Lee Thomas: On vitiligo and his journey toward self-acceptance When news anchor Lee Thomas was diagnosed with the skin disorder vitiligo, he felt like his career was over. He shares his story of finding self-acceptance and embracing his changing body.

One man's journey with vitiligo and how he found self-acceptance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1165360996/1165791479" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, Part 2 of our special series - Mind, Body, Spirit. We all want to feel good in our own skin. But for people who appear on camera, the pressure to look a certain way can be intense.

LEE THOMAS: Yes, it's a very cosmetic business. It's not just a voice, it's a picture as well. And you do have to be presentable - what my mom used to say, you have to be presentable.

ZOMORODI: This is Lee Thomas.

THOMAS: I am a anchor and entertainment reporter, and I've been broadcasting on television since 1991.

ZOMORODI: Woo (ph).


ZOMORODI: Long time.


ZOMORODI: From a very young age, Lee had always dreamt about being on TV.

THOMAS: Where I came from, my example of television was this little boy named Rodney Allen Rippy.


RODNEY ALLEN RIPPY: Hi, I'm Rodney Allen Rippy.

THOMAS: He had a commercial back in the '70s.


RIPPY: Pack up the kids, crank up the car, to Jack in the Box.

THOMAS: He was a little Black dude. And I said, hey, I could do that. I could talk on TV.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Lee Thomas joins us now with some helpful hints.

ZOMORODI: By his mid-20s, that dream was coming true.

THOMAS: Yeah. I was at WABC in New York, the No. 1 station. I was on the No. 1 newscast, the 5 p.m.


THOMAS: The kids had their back-to-school...

I was the entertainment reporter on that newscast. And it's the highest-rated local newscast in the country. Talk about stress.

ZOMORODI: Despite his fast-paced schedule, Lee felt like things were going well. But then one day, he noticed a mark on his hand.

THOMAS: It looked like a freckling of light color on my hand. So I didn't really pay attention to it. I figured I hit my hand. It would - you know, it would fix itself.

ZOMORODI: Later, the barber pointed out a spot on the back of Lee's head.

THOMAS: And that was about the size of a quarter. So I immediately did what any grown man would do at the age of about 25 or 26. I immediately called my mom. And my mom said it was a stress mark and that it would go away.

ZOMORODI: But it didn't. More spots started appearing on Lee's skin.

THOMAS: I had, like, three on my hand. I had two on my scalp. And then I had some in the corners of my mouth, about the size of a dime on each corner of my mouth. And that's when I went to a doctor and was diagnosed with vitiligo.

ZOMORODI: What did the doctor tell you? Had you heard of vitiligo before?

THOMAS: Never. Never heard of it. And when he said it, I didn't know what he was talking about. He said, you have vitiligo. It's a pigment disorder - takes the pigment out of your skin. And then it turned into, you know, Charlie Brown's teacher.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

THOMAS: (Vocalizing).

He said vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, where your body attacks itself. And in the case of vitiligo, your body attacks the melanocytes, which are the pigment-producing cells in your skin. And they destroy them, so you basically are without pigment.

ZOMORODI: How did you react? Do you remember?

THOMAS: Yeah. So my head's spinning, you know what I mean? I was...


THOMAS: ...A young guy in New York on a great newscast, you know, having a great time. And I didn't know how to process it. And I'm walking to work, talking to myself. I mean, what's going to happen now? Am I going to turn all the way white? Is it - am I going to still have a job? And the most popular person at the time was Michael Jackson, and Michael Jackson said he had vitiligo.


MICHAEL JACKSON: OK, No. 1, this is the situation. I have a skin disorder that destroys the pigmentation of the skin. It's something that I cannot help.

THOMAS: And Michael Jackson also lost all of his pigment.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: When Michael Jackson was a boy, he was a Black kid. And now as an adult, he looks like a white man. What do you...

JACKSON: That's ignorance.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: What do you mean?

JACKSON: I don't control the fact that I have vitiligo. I don't...

THOMAS: So I was afraid that I was going to be that dude that was Black one day and white the other, on television. And I really did not - I didn't know how to handle it.

ZOMORODI: Lee Thomas picks up his story from the TED stage.


THOMAS: But I just couldn't give up. I couldn't quit. So I decided to just put on makeup and keep it moving. I had to wear makeup anyway. It's TV, baby, right? I just put on a little more makeup, and everything's cool. And that actually went very well for years. I went from being a reporter in New York City to being a morning show anchor in Detroit. And as the disease got worse, I just put on more makeup. It was easy, except for my hands. See, this disease is progressive and ever-changing. That means it comes and goes. At one point, for about a year and a half, my face was completely white. And then with a little help, some of the pigment came back. But living through this process was like two sides of a coin. When I'm at work and I'm wearing the makeup or wearing the makeup outside, and I'm the TV guy. Hey, how you doing, everybody? Great. At home, without the makeup, I'd take it off, and it was like being a leper. The stares - constantly staring at me - the comments under their breath. It was tough. And those were some tough years.

