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Black Reporter Deals with 'Turning White'


Reporter Lee Thomas was used to telling stories - maybe just not his own. But he decided to go ahead and reveal something very personal to his viewers, and soon to the world. The African-American TV reporter told his viewers, yes, I am turning white before your eyes.

Thomas suffers from the skin disease vitiligo, which causes pigment cells to die, leaving the skin devoid of color. Now in the U.S. alone, two million people suffer from vitiligo, and it was largely absent from public consciousness until Michael Jackson announced that he suffered from the skin disorder.

Now, Lee has written a book about his experience. "Turning White: A Memoir of Change" hits bookstores nationally in January of 07, and Lee Thomas joins us now. Hes an entertainment reporter with the Fox News station in Detroit. I know youre actually on air in the morning, so Lee, thanks a lot for taking the time.

Mr. LEE THOMAS (Reporter, Fox News): Oh, thank you for having me on. I really appreciate it, Alison and Bill.

STEWART: So, well, what were the first signs that you have this disease? When did you first realize something wasnt quite right?

Mr. THOMAS: I was sitting in a barber chair and getting a haircut, getting a D.C. fade, you know, outside. And the barber - I got the mirror, how he gives you the mirror, and I saw spot on the back. And I thought he messed up my haircut, and I was ready to get mad. And so was he, because you know how barbers are about their work. So...

STEWART: Of course.

Mr. THOMAS: ...we had a little discussion. And he - I got real close with the mirror, and you could see that there was a patch missing, and it was just the pigment in my skin was gone. So I called my mom, like everybody does when somethings wrong, and she said it was a stress mark, and it was going to go away. And it actually did start to fade, but then two others came on the other side of my scalp. And then, one started to follow on my hand, and it just progressed from there. And then I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with vitiligo.

STEWART: So at this point, what percentage of your body is covered at this point, or has become susceptible to the lack of pigment?

Mr. THOMAS: Right now, its probably about 35 percent. A lot of my face and scalp - my hands are completely gone. My feet are almost completely gone. Your extremities, it really attacks vigorously - so feet, hands and other unmentionables. I mean, its pretty much everywhere.

BILL WOLFF: Oh, dont mention the unmentionable.

Mr. THOMAS: I know.

WOLFF: I appreciate that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: What is the pace of the disease? That is how - do you see its progress daily, or is it something that goes very slowly? Can you describe to us the process by which you see your pigment dying?

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah, you know, its one of those random diseases. They say it attacks people between 40s - 25 and 45 mostly, but people as young as 3. But, for me, the last four years, rapid. Its been crazy. My face was probably half of what you see on the cover of the book just two years ago, where I could cover it up easily, but now its like 30 or, you know, 35 percent of my face. And in the last four years, it just progressed rapidly. Like my hands, just like a year ago, I still had, you know, pigment on my hands, but now my hands are completely white or void of color.

So - and that the doctor say that sometimes itll progress rapidly, sometimes itll, you know, stop and stay at bay. I know a gentleman who is 62, and hes had it the same way ever since he was a teenager. It hasnt progressed at all.

So, for me, it just, the last few years have been a very rapid deep pigmentation.

STEWART: Well, the upside of this, its not fatal. Its not dangerous. But considering your career choice, you just must have had a host of thoughts running through your head as this disease began to progress. What did you consider doing about your career?

Mr. THOMAS: You know what? I thought it was over. To be honest with you, I remember - back in the day, we both run into each other in New York, and it was just starting to take its effect. I had a few bits around my nose and mouth, and thats when I started to freak out.

STEWART: I remember you now.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

STEWART: I remember that.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah. So back then - and I remember meeting you as well, big fan of all your work Im sorry, fan moment. Yeah...

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Id like to thank you for that.

Mr. THOMAS: ...thats when I really freaked out when I was in New York, and thats honestly part of the reason why I left. I said, you know, is it career or is it health? Because I thought it was going to be something more. I just something inside of me told me that vitiligo was the beginning of something that was wrong with me, because I was starting to get chronic fatigue.

And as I got the chronic fatigue, it got worse. So I decided to, you know, take my health in my own hands and try and, you know, get a handle on it. And also, trying to find a job that was a bit less stressful and all kinds of things that I was trying whatever to not let it take over my face. I completely freaked.

