LAS VEGAS — The game is high-stakes hangman. Only three can play but millions can watch, and on this August afternoon at the Venetian hotel, “Wheel of Fortune” is the most riveting game in this joint.
Sixteen hundred fans, sardined in bleachers, have come to watch as the great wheel giveth cars, cash and trips to Antigua. And they’ve also come to see the mistress of letters, America’s favorite wordsmith, work her magic on the puzzle board.
Here we are at the bonus round. The category is PHRASE. The puzzle looks like a sandtrap on an emerald green golf course.
Ten seconds on the clock. The contestant is baffled.
“Oh. Um. It’s,” she pleads, until the answer dribbles off her tongue just in the nick of . . .
The buzzer bleeps. The crowd gasps. She won, right? After 30 seasons of “Wheel of Fortune,” the hosts aren’t exactly sure.
Pat Sajak runs off stage toward a bank of computers. Vanna White —wearing a sparkling fuchsia gown and a thigh-high slit — takes a mike and darts toward the crowd with the swiftness of a mountain cat. It is now, off camera, that the usually silent hostess does something that would shock the 30 million viewers who watch her each week.
For seven minutes.
“Sometimes, things are too close and we have to check the tape,” Vanna informs the crowd in a honeyed Carolina accent. “But this gives me some time to talk with you folks! Anyone have questions for Vanna?”
This is not part of the usual routine. This is Defcon-2 at “America’s Game.” Vanna has already gabbed with this audience, already told them about her cat, her two teenage kids and the 6,000 dresses that she’s worn on set since 1982. She’s already hugged a veteran and told a disabled teen in the audience that she loves him, too. But Vanna will keeping talking — about blackjack or shoe collections — until the contestant on stage learns that she lost $50,000. That’s when Vanna will console her, clap anyway and change gowns for the next game, when some lucky someone might win the Camaro.
“It’s icky when that happens,” Vanna said backstage between games, referring to the too-close-to-call moments that give game shows their oomph. “But while they check the tapes, I try to entertain the audience. They don’t get to hear me talk too much, so I try to give them a little piece of who I am.”
After 30 years on “Wheel of Fortune,” who Vanna White is isn’t entirely clear.
Officially, the 56-year-old co-host is the letter-turner, the name for something she no longer does since the puzzle board is now computerized. But unofficially, Vanna has been everything: touchstone, mother goddess, laughingstock, author, spokeswoman, exercise guru, model, philanthropist and object of desire, envy or ridicule, depending on your taste for sequins. She’s held the same job since she was just 26, one with little path for career development. Despite aging, she’s maintained her status as America’s girlish cheerleader, and is now the longest-running female co-host on syndicated television, a feat that might have been a feather in the cap of women’s achievement if we weren’t talking about Vanna White. But Vanna — who, yes, gained first-name-only recognition in 1987 — doesn’t care to claim accolades. In her mind, there’s a reason it all worked out this way.
“Loyalty,” she says emphatically during an interview off stage, dressed down in a gray and blue cotton dress. “Our viewers are loyal. They’ve seen Pat and me together for 30 years. It’s like Ken and Barbie. How do you break them up?”
But going into her 31st season, a few extra creases outlining her bright brown eyes, Vanna no longer thinks she’s a Barbie doll.
“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.”
“[When] the show came on for the first time, my mother said ‘That’s your Uncle Chris,’ ” Vanna recalls. “I thought, ‘I have an uncle on TV? I want to be on TV!’”
At 23, she and her best friend hopped in a U-Haul and drove cross-country as Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” blared on the radio. She arrived in Los Angeles, waitressed, appeared on “The Price is Right” and did what so many starry-eyed small-town girls do: She trusted someone too much, put on some lingerie, and ended up on the cover of Playboy, a mistake she still regrets. She went on Johnny Carson, apologized for her lacy wrongdoing and begged the public for forgiveness. Naturally, the public absolved her and she became more famous, with a memoir, exercise tapes and a shout-out in one of Ronald Reagan’s speeches:
“If a tax hike makes it to my desk, I’ll veto it in less time than it takes Vanna White to turn the letters V-E-T-O.’’
With a presidential punch line, Vanna’s place on “Wheel” was solidified. She’d go on to clap through pregnancy, childbirth, divorce, the deaths of loved ones — the big moments of both our lives and hers. She lost her fiance, Chippendales-dancer-turned-actor John Gibson, in a plane crash in 1986, one of the rare times she missed work. The next week, she returned to the puzzle board, smiling.