Like this one time, this little girl wasn't paying attention. She's about 2 or 3 years old. She's running. She runs directly into my leg and falls down pretty hard. I thought she hurt herself. So I reach out to try and, you know, help the little girl, and she looks at my vitiligo, and she screams. Now, kids are pure honesty. This little girl, she wasn't trying to be mean. She didn't have any malice in her heart. She was just afraid. I stayed in the house for two weeks and three days on that one. It took me a second to get my mind around the fact that I scare small children. And that was something that I could not smile away.


ZOMORODI: It seems like that was a particularly low point for you when it came to people's reactions and how you think of yourself in your own body. How did you get out of it?

THOMAS: It was tough because the truth of the matter is - and it's a tough sentence to say - I scared small children. That is a tough thing to get your mind around. But how did I get out of it? I was watching "Oprah," and my basketball bag, like, my gym bag with my basketball shoes and my basketball are right by the TV. And I decide that I am - I just want to be OK for, like, you know, an hour. I just don't want somebody to say squat about my skin for an hour, just one hour.

And when I go play basketball, the dudes that I play basketball with have seen my skin change over the years. They know exactly what's happening, and they don't care as long as I make my jump shot. And so I went to the gym. Dudes were like, where you been? They didn't care. I played, had a great time, and I went and took the shower and, you know, like normal. Like, it was normal. And I say, you know, bye to the guys at the desk on the way out. See you fellas next time, blah, blah, blah. Oh, my God, it was like breathing. You know what I mean? It was like...


THOMAS: ...Like breathing. It was normal again.

ZOMORODI: It sounds like you also reconnected with your body. You appreciated what it could do. It could sweat. It could play, could have a jump shot. It could take a hot shower. It could feel good - and not just thinking about your appearance, which, you know, can be so tedious.

THOMAS: Yeah. And I realized that what was happening to my body didn't stop everything that my body can do. My body had this disease, vitiligo, that wasn't painful, wasn't life-threatening. I was the one that's stopping movement and the other things that my body could do.

ZOMORODI: Eventually, you wrote a memoir in 2007 about your experience living with vitiligo. I mean, and you would think, Lee, that since then, things have changed. We have supermodel Winnie Harlow who has vitiligo. We talk about body positivity in society and people feeling good in their own bodies. But at the same time, I guess we still live in a place that is incredibly - well, I was going to say judgmental, but maybe it's just uneducated?

THOMAS: Both, yeah. I was the first person that I know of that started talking about vitiligo openly. Even Michael Jackson didn't like talking about it. So people would interview me and ask me about him. But I wrote a book, and the Smithsonian got a copy of my book to put it in the Smithsonian Institute 'cause there was not a book on this before. And so I realized one thing very quickly - is that I am a man with vitiligo who can articulate his journey very well. And talking about vitiligo is, besides my daughter, one of the most things I am most proud of.

It's an interesting place to be in society right now because people are less tolerant of each other. But at the same time, I feel like we're leading to a place where we all can come together in understanding. And I think identity is big, big, big because for me, when I first would walk down the hallway without my makeup on here at work, people were not able to look me in the eye. But I kept doing it until they were used to it. And then we're having conversations. And it's not the conversation. It's just the, oh, he doesn't have his makeup on yet. It was normalized.

ZOMORODI: So, Lee, I do have to ask - you still choose to wear makeup on air. What is your thinking behind that choice? And I guess do you think you'd ever get to the point where you'd say - you know what? - I am going on camera. I am going to do the news, and I am going to look exactly as I do when I'm not on TV, no makeup.

THOMAS: For me, I don't know, you know? I know that even if you don't have vitiligo, everybody puts on makeup to even out their skin - white, Black, everybody. It's something that people do for television. And even if I didn't put on this brown makeup, I would have to put on something 'cause I have oily skin. I don't know if I'm ever going to stop putting on - I think I'll stop doing TV, and then I'll just stop wearing the makeup. For me, especially now, I'm proud to be an African American. I'm proud of my heritage. And it's most identified with darker skin, brown skin. And I like that, you know, for an hour a day, five days a week, I get to be brown. Like, I get to be the way I was born. I get to be that. Now, is it me? Yes. And when I take off the makeup, you know what? That's also me, too.

ZOMORODI: That's broadcast journalist Lee Thomas. His book is called "Turning White: A Memoir Of Change," and you can see his full talk at ted.com.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.