As I walk into a Starbucks in Briarcliff Manor, NY to meet and interview my friend James, he greets me in his normal, “What’s up, Chad? How are you? I’m Excellent!” pleasantry as we sit down to begin our interview. In the next 10 minutes, he greets six more people the same way adding “have THE BEST day!” after they wish his day well. James McLeod is, to say the least, a positive person. It’s his constant positive attitude that makes his personality so magnetic, and it is contagious. He’s the kind of person people in a room love to gravitate towards. As he begins to tell me his story, the moment becomes surreal. We are less than 20 miles from where he grew up, yet it feels like we’re a thousand miles away from the life he’s describing.
James McLeod was born and raised in Peekskill, a small city in upper Westchester County, NY. With his father constantly battling drug addiction, his mom raised him and his siblings virtually alone. Life was a struggle. Abject poverty was a mainstay in Peekskill, but a major issue compounding James’ struggles was literally written on his face. James has vitiligo.
Vitiligo is a condition in which the pigment is lost from areas of the skin causing whitish patches, often with no clear cause. Because of this condition, James grew up known as the “kid with half a face.” He was subjected to constant teasing, bullying, prodding questions and stares. He was always acting out to fit in. Always willing to do anything that would make him seem and feel normal. Truancy and eventually dropping out of school altogether became choices that led to even more choices. “Since my friends sold drugs, I sold drugs to fit in.” This landed him a 2-year stint in a juvenile detention facility.
At that point in James’s life, he still feels very self-conscious about his condition, and his life begins to spiral out of control even more. He sustains stab wounds in various altercations related to drugs, and he moves from selling drugs to also trafficking them at greater risk. His enigmatic personality led him to DJing, but the fast life of music, drugs, and crime would all soon come to an end. He was caught selling and trafficking and convicted to an 8-year prison sentence at a federal penitentiary.
“My life didn’t really start to change for me until I got sent to federal prison,” he says. “It was there that I finally was able to come to terms with my condition and actually begin to love myself for who I am – no matter how I look.”
James credits the friendships he made and mentors he acquired while in prison with helping him to hone his new outlook on life. He also says that his first job coming out of prison helped him to see that working and talking to people was his calling. “They took a chance on hiring me to be a waiter. But I soon learned that I had a gift for talking with people. They loved my energy.” The motivation he got from working the job as a waiter landed him another job working with event services. There he met contacts that would help him resurrect his DJing skills and start a new company.
As his life blossomed, James remained in tune with where he came from and where he was going. Changes in his life resulted in changes in his health and wellness, as well. He would eventually become a personal trainer, where he pushed his client’s even further by sharing his story of motivation.
Today, James McLeod is a motivation speaker, known as “That Vitiligo Guy.” He can be found traveling the world, DJing and telling his story of success despite hardship and adversity. He finds that kids who see themselves in him are particularly moved by his story. For them, it may not be something as visual, like Vitiligo, which sets them apart from their peers, but feeling like an outsider is a common theme amongst most youth. As such, James has transformed his self-consciousness and now uses his story and his condition as a tool for reaching others. Vitiligo is now his billboard.