. It was the most support I've gotten from my family in the last couple of years. It was hard for me to see that they do love me unconditionally. And more than anything they are frightened about how other people will react and treat me out in the world because of what I've shared."
People's reaction at a public viewing of the show where Guerra raised money for a local AIDS service organization:
"There were cheers, but people wanted to talk too. One man said, 'I have a 14-year-old son who is gay and after this episode, I feel like I can talk to him about anything.' Another woman gave me $500. She was her brother's caretaker and he had just passed away from AIDS and she was the only person he could talk to. I related to the isolation she talked about."
Valerie Mayen, Guerra's fellow cast mate, told Digital Spy that she was proud of her friend.
"I was very proud of him because that's a really heavy weight to carry around with you for so long. I think it just added so much more to the experience for him to win the challenge and to win metaphorically by sharing. It was beautiful to be a part of that and I think it will become an iconic moment of Project Runway history. I was glad to share that with him -- I was glad that we could still validate and affirm him and embrace who he is. We wanted to love him as a person and make it something that benefited others."
HIV is not new to Project Runway or reality television. Last year, RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Ongina emotionally disclosed while winning a challenge sponsored by the MAC AIDS Fund. In 2007, Jack Mackenroth disclosed his HIV status on Project Runway, only to have to walk away from the competition due to a non-HIV-related staph infection. Also that same year, on Top Design, John Gray explained his disorderly behavior as a side effect of taking testosterone to counter his HIV-induced low hormone levels. And one cannot forget Pedro Zamora from MTV's The Real World: San Francisco who became the pop culture icon to catapult HIV back onto mainstream America's radar.
Given the visibility, popularity and influence that reality television has -- the Jersey Shore "fist pump" has become part of our vernacular -- having more HIV-positive people on shows (that are less exploitive) could do wonders for breaking down stigma and showing the many different faces of HIV. Just think what would the impact be if there were positive folks on The Apprentice, American Idol, or any installment of The Real Housewives?
We hope producers are paying attention.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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