Each of us will have our crucible. Few of us will live it on television. Fewer still will live it the rest of our lives.
Mondo Guerra’s is worth revisiting. Nine short months ago the upstart fashion designer and local gadfly was competing quite nicely on “Project Runway,” Lifetime television’s designer competition show.
As crucibles are wont to do, Guerra’s quite literally came in the form of a challenge. In Week 9 of the design-off, the seven remaining competitors were told to create a textile inspired by a personal moment.
Having proven himself innovative, even brazen, when it came to mixing and matching fabrics and colors, Guerra returned the following week with fetching geometrically inspired pants that had a design suggesting an M.C. Escher field of plus signs.
The pants were lovely, the ensemble sleek. But a judge wasn’t feeling it. “It looks too perfect,” she said. “And nobody’s life can be that perfect.” Judge Nina Garcia chimed in gently, “I wish I knew what the story was.”
And what happened next made Mondo an international star.
Though devotees of the unlikely television hit need no reminders, the soft-spoken, deeply thoughtful Guerra recounts this story over a recent lunch in Highland.
Guerra has just come from the apartment-studio he shares with boyfriend Ben Duchaine in northwest Denver — not exactly a hub of international fashion.
By Mondo standards, Guerra is dressed casually this afternoon. No boas. No bow ties. Instead of the sweep of his pompadour, he’s wearing an orange-and-blue baseball cap. Beneath a lavender hoodie, he sports a tee with a Keith Haring design. He’s got a modest stud in each ear and round framed glasses. When he goes out on the town, Guerra still dresses to confound, delight or both.
“In his diva moments, when he goes to a local club or bar and puts out his entire ambiance of craziness, it’s easy to wonder, ‘Are you trying to scare people? Are you trying to attract people,’ ” says beau Duchaine, a former Marine and now an information- technology specialist for the Department of Homeland Security. “He’s definitely trying to bring people together in a unique way.”
The terrifically slim designer continues his story over an Italian hoagie.
“I had created this textile. But I still wasn’t ready to talk about it,” he says. And then during the taping, he leapt off the impossibly tall building he’d erected with 10 years of secrecy.
“Nina, you asked me what my story was,” he began. “These pluses are actually positive signs. I’ve been HIV-positive for 10 years.”
It was a revealing moment, and very good TV.
When the judges asked him how he felt, he replied in a quiet voice with a tranquil smile, “I feel a lot better. I feel free.”
Since that moment, Guerra, who turned 33 on June 6, has behaved like a guy unburdened. He has continued to plot out his next move as a designer but also used his new- found voice to advocate for HIV awareness.
Of course, there are questions that hang in the air.
Can he pursue his dream of becoming a name designer while living in Denver? Even more important, does he even want to chase that dream any longer? Because those nearest to Guerra — the family and friends who launched “Team Mondo” — will tell you that HIV/AIDS advocacy has become a complementary passion for Guerra and one that vies for his energy and time.
The wrinkles will likely get ironed out. Meanwhile, Guerra works on behalf of HIV awareness. He rummages through bolts of fabric thinking about what his next line might look like, and he lives, he says, his truth.
Truth can be demanding work.
Here’s a sample of Guerra’s commitments for May: He flew to New York for an A&E Network promo. He followed that with meetings with pharmaceutical giant Merck on behalf of its “Living Positive by Design” campaign. He spoke at the opening of New York’s AIDS Walk. He returned to Denver and judged the VitaminWater Fashion Show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. He flew to Miami to be a guest judge for “Project Runway” Season 9 auditions.
Fifteen minutes? Guerra’s measuring his staying power by a different clock. And his dedication to HIV education is a rebuttal to those who imagine little of true consequence ever happens on so-called reality TV.
Tonight the designer will play host to a dance party at Beauty Bar as part of the PrideFest celebration.
