“I’d be her grandmother now,” Vanna says, laughing. “That’s why all the grandmothers love me.”
No one thought she would last this long. Vanna — the person, not the persona — didn’t even think she’d make it through the audition.
“I didn’t think I had a chance,” Vanna recalled. “The girl I was competing against was the complete opposite of me: poised and brunette and perfect. I felt like I was just this girl from North Myrtle Beach that was . . . I don’t know. I had no confidence.”
But Merv Griffin, the late game-show mogul who created both “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!,” had other plans for the leggy star. When visiting the set of another one of Griffin’s shows, “Dance Fever,” she begged a casting agent for an audition on “Wheel.” They were already in casting, but Vanna kept hounding him until she got her chance. She remembers little about the audition, only that she jumped up and down when she got the call the day before Thanksgiving in 1982.
Sajak, 66, who has hosted the show since 1981, originally told Griffin he thought Vanna was too green, too nervous. Griffin didn’t care. He saw something timeless in Vanna, and America would come to see it, too.
“Vanna’s genuine,” Sajak said backstage before a taping. “There’s very little she does other than touch letters and point at lovely prizes. But at the end of the show, we spend 20 or 30 seconds chatting about her cat or her shoes or whatever and over 30 years, those things add up. People get the sense that she’s a nice person.”
Her fans in Vegas seem to agree.
“She’s not a phony person,” said Judianne Oleson, 73, of Henderson, Nev., who started watching the day-time version of the show in 1978. “She’s not put on like the people in reality shows.”
“Nothing about her has changed but her hairstyle,” added Carol Heilman, 64, also of Henderson.
Perhaps surprisingly, the ardent “Wheel” fans lined up outside the Venetian’s convention center span the spectrum of race, ethnicity and age. Twenty-something college kids in cut-offs and tank tops take selfies in front of the large bus plastered with Pat and Vanna’s faces. They grew up with Vanna. Some say they learned to read watching her. She reminds them of their grandmothers’ houses or nursing homes.
“I love Vanna — she looks amazing,” said Jessica McLaughlan, 28, of Las Vegas, who came with a friend. “And I wish I had her job. When she retires, I’m going to audition.”
“Wheel of Fortune” wasn’t the dream when Vanna decided she wanted to become a television star. She describes her upbringing in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., as a mere Pleasantville of bike rides, unlocked doors and a turn as Miss Fire Safety. She set her sights on Hollywood when she was 12, thanks to her uncle, Christopher George, who played the lead on the ’60s war drama “The Rat Patrol.”