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Journalist Discusses 'Turning White' Through Rare Disease


MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

What do taxes have to do with Veteran's Day? I'll tell you in my Can I Just Tell You commentary in just a few minutes.

But first, this week, we go behind closed doors to tell a story that's all about skin color. It has nothing to do with racism. It's about vitiligo. It's a disease that happens to people of every race but is especially noticeable and challenging for people with darker skin, especially those who earn their living in the public eye. Pop star Michael Jackson said he had it years ago, explaining why he'd chosen to bleach his skin, but few believed him then.

Anchor and entertainment reporter Lee Thomas did because he also has vitiligo. He talks about the challenge of living with the disease in a new memoir, "Turning White: A Memoir of Change." Lee Thomas joins us now.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LEE THOMAS (Anchor, Entertainment Reporter; Author, "Turning White: A Memoir of Change"): First of all, thank you very much, Michel. I appreciate the time.

MARTIN: First of all, what is vitiligo?

Mr. THOMAS: It's a pigment disorder. It's in the auto-immune disorder category. And basically, what it is is your body starts eating its own pigment, and you're void of pigment. It looks like white but you're really, completely void in any kind of pigment or color. And it happens to everybody of all nationalities, any age. It's not contagious. It's not life threatening in any way. And just like a lot of auto-immune disorders, it's random - without any kind of idea which way it's going to go.

MARTIN: So it doesn't necessarily mean that if your father has it, you'll have it. There's no one else in your family who has it.

Mr. THOMAS: There's no one else in family who has it. We went back as far as my mother's great grandmothers - as far as we could talk to people - and no, that is one of the theories, though - that there is genetic link. But it's only a theory because there are no concrete evidence that that is the true link. A lot of people say also that it's link to thyroid conditions as well. Those are the two prominent ones that I've heard the most.

MARTIN: So with you, it started as a small patch on your scalp. When did you realize it was something more serious that caused you to seek medical attention?

Mr. THOMAS: It started, like you said, on my scalp. And then that one actually started to fill in but two more came on the other side of my scalp and two came on my hand. And once came in the corner of my mouth, where I started losing pigments there. And that's when I went to a doctor. I was working in New York, at WABC in New York, and I was entertainment reporter there, and really started to freak out. I mean, I'm turning white and I couldn't understand it. I didn't get it. And I went to a regular doctor. He said go to a dermatologist. Went to a dermatologist and he said, basically, you have a disease called vitiligo and there is no cure. And wow, you know?

MARTIN: What went through your mind when you heard that? I mean, this is…

Mr. THOMAS: First of all, I got a little mad at him because you're not used to doctors saying that, because they're supposed to fix everything. So I'm like, what are you talking about, doc? You're a doctor. You should have some answer for me. But really, there was no cure when I got it 15 years ago. And there is no cure now. And it was very worrisome. I was scared for my livelihood, for my job. I worked very hard, you know, to get where I was.

MARTIN: Well, I guess, I think (unintelligible) people at WABC. It's like the flagship affiliate of, you know, a major network - and you were there, you know? You were in the catbird seat.

Mr. THOMAS: I was there. Yeah, I was.

MARTIN: Something you'd always wanted.

Mr. THOMAS: Yes. And then I get this. Almost like a sentence that my career was over, that the dream had ended. Finally, someone got the pin out and punched the balloon. Because, at that time, I could not fathom a Black man turning white on live television. I mean, you know, and the news is live. And the news is now and it's nonstop, and it's a vigorous business. We both understand the rigors of it and I just didn't see a way of keeping my job while having a disease like this.

MARTIN: But you wear makeup, anyway? I know very few people who work in a studio who don't.

Mr. THOMAS: Right.

MARTIN: So was it really that big of a deal? I mean, forgive me, but I mean, you know, you said orders of magnitude. But was it really that much of a leap to say, okay, well, I'll wear some makeup. Why do you think you were so devastated that that didn't occur to you?

Mr. THOMAS: I didn't like wearing a lot of makeup. And I wish I could go without it at the time. Even though I like the powder, just so I didn't shine, but I actually had to buy new makeup. And also my hands - as my hands continue to change, people would literally stare at my hands. Still do. So it would distract from my job. It became a concern. It's a distraction. My hands are in the shot. They're at the desk. They're on the desk. There're cooking segments when you have to use your hands and, immediately, anything that's in that shot or in that environment, it takes away from message what you're saying, what you're interviewing someone about, is taking away from you being able to do your job at its best. So I was very concerned.

