Over the last two decades, on-air reporter Lee Thomas has slowly watched his appearance change.
At 25, Thomas — then working for WABC in New York — began noticing small, light-colored spots on his scalp, nose and corners of his mouth.
After a visit to the doctor, Thomas learned he had vitiligo, a skin disorder that results in the loss of pigmentation. He also learned that although the condition can be treated, there was no cure.
“ kept talking but I didn’t really hear much of anything else because I was in my head thinking my career was over,” Thomas, 50, told the Daily Mail of receiving the diagnosis. “I was already thinking of what else I could do with my communications degree.”
Despite the “devastating” news, says Thomas, he continued working. He started wearing heavy makeup to cover his condition. “Over the course of the first 10 years, it didn’t progress as much as it did the second 10 years. At one point, my face was completely white,” he told Yahoo Lifestyle.
Now an entertainment reporter and anchor for WJBK Fox 2 in Detroit, Thomas admitted that for the first five years at the station he kept his condition a secret.
“It’s a very vain society,” he said. “We’re all worried about the way we look and the way we’re presented to people, but also, getting in television — it’s just a vain business. It’s based on looks a lot of the time. That’s what I thought I had to do to survive. It’s what most people do in life — hide imperfections.”
Eventually Thomas stopped hiding his vitiligo. In 2007 he wrote a bestselling book, Turning White: A Memoir of Change.
“You can’t put makeup on your hands and then scratch the amount of places you’re scratching a day; I’d have brown stuff everywhere. I’d rather people think I have a disease that they can research and understand rather than to think I was dirty.”
Although he still wears makeup at work, Thomas said he doesn’t do it because he’s ashamed but to avoid “distracting” from the subjects of his stories.
Thomas is also dedicated to helping and inspiring others with the same condition. He started the foundation Clarity LTF to provide “mental and emotional support for people with vitiligo.”
The emotional support is an important component — Thomas admits that some people are uncomfortable around him and have even refused to shake his hand.
“I’m cool with that,” he said. “It’s part of my advocacy. Let people stare; maybe they’ll seek out the information. Maybe they’ll ask me. Either way, staring is fine.”
He continued: “Because I’m in this position, I think this is where my next thing is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be about sharing and helping, and hopefully leaving the planet a little better for everybody else who comes along with vitiligo.”