FOX 2 reporter Lee Thomas seeks support for international campaign to help others living with condition
Whenever Lee Thomas, Fox 2’s Emmy Award-winning entertainment reporter, is in Hollywood, he’s on the receiving end of compliments from human rights megastar George Clooney and warmly embraced by Halle Berry.
When he’s in Amman, Jordan, seeking treatment for his vitiligo skin condition in Amman, Jordan, the international array of fellow patients from more than a dozen countries, all know his name.
And if a hometown gas station attendant asks a rude question about the pigmentation of his face, the Detroiters in line behind him rush to his defense.
Thomas says he never thought he’d be the spokesperson for a disease—but that seeing the emotional toll that the loss of skin pigmentation takes on so many compels him to be forthright about his condition and to speak up for those around the globe who struggle with it as well.
How are you helping to advocate for those with vitiligo?
I work with an international organization that is collecting 500,000 signatures to present to the United Nations. We want to see June 25 designated as World Vitiligo Day, so the name is 25June.org. In some parts of the world like Africa and India, it ruins lives and people are shunned like lepers. We want to bring awareness. Also, because it’s looked at as a cosmetic disease, there are not enough research dollars allocated for promising drugs and insurance companies don’t always cover treatments. We are going to lobby governments to change that.
Why was June 25 chosen?
Michael Jackson died on that date. People still ask me if I believe Michael actually had vitiligo. I absolutely do believe it. He showed it to many in his inside circle. Most people camouflage or hide it, so I’m thinking he may have worn face masks on days he didn’t feel like covering it up with makeup. Also, part of the procedure is to bleach skin to make it uniform, so it’s not farfetched that he would have had bleaching agents.
You say we don’t pick the life plan we end up living?
My sister said of all the stories I’ve told in my television career, this is what I was meant to do. I go around the world speaking, to Italy, Russia, to London. I know how difficult it is to live with this.
This is emotional warfare because everyone looks at you. In the African-American community our color is our strength, so I speak about what we do when that part of our pride has to change. I try to live as an example and ask people to show compassion.
I also speak to conferences of doctors who have never had a patient articulate the struggles the way I do, descriptive and with emotion. I tell them their patients need the emotional support of a group. I started one at Henry Ford Hospital and we have 30 to 60 people each month who come for understanding and support, to know they are not alone.
How do you stay motivated to encourage and educate others?
I’m a motivational speaker, as well, and I’m advocating for understanding. I have a philosophy of endurance and stress that we all have something that makes us different. I’m fighting through it. There are moments I don’t feel like going outside – but they are few and fleeting. That’s no different than dealing with anything else in life, like depression or the death of a loved one.
I believe Michael Jackson suffered in silence and that’s why I told my story in 2007 with my book, “Turning White: A Memoir of Change” [Momentum Books]. Since then thousands of people from all around the world have made contact with me. I have great hope for treatment, maybe not for me—but to help the next person, someone else’s child.
ALICIA NAILS IS THE DIRECTOR OF THE JOURNALISM INSTITUTE FOR MEDIA DIVERSITY AT WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY.