Vitiligo Turns Black TV Anchor White

To my knowledge, the artificial discoloration of the skin, it doesn't exist. I've never seen it, I don't know what it is. I suffer from a disease that destroys the pigmentation of the skin and I can't nothing about this. But when you invent stories like what I don't want to be what I am, it hurts me. It's a problem I can't control. But reverse the situation two minutes. What about those millions of people exposed to the sun in order to sunbathe, to become what they are not? Nobody talks about them.

Michael Jackson 1993



Lee Thomas (40) is an anchor and entertainment reporter for US tv channel WJBK in Detroit. He was diagnosed with vitiligo - the same disease that Michael Jackson is suffering from - when he was 25. 

Lee Thomas

Vitiligo is a pigmentation disorder in which pigment-making cells in the skin are destroyed. White patches appear on different parts of the body. As many as 65 million people worldwide have the disorder. But only few people, outside medical professionals and those with the disease, had heard the term "Vitiligo" until Michael Jackson revealed in the early 1990s that the disorder was behind his skin turning brown to white. Viiligo is not fatal, but it robs people of self-confidence, evokes ridicule and unpleasant stares, and pushes some into unforced seclusion.

Thomas' once brown, even complexion is now mottled with pale patches around his eyes and mouth, along his nose and on his ears. His arms, shoulders and chest are also speckled and blotched. He says:

"I'm a black man turning white on television and people can see it. If you've watched me over the years, you've seen my hands completely change from brown to white. There is no cause. There is no cure, and it's very random. I could turn all the way white or mostly white." Lee Thomas

Thomas uses a combination of creams and makeup to cover the growing patches of skin on his face, hands and arms. Until 2005, only family members and those closest to him knew the secret he had kept since age 25.

  Lee Thomas

He first noticed a change after getting a haircut while working in Louisville, Ky. He looked in a mirror and thought the barber had nicked him. A closer look revealed a pale spot, about the size of a quarter.

"I got two more on the other side of my scalp, on my hand and one in the corner of my mouth. That's when I went to the doctor and got diagnosed."

But he didn't let it slow down his blossoming career. In Detroit he has carved a niche with his quirky, upbeat and humorous reporting style. His confidence, constant smile and positive air on the set mirrors his demeanor off the set as well. Meanwhile he even received an Emmy and routinely travels to Hollywood for one-on-one interviews with celebrities including Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and Halle Berry.

But even though Thomas used makeup to conceal his skin discoloration, he realized that vitiligo was becoming more obvious when he couldn't hide it from a preschooler during a story about a playground. His two-toned hands frightened the girl, who began to cry.

"I thought my career was over."

So he gathered himself one day and approached the station's news director, prepared to walk away from tv:

"She said, 'Let's just see what happens. As it got worse, she kept encouraging me to tell my story."

So Thomas finally agreed to tell his story on tv in November 2005. Dana Hahn, WJBK's vice president of news, recalls:

"I received 40 to 50 e-mails a day the entire time he was gone. So many people found support and encouragement in his story. I've never seen the kind of response to any story in my 12 years at Fox 2."
Lee Thomas

Nevertheless, Dr. Sancy Leachman, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Utah, calls vitiligo stigmatizing, driving some to even consider suicide:

"They feel people are looking at them all of the time. They are very self-conscious about people staring at them in the grocery line. It can be a very demoralizing condition."

Thomas acknowledges he even preferred the security of solitude to the awkward stares of strangers when not wearing his makeup.

"There were times when I would not come out of the house. I call it a mental war. It was me saying, 'I don't want to deal with it today.' I never stayed in for very long. I know people who stay in now for months at a time."



Meanwhile he openly talks about vitiligo and how it has affected his life and career. And he has written a book about his journey titled "Turning White: A Memoir of Change." Along the way, Thomas says he's met others with the disorder and has become a celebrity spokesman for the National Vitiligo Foundation. And when he's out socially now, he forgoes the makeup he wears on camera.


Source: MJFC / AP / Photos copyright AP, Carlos Osorio