MARTIN: So what did you do? Did you go to talk to management? Did you say, look, this is what's happening to me, what did you do?

Mr. THOMAS: I actually - I didn't. I decided to actually go and try to figure it out on my own and just hide it from management at that point.

MARTIN: Did that work?

Mr. THOMAS: It did. I mean, I left New York. I got the job here in Detroit and still, hiding it with makeup. And as it progress, that's when I went to management. When it was something that I could not hide or chose not to try and hide anymore, I went to management and said, look, I don't know what's going to happen. I could turn completely white and I don't know if I'm going to want to stay or leave, especially when it started to take over my faith. It became what I call the war within, where it was really me fighting with me to deal with what I call the outside, you know, I have a makeup on.

MARTIN: Well, that's - I wanted to ask you about that when you said you weren't sure you wanted to stay. Why? Why would you give up your dream? Was it really that hard? I mean, I'm just trying to add what was it like for you? Did people stare at you on the street? Did you…

Mr. THOMAS: Oh, yeah.


Mr. THOMAS: I mean, everyone. It's one thing to walk in a room and you're the TV guy and everybody goes, hey, here's the TV guy. And some people watch your channel, some people don't. Some people know you, some people don't. But it's another thing to walk into the room and get the look of shock and awe -disheartened. Some people are immediately sad when they see you. And then, the reaction from children was also very difficult because they're very honest. And everybody isn't as nice as we'd like for them to be, and some of their comments are very harsh. And…

MARTIN: Like what?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I got called Chocolate and Vanilla, what's wrong with your face. One lady - I was in a grocery store line and getting my groceries. This is recent. And I go to pay, and I go, how much is it? The lady behind me goes, you sound just like that guy who's on Fox 2. And I go, really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: Do you like that guy? She's like, yeah, he's all right. But I tell you what? If it wasn't for your face, you have a dead on - his voice.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: So what do you say to all of those kinds of comments? And at some point, you know, especially a few years ago, it just became a barrage of almost too much. And I had to learn how to deal with them and how to learn how to turn the situation, because I'm a very positive person and I fight for that positivity and…

MARTIN: It sounds like it.

Mr. THOMAS: …and I had to fight to regain my positivity and maintain myself.

MARTIN: You don't wear makeup outside of work?

Mr. THOMAS: When I'm working, makeup. When I'm not, nope…

MARTIN: Why is that?

Mr. THOMAS: …going about my daily life. It's a choice, you know? I am who I am and this is the struggle that I go through. And everybody has a struggle that they go through or obstacles they have to overcome in their life. You can just see one of mine, but it clearly does not define who I am. And if you choose to have a problem because of it, the onus is just on me. And I'm not harboring anything against you for it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with Lee Thomas. He's the author of "Turning White." It's a memoir about his struggle with vitiligo.

You're really candid in the book, I have to say, about the way…

Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …this has affected your social life.

Mr. THOMAS: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: That, you know, you went through this period of not really knowing that if you were rejected by a woman, is it because of…

Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …you, you know. Maybe your rap wasn't, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: …tight enough? Or, was it the disease? And I just wonder if you still struggle with that?

Mr. THOMAS: You know, I do struggle with it, but the struggle isn't as long or as intense as it used to be. And, yes, I do have a girlfriend now and I'm just amazed that she loves me like I am sometimes, but she does. But I don't think I would have met her if I didn't change my philosophy, because it was stopping me from talking to people because I don't know if they can deal with it or I go on a date and the girl doesn't want to kiss me at the end of the date, but we've been hanging out the whole time and I'm not wearing my makeup because I'm not at work. So, did she not want to kiss me because she wasn't feeling me? Or did she not want to kiss me because even though she wanted to hang out with me, she can't deal with kissing this face.

MARTIN: The other thing that struck me was that one of the things you are known for is your entertainment interviews.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, you interview all the big stars. It's been…

Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …part of your portfolio for years.

Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Such an appearance-oriented business. And I, you know, always people are - not all of them - most of them are, gorgeous. And if they didn't…

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: …start out that way, they put a lot of money into looking that way. Does that bring anything up for you when you do these interviews now?

Mr. THOMAS: It's funny because I'm sitting in a chair across an actress. And she said, I think I'm getting a blemish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: And I'm just - I started laughing because it was so funny to me. She's worried about a little pimple.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: And 50 percent of my face is white, you know?

MARTIN: Well, exactly.

Mr. THOMAS: A (unintelligible) black man.