I remember when I got the word, the guy said vitiligo, and theres no cure. I remember like the room spinning and not hearing anything else, because I thought, you know, I worked my way through college and paid for everything myself, and Im sitting right in the middle of the, you know, Big Apple in a great job, and the guys telling me that Im turning white. And its...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: Honestly, I was freaking. But, you know, over the years, my attitude about life and everything has really, really changed. And not to sound too sappy, this disease has honestly made me the man I always wanted to be, you know, compassionate and honest and all those things I always struggle to get, I feel like I am right now.

STEWART: Its interesting. Youre a storyteller by trade, and you have a great way of describing sort of the progression of it, the Michael Jackson way, that it all starts with one glove.

Mr. THOMAS: Thats the truth, and, you know, I was a doubter of Michael Jackson before this happened to me, but I understand the one glove. I mean, how are you going to cover that up when you have big white patches on your hands, and on your face for that matter? Could you imagine being the most famous person on the planet?

Everybody thinks you look like the cover of "Thriller," and yet you look like the cover of my book, which is a blotchy faced of white and black, and you have to reveal that to millions of people? I mean, I scared a little girl once, and it was really traumatic for me because she really screamed. She was about three. And I stayed in the house for two weeks...


Mr. THOMAS: ...because of that. I couldnt imagine him going outside and dealing with all of the nasty things that people have to say, being the most famous person on the planet. So I understand how Michael Jackson became reclusive, but thats all I can speak for when it comes to him.

STEWART: So why did you decide to be - go public with your story?

Mr. THOMAS: It was simple. I was on the phone, and I you know, how kids will call you and they want to visit you at the station? Well, people who have vitiligo noticed my hands early on. And they called and they asked to bring their kids to the station. And I was talking to a teenager on the phone, and he said to me, would you tell your story on TV so people will treat me differently?

And he talked about an 8-year-old who had a who wears a mask, one of those stocking masks to go outside and play because he was tired of getting teased by other kids. And he said if you tell your story and you educate people, maybe theyll understand and theyll treat me differently.

And you know how youre caught up in your own struggle and you never really look out from it? Thats why I wasnt telling my story on TV, but as soon as the young man asked me, it was really simple. You know, were journalists and were here to help humanity hopefully by shining light on different subjects.

And for me to shine light on myself was easy. We tell stories. So it was an easy answer. I said yes. My boss had been asking me for a year to tell this story, and I thought she just wants the ratings and exploitations. You know how that goes.


WOLFF: She did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: Well, it is TV.

STEWART: Hes a TV executive. He knows.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: It does help with the food and shelter thing for me right now. Im not mad at anybody. But when the kid did ask me, it was easy. I said, yes, I will. Im going to go on and talk to my boss and ask when she wants to air it. And I came back and I called the kid back and I said its going to air, you know, on this date. So look out for it.

STEWART: And I misspoke at the top of this segment. Your book is coming out in January 2007. Im like the person who cant - I mean, 2008. Im like the person on the - who keeps writing 07 on the checks, right?

Mr. THOMAS: Right, right. The book is in bookstores now, but in January, because of all the attention, it actually goes national, which is incredible. I mean, you can get it online in like and stuff like, but it will in all Barnes & Nobles in January. And I am overwhelmed, because from the initial, I always wanted this to be about people. And so part of my proceeds from the book go to the - Im sorry -go to the Turning White Foundation, which is what I started from the response of what I got from people, and also to the National Vitiligo Foundation. So its one of those things (unintelligible) go past the screen and help people...


Mr. THOMAS: Im overwhelmed. I mean, Im honored just - you guys -to talk to me. And I really appreciate it.

STEWART: Well, you know what? Were going to link through to all your Web sites on our Web site. Lee Thomas, thanks so much for sharing your story so candidly. I really appreciate it. And its nice to talk to you again.

Mr. THOMAS: Its nice to talk to you. Alison, and Bill, pleasure to meet you.

WOLFF: Merry Christmas.

Ms. THOMAS: You have a good one.

WOLFF: NPRs Jamie Tarabay has ended her tenure in Iraq. Shes back in New York, and shell talk to us next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.