Forty-some countries have licensed “Wheel of Fortune.” Most of those versions have taut and toned women turning or touching letters a la Vanna. Generations of critics have quibbled with her silent presence, her sequins, her antiquated role. In the ’80s, Adweek said she typified “the bimbosity” of American culture and the satirist Russell Baker quipped, “I refuse to learn what Vanna White is.” More recently, in 2008, the New Yorker called her “a perfect Barthesian blank: blond and white, with little if any reference to ethnicity,” a surprise to Vanna, since her biological father was Puerto Rican. She’s “proud to have Latin blood,” she says.
But “Wheel” has long played up the absurdity of Vanna’s role. Indeed, it playfully mocks her silence at live tapings, where Sajak often teases her for not having (or really needing) a microphone.
“Oh, you don’t have a mike?” He asks. “Go ahead and talk into my chest, and take all the time you need!”
Vanna obliges, the audience laughs, and their banter continues. She calls him “boss.” He calls her “one hot babe.”
Vanna chalks all this up to the absurdity of her job.
“I’ve dealt with criticism by making fun of my job,” Vanna says. “It is what it is. I’ll be the first to make to fun of it. It’s funny.”
“If you ask Vanna what she does for a living, she doesn’t say, ‘Well, I want to direct one day,’ ” Sajak says. “She says, ‘I touch letters and they light up.’ We’re alike in that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
But Vanna does take her image seriously. She won’t argue with those who think she’s a robotic object, but she has sued them: In 1993, she sued Samsung for intellectual property infringement when it portrayed a robot in a blond wig turning letters on a game show. She won the lawsuit, proving that sometimes, she means business.
“What people don’t know about me is that I’m a pretty good businesswoman,” Vanna says. “Yes, I do this little ol’ game show, but I know the show isn’t going to last forever, so I’ve gone into different ventures. But I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging.”
She stops herself.
“I don’t really talk about any of this on the show.”
Nor does the single mother — divorced from restaurateur George Santo Pietro — talk much about her enviable taping schedule. “Wheel’’ tapes only 35 days a year, five to six shows per day, mostly in a 160-person studio in Culver City, Calif. Her contract, estimated to be worth millions, gives her the freedom to dabble in real estate and crocheting, hobbies she’s since turned into business ventures. Among knitting enthusiasts, Vanna is known for her popular line of yarn, from which she recently donated $1 million to St. Jude’s Hospital. And as for those 330 days a year when she’s not taping? She’s a hands-on mom to her 16- and 19-year-old kids, a feverish cookie baker, a woman who lives a markedly “simple life.”
“Prior to having my first child, I had a huge ambition to go into movies and TV,” she said, noting that she has always considered herself ambitious. “But after I had my children I just became . . . mother was my first job. I’m lucky, I can be a full-time mom and do this. And let’s face it, I was never a very good actress.”
Over 90 million Americans have been born since the day that the syndicated version of “Wheel of Fortune” premiered. Those who’ve watched “Wheel” since the beginning might notice its slow evolution: People stopped bidding on prizes in the early ’80s, and Vanna traded in her boxy suits for more flashy evening attire. The winnings jumped from five to seven figures over the years, but the premise of the show and its people never changed. The price of a vowel never rose with inflation.
“We like to say it’s reliable, never predictable,” said Harry Friedman, the producer of both “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” tasked with leading these game shows through their twilight years. “We’ve never lost sight of the composition of our audience. It’s families.”
While its true that “Wheel of Fortune” hasn’t changed much in 30 years, the fortunes of middle-class families, its target demographic, have. Many of the players who hit “Bankrupt” on the wheel have felt loss in their real lives, too. Since the 2008 economic crisis, the game has become more generous to losers, giving every contestant $1,000 just for showing up and playing.
“We’ve tried to stay sensitive to what’s going on across the country,” Friedman said. “It used to be that on game shows if you were a non-winner, you got some lovely parting gifts. Well, for someone who’s held a lifelong dream of being on the show to win nothing, Rice-A-Roni is not a real comforting consolation prize.”
But somehow, despite changing tastes, changing times and the torrent of “Breaking Bads” and “Honey Boo Boos,” “Wheel” has endured, remaining one of the top syndicated shows on television. The flashy carnival wheel may seem dated or hokey to some, but that’s why a lot of people still watch.
“We’re kind of a throwback,” Sajak says. “If you went into a network to pitch this show, the pitch wouldn’t last long. They’d say, ‘Who are you going to vote off? Who you going to embarrass? But for some reason, in the life cycle of the show, we reached a critical mass and became more than a popular show. We become part of the popular culture. We’re part of people’s everyday routine.
Vanna, as usual, agrees with Sajak, offering a simple, sweet analogy.
“We’re like vanilla ice cream,” Vanna says. “You can have maple nut ice cream or chocolate fudge ice cream, but it all starts with the vanilla. You never get tired of vanilla.”
The 31st season of the syndicated version of “Wheel of Fortune” (30 minutes) starts Sept. 16 and airs at 7 p.m. on WJLA.