‘Turning White’: Detroit Newscaster Lee Thomas and Others with Vitiligo Finding Hope

TV Broadcaster Lee Thomas
Broadcaster and Author Lee Thomas

Vitiligo, best known for being the skin disease that Michael Jackson suffered with for years, affects one in 100 people. It occurs when melanocytes – the cells that produce skin color – die early or are destroyed by the patient’s immune system. While not a primary cause, environmental toxins and stress can also aid vitiligo’s progression.  “It can be particularly troubling when patients have tan, brown or dark brown skin, as the spots are much more obvious,” said Dr. Charles Crutchfield III, Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “Socially and psychologically, vitiligo can be devastating and have profound quality-of-life effects.”

While nothing can prevent it, once it occurs, aggressive treatment can keep it from spreading. Treatments include topical prescription creams, special UV light treatments, and special sun protection.  “In extreme cases, when only a small patch of dark skin remains, the area can be lightened,” Crutchfield said. “Sometimes small grafts of skin from normal areas can be transplanted into areas of vitiligo. Also, camouflaging skin with make-up can work well.  “Once all of the genes causing vitiligo have been identified, researchers may develop better treatments. The ultimate goal is to find a treatment that will permanently stop the skin from losing color.”

Of all the places where how you look matters more than anything else, the television business stands out as the most obvious. For Lee Thomas, an entertainment reporter at WJBK-TV in Detroit, his journey with vitiligo – he refers to it as a journey, not a struggle – began in 1993.

Lee Thomas before vitiligo patches

Thomas, who has been in Detroit since 1998, first publicly opened up about his disease in 2005  — “The first time my boss saw me without make-up on was when I did that story” — and published a memoir on his vitiligo journey titled Turning White: A Memoir of Change in 2007. Like Candise Jackson, his vitiligo started small.

“It started off as one dot on my scalp,” Thomas, 45, said. “I didn’t think anything of it at first. I did what any other grown man would do and I called my mom. She told me that it was just stress. You know how old black folks are. She said that ‘it’s just stress, baby. It’ll go away.’”

Thomas, who was working at WABC in New York at the time of his diagnosis, said that while the initial spot did go away, other spots on his hands, face, and scalp soon replaced it. He was eventually diagnosed with vitiligo and the news hit him like a bolt of lightning.

“The doctor said that you have vitiligo, and there is no cure, but there are multiple treatments,” Thomas said. “He keeps talking and I didn’t hear anything else he said. I stopped him and said ‘hold up, doc, did you say there is no cure?’ And he said that most people respond to the treatment.

Lee Thomas with his vitiligo patches visible.