Tuesday night, the Arvada Center’s presumptive summer hit, “Hairspray,” will open. It’s Guerra’s first time as the costume designer of a theatrical production and a signpost of just how far he’s traveled. The one-time Arvada Center costume shop assistant is now highlighted on the show’s promotional brochure, a rare occurrence.
A talk with his parents
If the rhythms of reality are strange, the timing of a reality show can be surreal.
After the show’s finale taped, the “He was robbed” first runner-up returned to Denver. When the show began airing, he attended viewing parties at the Beauty Bar.
“People ask me if I planned on talking about my HIV status. The thing is, I didn’t,” Guerra says.
“In retrospect, I can’t believe that something I held for 10 years came out within a minute. And in that minute, I completely let go of everything. I don’t know if you can see it in the episode, but physically I felt lifted. It was such a spiritual experience for me.”
But he wasn’t done.
With the disclosure episode days away from airing, Guerra went to his childhood home in Arvada to tell parents Gerri and Tom Guerra that he was HIV-positive. Mondo’s sister Tanisha, two years older, had kept her brother’s confidence for a decade.
“He sat down with me and his dad,” recalls Gerri Guerra, who works as a teller at a Lower Downtown credit union. Dad Tom works for the Rockies.
“I don’t know if his dad knew, but I knew there was something wrong because he’d been sick. But I didn’t have the heart to ask him. It was his and his sister’s secret. When he told us, it was like he was reborn. He was so happy. You can see it now.”
How sick had he become? On Christmas Day 2007, Guerra was in a hospital bed giving himself a talking to.
“You’re in the hospital with a T-cell count of 14. You haven’t taken ownership of this, and this is not who you are. You have beautiful things you want to show,” he lectured himself. “Why am I allowing this disease to take over what I need to accomplish?” he asked. “Why am I allowing this disease to define who I am right now? I was being very disrespectful to myself.” He’d even been diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer that was common at the height of the epidemic as it ravaged the gay male community in the U.S. but has been relatively rare since combination-drug therapies — or cocktails — were discovered in the late-1990s. “I was in a very dark place.”
As “Project Runway” went deeper into the season with Guerra excelling, the viewing crowd at Beauty Bar had grown, but the shoulder-to- shoulder gathering that September evening had no idea of the coming revelation.
Sure “Project Runway” judges Heidi Klum and Garcia, as well as mentor Tim Gunn, had donated items for a silent auction benefiting the Colorado AIDS Project. But over the weeks, these three had started to seem as if they were pulling for Mondo. He’d won a slew of challenges.
And participating in HIV/ AIDS fundraising? Well, that’s just the decent gesture of many a thoughtful gay man.
So what followed was a surprise.
“The best part of the story to me is that transformative moment,” says Jeff Ball, a one-time boyfriend and longtime friend.
A photographer, Ball and partner Remigio Darby run Mondo’s website, lovemondotrasho.com.
“Even that night changed Mondo, viewing it from that perspective. When he saw it and felt the support in that room,” says Ball, sitting in a cafe. “It was real. It wasn’t just a television moment. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Gerri Guerra had watched much of Season 8 with her three sisters — Valerie, Bernadette and Priscilla — at the latter’s home. “It was amazing to me how much love was in that room,” she says of that night.
Educating a dream
On a crowded coffee table in the living room of Guerra and Duchaine’s home, amid papers, fliers for a party and magazines, sits the DVD box set of the first season of the gay- friendly high-school TV series “Glee.”
And it’s tempting to think of Guerra’s enrollment at the Denver School of the Arts as being a bit like the hit show’s Kurt Hummel leaving William McKinley high for the more welcoming Dalton Academy.
Not because Guerra was bullied at his Arvada school but because the Denver School of the Arts provided 13-year-old Armando Guerra his first metamorphosis.
“It was like a dream come true, everything I loved in one little place. I was playing piano. I was in jazz band. I was dancing. Kids who go to that school are just so lucky,” he says.
