Canadian company makes skin disorder bearable
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Saturday, December 18, 2010 7:30AM EST
Lee Thomas was a successful television entertainment reporter when he started to notice his skin was changing colour from black to white. Although the image he now presents the world has changed drastically, Thomas hasn't abandoned his dream career.
Thomas was just 25, and already working as a nationally-broadcast entertainment reporter in New York City, when he started to notice the change.
At first, it was just one spot on his scalp that he blamed on the hairdresser.
"It turned out to be a mark," Thomas told CTV's Canada AM. "So I did what any grown man would immediately do: I called my Mom."
She assured Thomas it was a stress mark that would eventually disappear on its own.
"It did go away, but three more came up and then they came on my face," he said, recalling the sinking feeling those facial marks stirred in a man who made a living with his looks.
"You can imagine, your face is what you use in the industry," he said. In those first weeks the spots started spreading to eventually cover half his face, arms and body.
"I did not now where to turn. I did not know what to do."
Thomas wound up at a dermatologist who diagnosed him with vitiligo, an auto-immune-related skin disease that destroys pigment cells in men and women of all ages and races. As the incurable disease progresses, white or pale spots develop on the body, most commonly on the scalp and other exposed areas, around body orifices, sites of injury or body folds and around pigmented moles.
For Thomas, the effects of the disease mean people are constantly reacting to his 'white' hands and patchy face.
A four-time Emmy-award winning anchor, reporter and TV producer, Thomas decided to put his experiences to paper. The result was his 2007 book, "Turning White: A Memoir of Change."
Since then, he's become the face of the infliction.
While Thomas has not let the disease drive him into hiding, the head of Dermatology at Sunnybrook & Women's College Health Sceinces Centre says the consequences for most people suffering the disease amount to having their lives stolen.
"It is devastating," Dr. Neil Shear told Canada AM, explaining that the average sufferer is in an even worse situation than Thomas.
"Lee gets to talk to people now and show people his personality, but when you're walking through a store just buying groceries you don't get to do that. All you see is people averting their eyes or staying away from you or moving around or pulling their children away."
In the hopes of making life easier for the estimated 40-50 million people believed to have vitiligo worldwide, Dr. Shear says he started working with a corrective makeup specialist and a chemical engineer in the mid 1980s.
"Even though pigmented products have been around for years, they were always off. There was a line, or it was the wrong colour, or it just didn't look like the person," Dr. Shear told Canada AM.
Working at Toronto's Sunnybrook hospital, Shear says they developed a product, "in real life, with real patients" drawn from the city's multicultural community.
"The beauty of Toronto is we have so many different racial skintypes we could actually play around with it."
The result was Cover FX, a makeup Thomas credits with transforming his life.
"Cover FX allows me to function really," he said, calling the makeup a "godsend, because they have such heart with their company."
Thomas now wears the makeup when he's on the job as an anchor and reporter for Fox station WJBK in Detroit. But in the rest of his life, which he lives without concealing his looks, Thomas says he encounters a lot of support in the Motor City.
"People stand up for me, but it's an everyday struggle. Walking around looking like this ... it's not easy."