Vitiligo: What if your skin started changing colour?
In Toronto we’re in the midst of one of the most glamourous times of the year—the Toronto International Film Festival. The town is teeming with celebs right now and reporters from all over the world have come to the Big Smoke to get the scoop on the stars and their latest films.
Among the throng of journalists interviewing stars like Hilary Swank and Shia Labeuf is Lee Thomas, an entertainment reporter and anchor from Detroit, Michigan. What makes Thomas as interesting as the celebrities he’s interviewing is that his skin is turning from black to white—and he's not afraid to talk about it on national TV.
Thomas has vitiligo, a condition that causes the cells that produce skin pigment to die or stop forming all together. You may recognize the name of the disease from one of its most famous sufferers, Michael Jackson. Doctors aren’t sure what causes it, but theorize that it may either be hereditary or an autoimmune disorder. What they do know is that there is no cure.
Thomas first discovered white patches on his scalp when he was 25 and just beginning his career in TV news. “I was sitting in a barber chair when I first saw a white patch on my scalp. I thought he had nicked me, but he insisted he hadn’t,” Thomas tells me in phone interview. “So I did what every other man in that position would do: I called my mom.”
Thomas’ mom’s opinion was wrong—she told him it was probably a stress mark—but his doctor’s diagnosis was final and scary: he had vitiligo and there wasn’t much anyone could do to stop his dark skin from turning white.
“I thought my career was over and I had worked very hard to get there. I was devastated,” he says of his first reaction to the news that the vitiligo would continue to progress.
But 20 years later, Thomas is an Emmy-Award-winning broadcaster, author and role model for people who struggle with the skin condition. Though he wears face makeup when he appears on TV (and is a spokesperson for CoverFX), he allowed his audience to see his skin without any cover up for a three-minute report. This brief act of bravery drew him into the spotlight (especially when Larry King called for an interview) and made a celebrity out of a reporter who interviews celebrities. How wonderfully ironic.
Now, some of the biggest names in Hollywood actually recognize him when he meets them for interviews. “When I interviewed George Clooney, he said, ‘I heard your story, keep doing what you’re doing. I have a friend with vitiligo and he’s had a hard time,’” says Thomas.
His advice for others struggling with this skin disorder: “Don’t give up. So many people with vitiligo are in hiding, so no matter what other people say or feel, don’t stop living your life.”
Photo of Lee Thomas by Liria Ivezaj.