Facing down Heidi Klum, Isaac Mizrahi, Michael Kors, and Nina Garcia is one thing, but standing at a podium in front of hundreds of people is quite another, TV star and HIV activist Mondo Guerra says.
'I get so nervous before I give a speech,' Guerra says. 'Of course, you know there's going to be 500 or 600 people, but you look out and it seems like 2,000.'
After becoming a fan favorite on season 8 of Project Runway ' partly by coming out about his HIV-positive status to Klum, Kors, Garcia, and Runway's millions of viewers ' Guerra turned his newfound fame into a platform. In between launching a jewelry line and competing on Lifetime's Project Runway All Stars, Guerra has emerged as one of the country's most high-profile Latino HIV activists. While sewing and designing come naturally to the 33-year-old, he's finding his new role as an advocate also suits him rather comfortably.
'When you get up [to the podium], you feel like people are there to participate, to listen to you, they're really engaged in what you're saying,' he says. 'So it's actually grown quite relaxing.'
He attended the 15th annual U.S. Conference on AIDS in November and participated in a roundtable about homophobia and the disease during a plenary session at the event. Guerra, who is gay, describes the Chicago conference, which was buoyed by last year's findings that post-exposure prophylaxis can dramatically lower HIV transmissions, as one of hope.
'The overall spirit was very positive, enthusiastic, and optimistic,' he says. The conference was sponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council, a group that recently announced it was moving its focus from simply meeting the challenges of HIV to eradicating the disease.
Along with fellow HIV-positive activist and Project Runway alum Jack Mackenroth, Guerra is the face of the Living Positive by Design campaign (LivingPositivebyDesign.com), presented by pharmaceutical company Merck. Guerra says the campaign's message stresses the importance of a strong mind as well as a strong body.
'We really want to convey to people living with the disease to continue to have a positive outlook on life,' Guerra says. 'It's a really simple message, but a really important one that someone living with HIV may forget on a day-to-day basis.'
The campaign also encourages people to work with their health professional in a collaborative way.
'You have to check in with your doctor and keep in mind your viral loud, your CD-4 count, and talk to him or her about any side effects that may be occurring,' Guerra says. 'These are things you have to remember. It's a responsibility.'
Guerra and Mackenroth discussed the message of Living Positive by Design at a booth they manned at the Chicago AIDS conference. The reality stars also initiated what they call a 'community project,' in which participants chose a fabric and embellished a pin that were then put together to make a dress.
'The project signifies how every individual can express themselves but that we're all in this together,' he says.
Guerra's decision to put himself out there as a face and voice of HIV was not taken lightly. He knows he'll likely be referred to as 'the HIV-positive designer' for the foreseeable future, but the reception he received after season 8 touched him deeply.
'After the episode aired [in which he revealed his status], there was so much positive response from so many different people,' Guerra recalls. 'A lot of that was from people who were still keeping their status a secret and letting the stigma really define who they were. It was keeping them from being honest. So coming off the show it's been my responsibility to continue the conversation.'
Guerra's family was in the dark about his status until he told them the truth a few days before the coming-out episode aired. His fears of a reaction filled with fear and accusations were far from realized. Instead his family was warm and understanding. Since then they've only grown more vested in Guerra's health.
'My entire family has really stepped up to the plate,' he says. 'Now they have put a face to the disease and have sought out the materials to educate themselves. Within my own little family ' well, I'm Mexican, so it's not that little ' to see them educate themselves and talk openly about HIV and ask me questions makes me really proud to know that within my community, I've made a difference. I hope that continues with my advocacy work.'
Project Runway All Stars airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific. Find out more about Mondo at LoveMondoTrasho.com.