Because his folks lived in Arvada, Mondo stayed with grandparents Betty and Theo- dore Jimenez, mainstays in Denver’s northwest neighborhood. There is a stained-glass window dedicated to the Jimenez family in the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Betty Jimenez died 10 years ago. Mondo’s grandfather still ushers there. “You can catch him at the 10 a.m. Mass,” says Guerra.
“My grandmother Betty was the nicest woman I ever met.” When she passed away, she came into my life even more. She’s where I get my spirituality from. She is my guardian angel, my support still.”
His time at the Denver School of the Arts is “when Mondo started showing his true talent,” his mother recalls.
First there was music. He’s a gifted pianist.
When he was in third grade, says Guerra, his mother struck a deal with him. A serious baseball fan, she said if he played ball, he could take piano lessons.
“My dad tells this story about him walking into the room and I’m practicing piano in my baseball uniform and cleats, and he says I said, ‘Do you think it’s going to rain today?’ ”
Visual arts followed music. Fashion came later still.
“He used to go to a lot of raves,” says Gerri Guerra. “That’s when he started to make his outfits to go to those crazy raves. He didn’t actually sew anything. He would hot- glue it. He’d go to the Goodwill, buy stuff, take it apart and put it back together.”
During this period, Guerra also met Susan Murphy, the mother of a school friend, a hat designer and Mondo’s longtime mentor. “Murph,” as he calls her, hasn’t been particularly surprised by her protege’s success. (For the record: Gretchen Jones, another Colorado product, won the season.)
“When you’re walking down the street and you see someone dressed not perfect but really well, that is what he was like even young,” she says on the phone from Los Angeles.
“He’s got really good style. But him wanting (to be a designer) so bad too. I love that. You don’t experience that much in people these days. They want it handed to them. Mondo did it, which is jaw- dropping but not really. He just did it.”
A designer in training
For a man taken with patterns, Guerra’s costume-design gig at the Arvada Center is startling for its symmetry.
His parents moved to Arvada from their northwest Denver home a few years before he was born.
When Mondo returned from a design stint in New York — he’d broken his hip in a fall and had been sick with HIV-related ailments — Arvada was where he landed.
In 2005, the Arvada Center’s head of wardrobe, Betsy Harris, hired him as a costume- shop assistant.
” ‘Aida’ was his first show,” she says as she sews white elastic bands onto gold ballet- style slippers in the basement where Guerra honed his craft. “He made armor. He decorated shoes.” Over time, he learned to man the sewing machine.
What was it about Guerra that made her take a chance on him?
“Have you seen how he dresses?” Harris replies, followed by a quick laugh. “He’s so passionate. That’s how he dresses. That’s how he dresses the world.”
Arvada Center artistic director Rod Lansberry remembers watching the “Project Runway” finale with the costume designer for “A Christmas Carol.”
“A couple of the judges were telling Mondo they thought his work was a little too much like a costume, a little too theatrical,” Lansberry says.
“Oh God, we ruined him,” they said to each other.
“We had ‘Hairspray’ on the schedule, and I wanted that completely different look, that style. It was just such an easy fit. And he was so sweet about it. He kept saying ‘I promise I won’t let you down.’ ”
“Mondo works differently,” he says. “He doesn’t do lots of sketches. He comes in with ideas. He was really able to hit the fashion districts in New York and came back with all the fabrics we would never have been able to get here. He really kicked up the thing.”
Downstairs in the costume shop, Mondo is standing in front of a fabric-draped mannequin, sporting a black New York Yankees cap with silver spikes running from front to back and wearing a very serious look on his face.
While Guerra is learning to combine a fresh set of design opportunities with his HIV advocacy, Season 9 of “Project Runway” has begun taping.
“Poor things,” says Guerra. “I think I could tell them all that the process really tests you, not just as a creative person, but as an individual.”
He adds he’d also tell them that “Project Runway” “really changed my life.”
And now he’s trying to change others’ lives — in their closets but also beyond.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567 or [email protected]