Mondo Guerra’s life is amazing. Literally, the fact that he is alive at all is amazing. And while the fabric of his life may be about taking control of second chances, it is his work on behalf of those less fortunate that makes him a true a work of art.
Guerra, who spoke recently at the LSU Student Union in a program sponsored by Campus Life, was first-runner up on season eight of Project Runway and champion of the first season of Project Runway All-Stars. It is on the former that he made a last-second decision that changed everything, while injecting a dose of reality into “reality” TV.
Dying from AIDS
Mondo Guerra was in a Denver hospital on Christmas of 2007, diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia with a CD4 count of 14 per-cubic millimeter of blood, or approximately less than three percent of a healthy 500-1500 range. In short, he was dying of AIDS.
“I was at rock bottom of both my healthy and my creative journeys; I had lost all hope,” remembers Guerra. “On Christmas Day, my mom visited me and reminded me that I was put here to be part of many creative endeavors that I had yet to accomplish. That really resonated.”
Guerra’s mother showed confidence in his recovery when she said the family would wait for him to get healthy to open Christmas gifts. As he stared outside the window, knowing that the house he grew up in was only a mile away, Guerra decided to take control of the disease, and he did just that.
Six months after recovering, he was cast on season eight of Project Runway, the show that would turn his life around once more.
Although he considers himself an introvert, Guerra’s innate confidence resulted in one of the most memorable episodes in the hit series’ history. The design competitors were tasked with creating a textile inspired by childhood photographs. Guerra says it was then that “something just clicked.”
Project Runway Judge Nina Garcia wished aloud that she knew the story behind Guerra’s designs, which were various incarnations of plus signs. Guerra said he had no intention of revealing his HIV positive status on the show, and initially made up “some b.s.” when asked the meaning behind his designs.
But, as the first designer to present, he had time to think about his decision. As each other contestant told their stories, he finally felt the strength to tell his own. As the other designers finished and everyone was told they could leave the runway, Guerra stopped and said, “Nina, you asked me what my story was. These pluses are actually positive signs. I’ve been HIV positive for 10 years.”
“At that point,” he says, “everything changed.”
Something that Guerra had kept hidden from most everyone in his life for ten years was revealed (incidentally, Guerra won the challenge) to a cast and crew of a reality television show. Afterwards, he says, much of the fear and shame he felt when he was originally diagnosed came rushing back to him, as he felt cowardly for not telling his family earlier.
“I had time to think about that show for three months after we wrapped filming, but I didn’t tell my parents until four days before the episode aired,” says Guerra. “I told them at the dinner table and my mom said she knew, but didn’t want to force me to talk about it, and that she was proud of me and that I’d followed my dreams.”
Living with HIV
Of his busy, post-Project Runway/current Lifetime Network’s “Under the Gunn” schedule, Guerra knows what it means to live healthy.
“I carry my treatments with me everywhere,” says Guerra. “It’s a huge responsibility that demands focus. But, without being healthy, I wouldn’t be able to produce anything.”
Tim Young, CEO of HAART, the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two, which represents East Baton Rouge Parish, thinks that Guerra is living proof that HIV/AIDS no longer represents a “death sentence.” But, he adds, the first step in living with the disease is getting tested.
“One in five who have HIV don’t know it,” says Young. “Get tested. Get treated. If someone is receiving treatment, they are less likely to pass the infection on to someone else. It’s not a death sentence. It’s a treatable chronic condition.”
Dr. Sherry Desselle, a counseling psychologist at the LSU Student Health Center, adds that mental health is closely tied to physical health and she encourages LSU students, or anyone, who is HIV positive to manage their stress levels when at all possible. She says for students that their health comes first, and if that means taking a smaller semester schedule and finishing college a little later, there is no shame in it.
“Shame and self-destructive behavior unfortunately sometimes go hand in hand,” Desselle says. “When people learn to accept themselves and their conditions and not look at the disease as any kind of perceived ‘punishment,’ they can begin to get healthy both mentally and physically.”
The LSU Student Health Center offers HIV testing, with same-day results often available for tests conducted before 11:00 a.m. In addition, mental health services are offered for students facing issues such as those encountered by Guerra.
In the Baton Rouge area, HAART promotes healthy lifestyles and offers services for the general public as well as those living with HIV. These include access to health insurance, primary medical care, medications, housing, prevention services, free STD testing, and counseling for those coping with relationship, identity, and behavioral issues.
It is for organizations like HAART, which, with area restaurants, annually hosts “Dining Out for Life” that Guerra moves ahead to the next stage of his life, not only as an internationally renowned fashion designer and artist, but also as an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness. Currently, he is building a grant program, which puts local community ambassadors, who are also artists, into HIV/AIDS support organizations.
“What makes me feel engaged in my healthy life is art,” says Guerra. “Even if you’ve never painted, sung, or danced before, it’s important to be able to express yourself and surround yourself by people who are doing the same.”
Mondo Guerra’s life might be described as work of art in progress; and unlike some of his couture designs, it isn’t one to simply admire from afar. His innate humanity and advocacy gives countless others with similar issues both the strength to take on their own, personal “project” and the security to know that they don’t have to do it alone.
“I meet a lot of people who are struggling but don’t have the platform or resources that I am lucky to have,” says Guerra. “Their stories are just as powerful and just as important as mine.”