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January 18, 2011

Project Runway's Mondo Speaks Out

He may have lost the grand prize, but he won over millions. The most compelling designer in the show's history opens up about how he's moving on.

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mondo guerra and model

Photo Credit: Perry Hagopian

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The competition is over. And while Mondo Guerra wasn't the victor of last season's Project Runway—much to the outrage of Team Mondo fans—he did walk away a winner. Episode 10, which the 32-year-old Denver native calls "my episode," asked contestants to create a custom textile print, drawing inspiration from something personal. Mondo captivated the judges with his bold plus-sign-patterned pants—and the revelation that they were inspired by his HIV-positive status, a secret he'd kept for nearly 10 years. "Being on the show made me know that I can love myself, love others, and allow them to love me for exactly who I am," says Guerra. "I don't have to hide anymore." Here, he reveals more in the hope of reaching others facing similar struggles.

MC: It's been a particularly rough year for gay teens. What was teen Mondo like?

MG: I was definitely an inside kid. I occupied my time with being creative, painting, drawing, playing the piano. In my teenage years I was very angry. Like when I was going through puberty. It would be interesting to hang out with my 12-year-old self. I would probably stare at him a lot. But I'd be nurturing and say, "Hang on, not everybody is going to tease you or put you down for things that are beyond your control." That's what the gay suicides are about. A lot of times you feel like you're so alone and that's the easy solution.

MC: Did you ever feel that way?

MG: Yeah. I was suicidal. I had so many suppressed feelings and emotions. The first time I was ever called a fag was in sixth or seventh grade. I didn't even know what it was. It was such a hateful word. Even now, when gay boys call each other that, I'm like, "Why? You can't do that. It's hard enough for us."

MC: Did you try to suppress your sexuality?

MG: I knew I was gay since I was a little boy, but I wasn't really out to anybody. I told my mom when I was 17. The first thing she said was, "Don't let the family know, and I'm not telling your dad." I felt like a disappointment, like everything that I'd worked for and impressed them with was overshadowed by my being gay.

MC: It happens all too often—Tim Gunn's mother is still in denial. Did you talk to him about it?

MG: I would like to believe that Tim and I have a lot in common. But when I first got on the show, I was really intimidated by him. I was so scared.

MC: But he's such a sweetheart!

MG: He's very, very nice. I think it's because I've never had that kind of mentor before. I have issues with trust, especially with men. I was sexually abused as a kid by my grandfather. It went on for years.

MC: Did anyone know about it?

MG: It was very hidden. If you know about abuse, you know that the person who's doing it is very smart and knows how to get away with it. There isn't anything anyone could have done.

MC: How did you finally tell your parents about your HIV status?

MG: I waited to tell them until four days before my episode aired. We were having dinner, and I said, "I have to tell you something that's going to be on the show this week, and I don't want it to hurt you. I've been HIV-positive for 10 years, but I'm healthier now than I have been for years, physically and emotionally." It took a lot to get to that point. I realized that I'd been denying them the opportunity to really be my parents—to support me and give me the love and courage I needed.

MC: What's dating been like for you?

MG: There's no easy way around it. Every time I went on a first date, I'd tell the guy straight up; I don't want to infect or affect anyone in a negative way. In my current relationship, when I first told him, he needed to take a breather. I was like, OK, he's not going to call back. But he did, and he said, "I was reading Wikipedia and trying to educate myself." I was like, "You did not read Wikipedia to find out what I've lived with for the past 10 years." If you really want to know about HIV and AIDS, you talk to somebody who's living with it or a doctor who deals with it on a day-to-day basis.

MC: When you agreed to be on Project Runway, did you have any idea you would end up sharing such vulnerable info?

MG: No, I didn't care to. It wasn't my mission to be the new face of someone living with HIV. But for the textile challenge, I lied to everyone. I danced around the true symbolism of the pattern. When Nina [Garcia] said, "I wish I knew what the story was," I was given the opportunity to talk about it. My life changed in that minute. I never knew it would change so much for the better.


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