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‘Jeopardy’s’ top female player ever talks gender and that ‘Simpsons’ episode where Chief Wiggum stages ‘Man of La Mancha’ in jail

Julia Collins stands with "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek at the end of her 20-game winning streak. (Photo via Julia Collins)

This past week has been a trying one for American TV watchers. On Sunday’s "Game of Thrones," Prince Oberyn of Dorne was taken from us. Less than 24 hours later, Julia Collins’s 20-game "Jeopardy" winning streak ended under circumstances far less gruesome, but equally tragic.

As The Washington Post's Gail Sullivan noted a few days ago, Collins brought home some $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," Sullivan wrote. "Only Ken Jennings, who won 74 straight games in 2004 and pocketed $2.5 million, surpassed her score."

On Wednesday, I spoke with Collins about gender, her time on "Jeopardy" and the value of a liberal arts degree.

Christopher Ingraham: You must be having a crazy week.

Julia Collins: Yeah. I kind of thought people were going to be over it by this point in the week, but I guess not!

Is the pressure of being in the media different than the pressure of being on the show?

It’s very different. When I tried out to be on "Jeopardy," I was thinking about being on "Jeopardy." You kind of know what to expect from the show itself, right? I’ve watched it for years and years. It’s kind of a known quantity. It’s a little surreal being on the set. But what happens on TV and when you’re a contestant are actually very similar.

But this – with the media - has been very different. It’s kind of a whole unknown quantity. Once I had won so many games I figured there would be some outside attention that came along with it, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I was a contestant after my eighth game, we were eating lunch at the commissary, and Arthur Chu was on the TV over in the corner. And I remember thinking,  "I don’t think this is going to be the level of attention that I’m gonna get."

Can we talk about your background a bit? You were an art history major, and then you got a master’s in engineering?

I went to a liberal arts college and took that liberal arts message to heart – "Follow your passion, and you’ll be prepared for anything." I internalized that pretty hard, and when I graduated I realized I didn’t want to teach, I didn’t want to work for no pay, I didn’t want to go to graduate school.

So I thought, “Yeah, I’ll get a job.” I got a job with Crate and Barrel at their corporate offices. I have good attention to detail, which really helped. I spent the last four years as an art history major looking at things that look the same and explaining how they’re not the same, so that should be pretty useful.

After a few years I went back and got a master’s in engineering – in logistics and supply chain management. It’s kind of like an offshoot of industrial engineering.

Engineering degree vs. art history degree – which was more useful on "Jeopardy"?

The art history degree, for sure.

The taping happened in January and February, but your episodes didn’t air until the end of April. So you go home, and you’re like, “I just had a record-breaking run on 'Jeopardy,' but I can’t tell anyone.” What did you say to friends and family?

Well, you can tell some people. After my first five games I thought it would be nice if my mom could come to the next taping. So she came back and went to the next eight shows.

It must have been weird watching your episodes air several months after you taped them. How did it feel different experiencing it the second time around?

It was kind of strange. It was jarring to see myself on television at first. But, like anything else, you get used to it. There were a few games that I remembered more clearly than others. But for most it was really hazy and it was like watching it for the first time.

I’d watch with my mom and my grandma. My mom would get so nervous. And I was like not only does she know how the game ends, but she was there!

Watching, did you have any moments like, “What was I thinking?”

I had that one Daily Double about which donkeys Sancho Panza and Don Quixote were riding. And all I could think of at the time was the "Simpsons" episode where Chief Wiggum was staging “Man of La Mancha” as a prison musical. And yeah, I got that one wrong.

What kind of feedback did you get from viewers or people on social media?

It's been really touching how many people have gone out of their way to contact me to tell me they're rooting for me, or that they're sorry to see me go on the show.

There was some negative feedback. Interestingly, and mostly from older women, I saw comments on social media along the lines of, “You should step aside, stop stealing the limelight, let someone else win.” That seems like such a retro-gendered thing to say. The other strain I got was the idea that I wasn’t a very good player. That the producers were rigging the games with weaker players, or particularly weaker men. This seemed to come mostly from men.

Some of the news coverage has been along the lines of “she seems ... humble,” or “she’s so nice.”  But I think that is a little bit of a projection. I went in there playing to win, and I played as hard as I could.

But overall over 95 percent – no, 99 percent - of the things I’ve heard from people have been nice. 

So, when news outlets first started writing about you, the stories were about how Julia Collins is one of the best female players of all time, but now it’s about how Julia Collins is one of the best players, period. Which would you rather be known for?

The second one for sure. I’m very into women being celebrated for their achievements, but the tenor of a lot of the stuff was a little bit – a lot of it had the tone of “She’s pretty good for a girl.” The fact that I had won 10 games at that point really got short shrift, and there was a subtext of “women are just not able to play with the big boys.” I don’t now that it was intentional, but the larger context of having won that many games was overlooked. I would love it if we were at a place where gender wasn't even part of the story.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.



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