Lee Thomas: 'Would Other People See a Monster?'

Reporter Lee Thomas opens up about struggling with a disease called vitiligo.

ByJESSICA HORNIG

Jan. 3, 2007— -- For more than a decade now, Detroit television audiences have taken to entertainment reporter Lee Thomas, and so have all his colleagues. Dana Hahn, one of Thomas' bosses, said, "He's just a charismatic, outgoing person and our viewers over time have just come to adore him."

But hearty as the newsroom camaraderie was, Thomas kept a distance, and a secret. For a time, he was so private he wouldn't let himself be seen on the Detroit streets on the days when he wasn't working. He was trying to hide the fact that, under his television makeup, his face was uncontrollably changing.

"I stayed in the house because I don't want people to see what I looked like," Thomas said. The mysterious white blotches that had spread to his face began years before with small pale spots on his scalp and one hand. And he'd been living in fear of how far and how fast they might spread since getting a diagnosis from an expert dermatologist in 1994. Thomas was told he had a disease called vitiligo, something an estimated 4 million Americans have. The disease has no cure and it causes the skin to lose its pigmentation, turning it white.

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Thomas said he was shocked when he received the diagnosis from his doctor. "I'm sure he kept talking because I saw his mouth moving, but … I didn't hear anything he said, and I actually had to go, 'Stop for a second, doc, did you just say there's no cure?'"

Thomas remembers having to look at his face as it changed before his eyes. "I don't know if you can imagine looking in the mirror and not seeing you," he said. "I wondered, did other people, would other people see a monster when they saw me?" That mysterious transformation from black to white was made famous in the very publicly changing face of Michael Jackson. Many people have said that Jackson does not really suffer from the disease, but Thomas thinks otherwise. "One glove he used to wear," he said. "I used to wear one glove to cover it. So I mean, I understand all of his struggles."

Thomas decided to keep his secret from everyone he worked with, telling only close friends and family. For four long years, he held his secret in, until he couldn't cover it up any longer. Vitiligo is not fatal, but Lee thought it would mean the death of his television career. Being on television was a dream Thomas had had since childhood. He achieved his dream and said he could feel it all slipping away as his own skin betrayed him. "I was thinking of what else I could do," he said. "And it was tough because I had worked so hard to achieve this."

As Thomas' hands began to turn completely white, he had to tell his bosses and co-workers about the vitiligo, but he did not reveal the whole story. Co-worker Fanchon Stinger recalled, "I know I didn't realize how severe it was." But once the disease took over 35 percent of his body, Thomas had to tell management everything. After years of heartache and worry, he found his managers had a surprising reaction. They didn't want to fire him. They wanted him to tell his story on the air.

"I didn't want to, because I thought it was a ratings thing, you know, 'Look at the black guy turning white at 10,'" Thomas said. "But kids and adults who saw my hands knew I had vitiligo early on and they would call and I was talking on the phone to a teenager, and he said, 'Would you tell your story on television?' And I go, 'Why?' He goes, 'Well, maybe people will treat me differently.' And I never thought of it that way, because I was so caught up in my own struggle. I never thought of other people. When he put it that way, it was an easy answer."

In November 2005, Thomas decided to share all the facts and fears with his viewers. He removed his makeup on the air, showing what his skin really looked like underneath. The reaction from viewers was overwhelming and incredible. Letters and e-mails voicing support for Thomas poured into the newsroom, and Thomas said he was more shocked than anyone else by the response. "I've gotten letters from all over the world from people struggling with this disease, and I've done something good if I can help them," he said.

Thomas did say that "there have been some reactions that weren't positive. I'll tell you one of them … it was, 'Lucky for you God's turning you white. Because, you know, the other people' -- words I don't use -- 'shouldn't be here.'"

Thomas said he's now determined to spread understanding about the realities of vitiligo. He still wears makeup when he's on the air, explaining that "I know for a fact that when I'm not wearing makeup, it is distracting for people, because it's something they haven't seen. And when I'm not wearing makeup, people don't hear me."

Thomas said it takes about 20 minutes to apply the makeup before going on-camera, but in his day-to-day life, he is now free to show his true self, and the face he's covering up on camera doesn't scare him anymore. "I had to clearly define me past what I saw in the mirror. And I realized that I was the man I always wanted to be."

Thomas also said the disease "forced me to clearly define myself as an African-American."

Thomas now is also an author. He said his book, "Turning White," is meant to help anyone struggling with anything that threatens their self-respect or the pursuit of their dreams, and he offers himself as an example. A man once afraid to talk about his disease has now exposed its every detail. A man once afraid to date now has a girlfriend. "When I project what's inside of me, I think people see that easily," he said. "I realized that you're not alone, and there are things that you can be thankful for no matter what. I'm not going to die from this. ... I still have my life. I still have my job … everything else is gravy."

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