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 with 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 handicapped teen in the audience that she loves him, too. But Vanna will keep 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.
“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. 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. “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.”
‘I had no confidence’
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, 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 … those things add up. People get the sense that she’s a nice person.”
“Wheel of Fortune” wasn’t the dream when Vanna decided she wanted to become a television star. She set her sights on Hollywood when she was 12 years old, thanks to her uncle, Christopher George, who played the lead on the ’60s war drama “The Rat Patrol.”
At 23, she and her best friend hopped in a U-Haul and drove cross-country. 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.
“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 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.”
The single mother — divorced from restaurateur George Santo Pietro — doesn’t talk much about her enviable taping schedule. “Wheel” tapes only 35 days a year, five to six shows per day, mostly in their 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 326 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.”