Lee Thomas had been hiding a major secret for many years. One day, he realized it was best to just come clean. But he could’ve never imagined the effect his confession would have on his career and his personal life. He believed that it was best to just keep up with the charade, at one point. But he never expected that coming clean would give his life new meaning.
Lee Thomas had dreams of becoming a TV reporter. He got a bachelor’s degree in Arts in Communication from George Mason University, and quickly ventured off on his job search. Soon enough, opportunity knocked on his door, and he landed a great job in the city of New York. But things sometimes don’t go as planned, and life decided to put him to the test.
He worked as an entertainment reporter for Channel One News, in the prestigious city of New York. He got to cover all kinds of exciting and glamorous events, such as the MTV Movie Awards and even the Oscars. In a way, it felt like the sky was the limit for Lee. But he could’ve never predicted his professional career to take such a dark turn.
Lee, who was 25 years old at the time, decided to pay a visit to the barbershop. After examining his head, the barber pointed out to a strange discolored patch found on the back of Lee’s scalp. He said, “It looked to me like he had nicked my hair, like cut it too much down to the scalp.” He proceeded to grab a mirror to take a closer look, only to confirm that the barber was right. But he didn’t know what it was.
Lee’s mother told him that it was caused by stress, and suggested he not worry about it, but that was an impossible task as the patches were spreading. “Another spot came up on the other side of my scalp[…] then some came on my hands, the corners of my mouth and the bridge of my nose,” he explained. Despite Lee’s attempts to ignore the problem, the patches grew.
Lee had tried ignoring his condition for two years, but the patches had become so obvious that he had to go to a professional to get help. After a dermatologist took a closer look, Lee discovered what he had and the news threatened to destroy his chances of a successful career on TV.
Lee had vitiligo, a condition that causes the loss of pigmentation, making skin white. Not only were the patches going to grow, but there was no cure for his illness. “I was in my head thinking my career was over. I was already thinking of what else I could do with my communications degree,” he admitted. After panicking, he chose that it would be best for him to try and hide his illness from the TV viewing audience.
Lee found another job at Fox 2 Detroit in Michigan. He had to wear gloves to cover the condition on his hands and would only leave his home if he had makeup on. But he soon realized there were unexpected obstacles like the fact that he couldn’t wash his hands at work. So, he had no choice but to become a private person. Then he decided he couldn’t keep it a secret.
Lee chose to tell his supervisors and co-workers the truth after working at Fox for four years, but he didn’t share just how bad it was. He didn’t wear gloves while he was on the air anymore, but his condition continued to advance. Eventually, 35 percent of his body was covered with white patches. So, he decided to reveal the whole truth to management and their reaction was quite surprising.
Lee was reluctant when his bosses asked him to share his story on the news. “I didn’t want to because I thought it was a ratings thing, you know, ‘Look at the black guy turning white at 10,’” he said. But then viewers suffering from vitiligo called in after noticing his hands, and they asked him to share his story on TV. Then he knew his condition could help others.
A decade after a dermatologist told him he had vitiligo, Lee told his story in November 2005. He started by removing his makeup while he was live on the air and revealed his white patches. He explained how the illness had affected him and TV viewers connected with his narrative in an unpredictable sort of way.
Viewers sent the station a bunch of emails and letters thanking Lee for talking about his condition and expressing support for him. He said, “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.” So, his fear of losing his job was unwarranted, but his battle was far from over.
Lee knew that as a reporter, his first priority was to report the story. But, his appearance would prove distracting, particularly if he only had 10 minutes to talk to a celebrity and all they wanted to discuss was his skin condition. So he chose to continue applying makeup when he was on the air, but one day out of the whole year, he’ll make an exception.
On June 25, Lee will show up on TV for World Vitiligo Day without his makeup on every year. It’s his way of raising awareness about the condition. He’s heard from people who feel so insecure about their looks that they won’t leave their home. “There are lots suffering in silence, and I hope to be their voice,” he explains. But he does voice how his condition introduced some positive things too.
“Today I feel like this disease has made me the man that I always wanted to be,” said Lee. “I am honorable, respectful, a good citizen, a good father, a good brother, [and] I am more compassionate and have more empathy than I ever thought I could have.” His personal experience has opened other venues such as writing.
Lee wrote a book in 2007 which talks about how he came to terms with vitiligo, and it’s called “Turning White: A Memoir of Change.” He hopes that others with issues about their appearance, not just people suffering from vitiligo will be helped by reading his book. “I’m not going to die from this. […] I still have my life. I still have my job […] everything else is gravy.”