Just as a sculptor needs his hands, a broadcaster needs his face. So when Lee Thomas, BA Speech Communication ’91, found patches of white on his scalp, he was understandably concerned. Thomas was subsequently diagnosed with vitiligo, a chronic condition that affects the skin’s melanin, the pigment that determines the color of your skin, hair, and eyes.
For his job at WJBK FOX 2 Detroit, where he is an entertainment reporter and anchor, Thomas began covering the white patches on his skin with makeup, but he always left his hands alone.
“One [hand] was almost completely white,” Thomas recalls. “A kid who has [vitiligo] saw that and called me.” During the lengthy phone conversation, the 15-year-old asked Thomas to show people what he looked like without his makeup. Up until that point, it was something Thomas hadn’t seriously considered.
“My boss had been asking me for at least a year to tell my story,” Thomas says. “I was thinking she wanted to get ratings, so I didn’t.” But this teenager’s appeal made Thomas pause.
“He said to me, ‘If you show people what you look like, maybe they’ll treat me differently,’” says Thomas. “I had just been focused on getting through my day, and I didn’t think of it that way. I had already gotten past the looks, the whispers, and the laughs” that came with the disease, Thomas says.
So in 2005, Thomas did a three-minute piece about the disease that ran on his station. The response was immediate. From Taiwan to Australia, people wanted to hear Thomas’s story.
Thomas appeared on Larry King Live, 20/20, and The Montel Williams Show, to name a few. “No one had really spoken up about this disease,” Thomas explains. “Once I put it out there, everyone was interested.” He also wrote a memoir called Turning White, which he based on journals he had been keeping.
Thanks to his degree from Mason, Thomas was well-prepared to be the center of attention. “Everything that happened to me at Mason made me who I am,” Thomas says. He credits his time with the Forensics Team with Bruce “Doc” Manchester and Sheryl “Docette” Friedley with polishing his oration skills.
“I won second in the nation for prose,” Thomas reminisces. “Nationals were in Peoria, Illinois, that year. I also qualified for dramatic duo. I still remember my part,” he laughs, spouting off some Shakespeare.
Thomas began his television career at Mason, too. He started a show on GMU-TV called Rhythm Mason, but he got his start at the station answering phones. “That job taught me how to go and make the job for myself.”
“GMU-TV was like my family,” Thomas says. “I don’t think I would’ve made it through college without it.”
Thomas now spends his downtime traveling around the country speaking about the disease and telling his story. “I’ve gotten nothing but an overwhelmingly positive response,” Thomas says. “It’s the most real experience I’ve had as a communicator. I see tears in people’s eyes and their faces change.
“I’m trained to communicate for my living,” says Thomas. “I think I was meant to speak for a lot of people who are in hiding and need someone to speak up on their behalf.”