Mondo Guerra, winner of Project Runway's all-star edition, visited New Orleans this week in conjunction with the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA). The fashion designer, who is HIV positive, shares his thoughts on the importance of HIV education, his personal experience living with the virus and why HIV and AIDS need to continue to be part of the public dialogue.
What was your role at the USCA?
This is the second year I have been at the conference. I teamed up with Merck (pharmaceutical company) on an HIV education campaign called I Design. I Design is a program to empower people living with HIV to take a tailored approach to a treatment plan that works for them. The message is about encouraging people with HIV to have open dialogues with their doctors, which I found very important in my personal experience. For a long time, my doctor was the only who knew about my HIV status.
You revealed your diagnosis on Project Runway very unexpectedly, during a design challenge when you explained that the plus signs in a fabric represented your HIV-positive status. What was the effect of going public with something that had been secret for many years?
It really happened organically in such an intense moment on the show. I didn’t go to Project Runway planning on revealing I am HIV positive. ... I know if that moment didn’t happen, I probably wouldn't have talked about it ever.
I came to realize the impact I had on so many people, both HIV positive and negative. All these people reached out to me, and I felt like it was my responsibility to continue the conversation. When Merck approached me, I felt like it was a perfect fit.
New Orleans and Baton Rouge are the third and second highest among major United States metro areas for new HIV infection diagnoses, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. What advice would you give the newly diagnosed?
When I was newly diagnosed, I felt like I was alone. First and foremost, you are not alone. Continue to love yourself and seek out services by advocacy groups and your local service organizations. Visit www.projectidesign.com . It's not an issue of being HIV positive or negative, it's about accessing the information. Tell a friend about the website. It's important to have this knowledge out there. Everybody needs to be talking about HIV. It has been pushed under the rug for a while and now it's time to talk about it again.