Insensitive comments about the condition that has affected him for 16 years hit Lee Thomas way beyond skin deep.
So the Emmy-winning Fox TV reporter and author of the book "Turning White: A Memoir of Change," who struggles with vitiligo, is even more outspoken since singer Michael Jackson's death. The same skin condition that Jackson first told the public he endured in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey has gradually turned Thomas' rich, brown complexion into a pattern of bright splotches on various parts of his body. A debate about vitiligo and its effects has been re-ignited in the wake of Jackson's passing and media focusing on his non-Black children.
"Everywhere, I get that question: Do you really think that he had vitiligo?" says Thomas, who publicly speaks about the disease between covering entertainment news on a weekday morning show. "In his death, hopefully more people will understand that yes, he had a disease that turned his skin white."
Over 5 million Google hits registered from a Web search of the word "vitiligo" barely 48 hours after Jackson's televised funeral. About 1 percent of the world's population suffers from the condition, which has an undetermined cause and affects all races, including Whites. Vitiligo attacks pigment and breaks down the skin's natural color. Curiosity about the condition is understandable, says Thomas, but he adds that skepticism and ignorance can be hurtful. He recently challenged Jackson's legendary friend Quincy Jones after Jones dismissed Jackson's previous statements that he was a "proud Black American," saying Jackson wanted to be White. A statement from Thomas released through his publicist read in part: "I respect everything that Quincy Jones has done as an entertainer and producer, but I am very disappointed that a man so accomplished couldn't look up the disease or, even better, take his friend’s word. I have this disease and the reality of it is, I am turning White, and believe me, that is not by choice.”
Apart from a revealing, personal segment that discussed his battle with viewers of his home station in Detroit, Thomas has appeared on major TV shows including "20/20" and "Larry King Live." Before going on-air each day, he undergoes an extensive makeup process to cover the areas of his face and neck that have been discolored. He says that various medical treatments have had no lasting effect. But Thomas joined other sufferers of the disease who've put the question of genetics in doubt when he had a daughter last year, who shows no symptoms.
Suggestions that Jackson never had vitiligo because his skin was uniformly light, rather than splotched, aren't necessarily so, Thomas says; in fact, it's been reported that Jackson's famous glove was first worn to cover discoloring on his hand.
"There are a lot of people outside of Michael Jackson, who have (turned uniformly lighter)," Thomas says. "You probably saw someone who had really light skin and just never knew it."
But the various manifestations of vitiligo are less important than how its sufferers are received and perceived, Thomas says. Dates of his speaking engagements and discussions on the topic are posted at the Web site www.turningwhite.com.
"I hope that, by continuing to talk about it," Thomas says, "with conversation comes understanding, with understanding comes compassion."