BY Neal Broverman
December 16 2010 1:00 AM ET
'When I first got to the show I was very scared of Tim Gunn,' Project Runway finalist Mondo Guerra says. 'In the first couple of critiques I was shaking; I couldn't really talk to him because I was so intimidated.'
Intimidated is probably not an adjective most would use to describe Guerra, who narrowly lost the reality competition's eighth season to Gretchen Jones. Guerra's bold designs, matched with his consistent candor and composure, made him a fan favorite and critical darling. But it was his spontaneous decision to come out as HIV-positive in the show's 10th episode that solidified him not only as one of Runway's most memorable contestants, but an inspiration and role model.
Guerra says it was a completely unscripted moment when he told judges Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia, and Rachel Roy about his status.
'I didn't really mind talking about it; it really was at that moment that I decided to speak out,' Guerra says from his home in Denver.
That episode's challenge required the contestants to create fabric with which to design an outfit that said something about their personal lives; Guerra designed glamorous high-waisted pants festooned with plus signs.
'When Nina said, 'I wish I knew what the story was about the pants,' it allowed me to really open up,' Guerra says. 'She didn't force it; the producers weren't begging me to speak about it. They weren't saying, 'You need to talk about this for ratings.' It was really about my own decision, and I'm very happy that I was able to talk about it.'
The usually unflappable Gunn was deeply affected by Guerra's announcement, and it initiated a bond between the two.
'I was moved to tears by Mondo's HIV-positive admission before the judges on the runway,' Gunn says, describing how he watched from behind the cameras. 'I could read his emotions through his body language; while Heidi was talking and pushing, there eventually came a moment when I could see a visible release of the tense muscles in his back, then he relaxed his shoulders, and then he declared his condition. There was a palpable hush and then tears everywhere.'
There was no embarrassment on Guerra's part regarding his HIV, Gunn believes. Guerra's tension 'had to do with the fact that he had been in such psychological agony about talking about his condition and had been concealing it from everyone,' he says.
Even though the impulsive announcement was made in front of celebrities, his fellow contestants, and a slew of cameras, it was easier to break the news there than in Denver with his parents, who had no idea of his status. Four days before the dramatic episode's September 30 broadcast, Guerra arranged an intimate dinner with his parents, his sister Tanisha, and his partner, Ben. Aside from being swamped with creating a collection for the final challenge, his procrastination in telling his parents stemmed from uncertainty about their reaction'especially since millions of people would find out about his HIV just a few dozen hours after his parents did.
'I just didn't know what kind of dynamic putting it out there would create with them,' he says. 'I'm just so connected with my mom and dad that it would affect me in a bad way if they didn't really accept it.'
As soon as dinner was served, Guerra cut to the chase, telling everyone what transpired with the pants and about the announcement that followed.
'The first thing they said is that they really love me,' Guerra recalls. 'They said we're a strong family, we'll get through it together, and they left it at that. It was a good night. You know, with maternal instinct I think my mother already knew'she was just waiting for me to talk to her about it.'
Coming out as gay to his family at only 17, Guerra has not typically hidden much from his parents. It says much about how much judgment HIV-positive people face that it took a decade for someone as forthright as Guerra to be honest about his status.
'It was scarier for me to come out positive [than gay], just because it's newer, it's fresher,' Guerra says. 'Living with HIV is hard enough, and then there's the stigma attached to it. People wonder how you caught it or they think it's simply a gay disease. There's just not enough education, so it puts fear into people. It put so much fear into me that it took 10 years for me to talk about it.'
It's imperative that people discuss HIV more, Guerra says. He's hoping to lead by example: On December 1, Guerra spoke in Washington, D.C., for World AIDS Day. The 32-year-old also wastes no time in plugging Jeans for Life, a program he got involved with through his relationship with Los Angeles's AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
'The drive is about donating jeans that are recycled and resold,' Guerra says. 'All the money goes to free health care for people with HIV/AIDS. Everybody has extra jeans, so I definitely encourage everybody to check out JeansForLife.org.'
Attitudes regarding HIV are evolving, albeit slowly, Guerra believes. He references Jack Mackenroth, the Project Runway contestant from season 4 who announced his HIV-positive status after leaving the show for health reasons.
'In Jack's season they didn't really go into his HIV very much, [the show just explained] he has a staph infection and is leaving the show,' Guerra says. Regarding this season, 'I say 'thank you' to Lifetime for taking the chance to really talk about such a subject on the network. I think it definitely shows growth in society.'
While Guerra is happy to contribute to some of that progress, he, like so many people with HIV, doesn't want to be defined by his disease.
'It's not just about me living with HIV/AIDS, it's about living with any type of hardship or anything that you're scared to talk about, anything that you don't want to be open about,' he says. 'And I think me speaking out about my personal life has really given people strength and courage to start letting go of certain things they've held on to for a long time.'