Guerra recently teamed with Merck to launch I Design, an interactive HIV education campaign. The project strives to empower people living with HIV to have open dialogues with their doctors about their treatment plans based on their medical, emotional, and lifestyle needs.
Guerra called into Gay Life to discuss the campaign, his upcoming fashion and eyewear lines, winning Project Runway All Stars, and how Runway host Heidi Klum is completely “team Mondo.”
Can you tell us a bit about teaming up with Merck on their new HIV education campaign I Design?
The campaign really helps empower people living with HIV to take a ‘tailored approach’ to their treatment plan. People living with HIV are all different, and we each have different reactions to various treatments and our treatment plans should reflect that.
Communication is also so important because a lot of newly diagnosed patients don’t really have anywhere to turn, so it’s important to find a doctor to really build a relationship with.
It’s also important to have a checklist to prepare for office visits—just normal things that we tend to forget about: viral load, CD4 count, side effects you’re experiencing, and other health concerns like cholesterol levels. Now that there are treatment plans that are allowing people living with HIV to live longer, we’re forgetting about those other health concerns. It’s not just about maintaining the disease; it’s about maintaining physical and mental health. These are all things that we can communicate with our doctor about.
How did you get involved with Merck on the project?
Coming out [as HIV-positive] on Project Runway, I had this visibility and received such positive, overwhelming love, not only from the HIV-positive community, but also from the people that are really affected because everybody is really affected by this disease, we just don’t want to talk about it.
Merck approached me and I was really into it. It was perfect for me to hop on board because I can lend a voice to something I struggled with. It would be different if, say J. Lo., was doing this campaign. I’ve been through all the emotions, through all the doctors in finding the right treatment for me. What I loved about the I Design campaign is that it’s not so clinical. It’s not black and white on paper, in three pages. It’s really easy messaging and easy information to digest.
What are some of the anxieties people have in speaking with their doctors openly about their treatment plans?
You have to find the right doctor. It can take time and you have to put the effort into really finding the right doctor and the right treatment plan.
I went through four or five doctors when I was first diagnosed before finding the right one, and I’ve been with her for eleven years. Once you find a doctor you really like, you should be able to have that emotional dialogue. I go to my doctor and I talk about my emotional health, my relationship, as well as my physical health.
There will be things that come up and you have to feel comfortable and trusting in your doctor to be able to get over your embarrassment. For me, there are things I go into my doctor with and think, “Oh geez, I don’t really want to talk to her about this. I don’t want her to touch me there or look there,” but these are things that need to be discussed with this disease. You never really know what’s going to happen with your day-to-day life. Something can always pop up.
You mentioned finding the right doctor, what resources can people use to find one?
One of the resources is the website ProjectIDesign.com. People can go there to find the information to get started. When I was working with Merck, it was really important to make it interactive, fun, and easy. I really want people to participate—not only in this campaign, but also in their own healthcare.
I would also really recommend reaching out to your local AIDS Service Organization [ASO], because they really do know what’s happening in your community. When I was diagnosed, I felt like I couldn’t tell my parents or my family. I reached out to my local ASO, Colorado AIDS Project. I got in their support groups and they told me where to go to get the treatment plan and where to find my doctor. They were so helpful. Everyone working at an ASO is so passionate about what they do—they know that we’re giving power to the cause.
As someone who has been living with HIV for more than 10 years, what would your 34-year-old self tell that recently diagnosed 20-something about the road ahead?
Take responsibility. Don’t let this disease define who you are. And hold your own hand.
Switching gears a little bit, I wanted to congratulate you on winning Project Runway All Stars! I know many fans felt your win was long overdue.
You know, a lot of people say to me “You finally won!” or “You know the only reason they had All Stars was for you to win.” I take offense to that a little bit, because I really went there to work, compete, and really improve who I was as a designer.
As part of your prize package for winning All Stars, you designed a collection for Neiman Marcus. What can fans expect of the collection and when will it be available?
It’s projected to hit late fall/early holiday 2012. They can expect some very recognizable silhouettes and some of the winning looks that I did on Project Runway. They’re definitely going to see the prints that I’m known for. I really took this as an opportunity to pull back a little bit. The collection is a bit minimal from what I usually do, because I’m providing a product and I want it be accessible and approachable. I want them to really engage with what I produce.
You also have an upcoming eyewear collection you designed for SEE. What can you tell us about it?
