What can you do with a history major? Win “Jeopardy!,” that’s what.
It helps to have a degree in art history and oh, by the way, an engineering degree from MIT.
That’s the resume of Julia Collins, a 31-year-old business consultant from Wilmette, Ill., who won her 20th straight game on Friday, bringing home $428,100 in prize money.
That makes her not just the top female player in the game show’s 50-year history, but one of the top players, period. Only Ken Jennings, who won 74 straight games in 2004 and pocketed $2.5 million, surpassed her score.
Her winning streak ended on Monday night’s broadcast (the show is taped well in advance) when she lost to Brian Loughnane, an investment operations manager from Scituate, Mass.
The clue that stumped her: “The New England writer who in 1999 became the last person to win an Oscar for adapting his own novel as a screenplay.” The right answer: “Who is John Irving?”
Monday’s game “just didn’t go my way,” she told the Associated Press, adding that she “couldn’t have loved being on the show more.”
Collins actually predicted her win in her eighth-grade yearbook where she wrote, “Julia Collins will be the ‘Ten Time Jeopardy Champion’ winning each tournament twice.” “Other kids wrote stuff like ‘I’m going to tour with Pearl Jam.’ It was very much the mid-’90s. And I wrote what I thought would be a kind of over-the-top thing for myself,” she told MSNBC.
Collins’s humility about her success is a far cry from that prideful prognostication. “The good folks @Jeopardy suggest you bring 3 outfits. Seemed like hubris to bring more, so now I’m on repeat. It’s a good problem to have,” she tweeted on April 24. Throughout her tenure on the show, she’s actively engaged with fans on Twitter, admitting when she was stumped and praising her opponents.
“I am by far the least educated contestant today. @Jeopardy contestants are a bunch of smarties,” she wrote on May 19.
Collins told the AP she is glad her record might serve as an example of female achievement. “If it helps dispel the idea that women aren’t as good ‘Jeopardy!’ players as men, that would be great,” she said. “It’s good to see women being applauded for being smart.” Collins went to a girls’ school and a women’s college (Wellesley) and told “Good Morning America” she is passionate about education for girls. In the past, men have dominated “Jeopardy!,” winning more often and appearing more frequently than women.
But Collins’s success highlighted a new trend. Analyzing data found in the J! Archive, Vulture found that only 10 of the 63 people who have won more than $100,000 in the past 30 years of the show are women — but four of them did it this season or last. They also found that this year, female contestants outnumbered male contestants 78 to 64 in regular match play, and that women won 45 of 73 non-tournament matches that aired so far this year.
So what was Collins’s strategy for shattering the game show’s glass ceiling?
Actually, it’s pretty simple: “Hit the buzzer like your life depends on it,” she told “Good Morning America.” Compared to Arthur Chu, who tried to disorient opponents by hopping all over the board during his 11-game winning streak earlier this year, Collins is a straightforward player. “Her greatest strategic asset is consistency,” wrote Wonkblog’s Christopher Ingraham, in an analysis of the strategies employed by top “Jeopardy!” contestants.
Other than brush up on opera and Shakespeare, both common “Jeopardy!” topics, Collins didn’t do much to prepare for the show. She told MSNBC her encyclopedic memory and her multidisciplinary education were keys to her success. Collins majored in art history and history in college and got a master’s degree in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But her broad knowledge base goes beyond book learning. She’s the type that picks up interesting odds and ends wherever she goes. An off-the-beaten-path explorer, she’s visited the Mustard Museum, Phallological Museum and Barbie Museum. And yes, she’s that person in the tour group who just won’t shut up. In a tweet, she admitted she’s a dead-ringer for the over-enthusiastic tourist described in an Onion article about a tour of the Ohio Statehouse that “quickly devolved into a one-on-one conversation between the group’s guide and one of the visitors.”
According to her Twitter account, she’s not much for football, gambling or binge-watching “Law & Order” — activities that may distract others from higher intellectual pursuits.
But that’s not to say she spends all her free time on high-minded activities. As a kid she did regular kid stuff — she was a Girl Scout and a competitive swimmer — and some not-so-regular stuff, like playing in a kazoo band with her siblings and uncle, according to her Twitter account.
These days she likes to bake. She told “Good Morning America” that she wants to learn to bake fancy pastries and decorate cakes. She recently took a cake decorating class and tweeted the results. According to her Twitter account, other likes include “Huckleberry Finn,” one of her favorite books, the made-for-TV movie “Anne of Green Gables” and rap music.
— Julia (@JeopardyJulia) May 1, 2014
Collins’s broad interests are matched by her broad appeal. She’s gained an eclectic following ranging from fashionistas to collectible card game enthusiasts. She inspired the Twitter account @JCSweaters, which pays homage to Collins’s penchant for pairing J.Crew sweaters with statement necklaces. She also has a following among fans of “Magic: the Gathering,” a collectible card game. The online version of the game now includes a card called “Julia Destroyer of Worlds” named for the “Jeopardy!” champ.