Project Runway All-Star and designer Mondo Guerra has championed HIV awareness ever since season eight of the show, when he went public with his HIV positive status. We chatted with the Mexican-American designer about his new campaign, season 10 of Project Runway and what Heidi Klum is really like off-camera.
Tell us a bit about your HIV-awareness campaign - what's the message?
"I teamed up with Merck for the 'I Design' campaign, which is really a platform for people to understand and tailor their approach to their life and treatment plans. When you're living with disease or living with HIV, everyone is different and our needs are different and the campaign is really there to reflect that and get people the information they need. One of the best ways to deal with this is (through) open communication with your doctor. Ever since I was diagnosed, I go into the office and really plan what I want to talk about, whether it be cell count or anything else. Keeping that in mind, it really is about a simple message, which is taking care of yourself and taking the time to check in."
Latinos make up 20 percent of new HIV infections in the US, a rate three times that of whites. How has your background influenced your understanding of this disease?
"Growing up I never heard about HIV/AIDS, it's not something that we talked about. Since I came out as HIV positive on the show, my own family has taken the opportunity to educate themselves, which is amazing. I've become a face to the disease, which I think has helped them understand it. In many Latino families, we place high value on morals, tradition, respect and religion, and so there's sort of this stigma in the Latino community (around the disease). Many are afraid to talk about it, because we somehow think of it as going against our ideals or that it's a matter of disrespect. But that's not true. It's important to communicate an understanding of what this disease is, because Latinos are disproportionately affected by it. It shouldn't be taboo. To ignore it, we really take a step back."
What has been the most surprising thing that has come of that announcement?
"I wouldn't say it's surprising, but it's amazing how many people have come out wanting to share their stories and ask questions. Coming off the show and having some visibility, I've really given others a chance to see a person, not just a disease and I love that, that’s the best. I’m so honored to be able to be in that position."
Season 10 of Project Runway starts, well, now! What can fans expect?
"I was on the casting panel of season 10 as the lead judge spot, I guess you could say (laughs) and it was amazing. We saw over 800 candidates! It was really interesting to be on the other side, and I was more emotionally involved in the potential contestants coming in. I’d ask them questions like 'how do you involve yourself in the process?' or 'how do you approach design?' Because once you produce something it still lives on, almost as an extension of you or a gift that you give, that you put out there. It's almost like a child! So I was really involved in the process and (the season) is going to be amazing. It’s a season that’s very international: there's a ton of different designers coming out, like Dubai to Japan, and I'm really excited. I will say that there are a couple of Latino contestants that have extreme potential!"
What’s Heidi like in real life?
"Heidi has always rooted for me. I talked to her behind the scenes, and I asked her about what really happened on season eight, and she straight up told me. She goes, 'well I fought for you, Jessica (Simpson) and I fought for you against Nina (Garcia) and Michael Kors.' I will say (the show) is not calculated, it’s not the producers pulling the strings. That's not the case. It's really based solely on the judges and what you show on that runway. You can be an extremely talented designer, and then one week, you fumble, and it's based on that -- it's not from what you've shown before, it's from runway to runway. That's real."
For more information about Project I Design, visit projectidesign.com.
Season 10 of Project Runway starts Thursday, July 19 at 8 p.m. EST, before returning to it's regular spot at 9 p.m. EST on Lifetime. Will you be watching?