I’m really excited about the collection. I wear glasses all the time and SEE is one of my favorite companies. I wore a lot of their glasses on the show and they approached me to design a collection. The collection is based on 1960s sitcoms. They have names like ‘the Gidget,’ ‘the Monsters,’ and ‘the Dick Van Dyke.’ They’re all very kitschy. I was really designing for myself and it feels so good to do that. There definitely are some risks—you will see some new shapes and new ideas in eyewear. It’s kind fun going into something that you don’t really do on a normal basis. You’re more apt to experiment and explore the possibilities. I’m really enjoying the process.
You helped select the contestants for the tenth season of Project Runway, which began airing June 19. What was it like being on the other side of the judging table?
It was so difficult! I hate that word ‘judge.’ I don’t want to be put on that pedestal. I just don’t want to be there because, as artists we all have to stick together and really communicate our vision. I loved seeing all the ideas and all the energy and passion. What I was really looking for was an emotional connection to their work. When the candidates came in, and I saw over 800 of them, the first question I asked was, “Why do you want to be on the show?” So many of the candidates who came in said, “Because I want to be a designer.” I thought to myself, “You need to walk into this room saying that you are a designer!”
There were so many good ideas, but it boiled down to the execution of their garments. [They] have five pieces on the rack and they have to have some kind of impact. If you don’t have the skill set to execute something really well, you’re not going to be able to make it on the show.
There were so many candidates that came in that said, “If you give me the chance to be on the show, I’ll make it happen” and I said, “No, you have to have that skill set right now.” You don’t have time to learn on the show. You’re going to be thinking about your strategy, the challenges, the other contestants, and what the judges want to see. You don’t have time to teach yourself how to sew. That’s just ridiculous.
I wanted to ask you about finishing up as the runner up to Gretchen [Jones] on Project Runway [Season 8] series before you were on All Stars. Host Heidi Klum recently did an interview with WWD and mentioned that she wanted you to win the series.
I had an interview with Heidi the other day and she was interviewing me, but I turned the tables and asked her what really happened in the final deliberation and why I lost. She said exactly what you mentioned. Nina [Garcia] and Michael [Kors] were team Gretchen and [guest judge] Jessica Simpson and Heidi were on team Mondo and they fought, fought, fought over it.
Heidi told me that she always plays fair and really roots for the person that she thinks is the best, not just aesthetically but also artistically and [has the greatest] skill set. She kept on fighting for me and Jessica eventually got swayed to go over to team Gretchen.
When I was up on that stage, I felt like I had shown so much of myself in my final answer that I was really going to take home the prize. When she announced Gretchen as the winner, I kind of blacked out. I don’t remember hugging Gretchen and congratulating her. I don’t remember Heidi coming up and saying, “Auf Wiedersehen.” I don’t remember walking off the runway. I remember opening the door to the green room and seeing my mom and family. When their smiles completely faded to tears, it hit me that I lost the competition after such a long, long journey.
But, you definitely pulled it out on Project Runway: All Stars. You seemed to be edited as the winner from the offset.
I was really happy with All Stars because the process [on the show] was really difficult. Each of the ‘All Stars’ had been on the show before, and since appearing on the show they’ve each had some visibility, so it was really difficult going back. I was also kind of going in as the fan favorite and [the fans] really wanted to see me redeem the loss to a victory from the season before, so that was a lot of pressure. Beyond that, I felt like a lot of the designers knew what I was capable of doing, so there was always a target on my back and it really made me unhappy.
It seemed like a very intense process, especially going into the finale.
It really was intense. Actually on the Nanette Lepore challenge, which I won right before we went into the top three, I called in the producers to ask them what my legal rights were to leave the show because I really wanted to leave. I was really unhappy there and it wasn’t because of the other contestants, but what was going on with me internally. I was emotionally, creatively, and physically stuffed. I was just stuffed. I was just so stuck and so unhappy.
So the producers convinced you to finish the show?
They talked to me and I realized that I had worked so hard and deserved to have the opportunity again. I wasn’t going to let it get away. That’s why I took the day off when we first started working in the final challenge, because I really needed that time to self reflect. I was angry. I was in a really bad place.
Well you channeled it all in a wonderful way! Being so busy, how has your design process changed post-Runway?
I love that you asked me that! I was just talking to one of my favorite artist friends about the process. I think there always has to be some kind of evolution, but I have to go somewhere really dark to come out of it in a really beautiful way. I asked him, “Do you think that’s a really negative approach?” and he said, “No. As a writer, I always write about myself. I just change my name.” Then today in the shower, I was thinking that every collection I do is really about what I’m going through and what I’m attracted to and it really is about me. I just kind of change the direction.
For more information on I Design, please visit ProjectIDesign.com.
Find out your HIV status for free at the GLCCB, Wednesdays 5-8pm. For additional resources visit GLCCB.org/resources/health.