MARTIN: Well, that's exactly one of my questions.

Mr. THOMAS: But my biggest - yeah.

MARTIN: Does it make it hard for you to put up with their stuffs, sometimes - it's like, you've got to be kidding me, right?

Mr. THOMAS: Oh no. No, not at all. It's all just funny to me, you know. I don't look at it as, you know, this is what I'm going through, but I know that they live in this very cosmetic business. I'm fortunate to be at my end of the business. I was worried about one of them going, you know, the guy with the white hands and the black face, I don't want to talk to him anymore. And…

MARTIN: Has that happened?

Mr. THOMAS: It's just a worry. It never has. I've never lost an interviewer or anything because of my disease, and I go that way.

MARTIN: But, you know, the other thought that occurs to me, though, is the whole Michael Jackson story, because I have to be (unintelligible).

Mr. THOMAS: Right.

MARTIN: I do not believe that most people thought he was telling the truth about…

Mr. THOMAS: I don't think they did, either and…

MARTIN: …and I think partly because he's so cosmetically altered in all these…

Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …other ways, I mean, and, you know?

Mr. THOMAS: I understand completely. And the real example for me, with Michael Jackson, is I can confirm. It was all my left hand first. I used to wear one glove when it wasn't exactly winter, just because I wanted to cover my left hand when I wasn't covering it with makeup, you know? I understand. And the treatment is to bleach if it gets over 80 percent of your skin.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. You did the same thing? You wore one glove.

Mr. THOMAS: I would wear one glove when it was on one hand. And it was funny to me when I'd look back and go, man, people look at that as a fashion statement when I completely understand the guy was covering. The example I take from him is to not hide. I understand why he's so reclusive. I've met a lot of vitiligo patients who are afraid to go outside, but to be reclusive does not help the situation. And that's the example I take from Michael Jackson. If he wasn't so reclusive, I think people would have understood him a lot more and it wouldn't have gotten to the persona that it is today.

MARTIN: That's right.

Mr. THOMAS: So the example I took from him was to, you know what, tell your story. Be as open as possible.

MARTIN: Finally, Lee, I wanted to ask you, does this raise any interesting observations for you about race?

Mr. THOMAS: You know, I've grappled with this as this has happened to me because as an African-American man who chooses the news business, you go through certain changes, you know? People make certain assumptions about you because you speak a certain way or - and, you know, you dress a certain way that you're not this or you are that. And I grappled with it, minorly(ph), as my face started to change.

This disease has forced me to clearly define myself as a man and as an African-American man. So it's something that I don't grapple with anymore, but it's just interesting what people see. I was on a plane, a long plane ride coming home, and I head on one of those hooded jackets so I pulled the hood because I was going to go to sleep. So all you could see is, you know, just a little bit of the small of my face and then you could see my hands.

MARTIN: Which are quite pale…

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: …for those who haven't seen the book yet.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're quite pale on your book, I have to say - has some very interesting photographs showing the progression of the disease.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Very beautifully shot. But go ahead.

Mr. THOMAS: Oh, and the guy next to me, he says, do you mind if I ask you a question? And I go, no man, I'm an open book - because I have been talking to him anyway. And he says, are you an African-American or you're Caucasian? And I just laughed, then I go, you know what, you're right. Fifty percent of my face is white, 50 percent is black, and my hands are completely white, but I'm all brother. I am. It's coming from the heart. So I guess I just have to be - tell him. I don't mind telling him, but, yeah, I'm African-American man. And then we had a long conversation. And he's been such a nice guy. But, you know, I understand.

And to the pictures for a second, I just thought it was important for people to see, you know, the thing that started this whole thing was a kid called and asked me to tell my story because he has vitiligo. And he said people would treat him different, and that's what made me tell my story in the beginning. And I'm completely shocked and amazed and awed how the story has taken off because I realized that I'm speaking for a lot of people now. And I think my story has gotten even bigger than that. But for vitiligo patients, I think it's important for people to be able to look and not feel bad about looking, so you didn't have to look at me.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: You can look at the pictures in the book and you can get as comfortable with them as you want. And then the next time you see somebody that has vitiligo, it'll give you pause to give them a little more compassion maybe on the other end of it.

MARTIN: Lee Thomas is a television broadcaster with FOX News Channel 2 in Detroit. He's the author of "Turning White: A Memoir of Change." It's available now. He joined us from WDET in Detroit.

Lee, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. THOMAS: Michel Martin, I really appreciate the time and I got a lot of respect for you as well. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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