The word-turning whiz (and celebrity yarn spokesmodel) on what goes on behind the puzzleboard
For some TV shows, 6,000 episodes would seem like a lot. For Wheel of Fortune, however, it feels more like the show sprang fully-formed from the first-ever television, its episode count is infinite, and it magically appears every night of the week whether we want it to or not. And it feels like Vanna White was there at the beginning, ageless and clapping.
But Wheel of Fortune has actually reached a mere/impressive 6,000, a feat the show will celebrate during the week of April 28–May 2 with $6,000 prizes (even though the actual 6,000th episode happened earlier in the month). And Vanna White, 57, who joined the show in 1982, is a real person, not just a letter-turning fairy godmother. When she auditioned for the show, she was a struggling actor; she recalls being “probably the most nervous of all the girls they interviewed” and that the other finalist was, awkwardly, a friend of hers.
White talked to TIME and shared six — to fit the numerical theme — behind-the-scenes secrets of her life on Wheel.
First of all, she hasn’t actually turned any letters since 1997. That’s when the puzzleboard switched from manual to computerized. Initially — no pun intended — the puzzleboard was covered between every round while the letters were swapped; now the program that operates the 52 touch-screen monitors is easily changed. That’s saved hours of production time, White says, meaning that they can tape a week’s worth of shows in one day. (Who knew?)
…Which means she won’t make another mistake. Once, White admits, in the old manual-puzzleboard days, she turned the wrong letter. “I was so traumatized, I don’t remember if it was a D or an M that I turned,” she says. “The puzzle was either Doctor Spock or Mister Spock. Whenever they called it, I just turned the — we’ll say D — I turned it and it was an M. I was mortified. They had to throw the puzzle out.”
Here’s White turning her first-ever letter on Wheel of Fortune:
She knows all the answers. Before each round, White sees the puzzle so she knows where the letters are. (Pat Sajak used to get tipped off to how many of each letter the puzzle contained by a crew member holding up fingers; now he has a monitor to look at.) And she tries to use that extra knowledge for good: “During the bonus round, when [the contestants] start calling letters, I telepathically try to send them a letter, you know what I mean?” she says. “I do not say anything, but in my head when they start calling their letters I’m thinking, D! B! K!”
She hasn’t repeated an outfit in all these years. Vanna White wears a new ensemble for every. single. episode. Every few weeks, she has a fitting where she tries on 50 to 60 loaner dresses sent by designers and picks her favorite dozen. She describes her signature look as “elegant gowns,” but over the years her style has evolved: no more shoulder pads, shorter cocktail dresses are okay, especially for more casual theme weeks, like teachers’ week and — the biggest shocker of all — she sometimes wears slacks.
She was given the Guinness World Record for clapping in 1992. With an estimated 100,000 individual claps per season, Wheel calculates that White has clapped about 3.5 million times in her decades as co-host. How would she describe her award-winning technique? “[My hands] are kind of cupped,” she says. “And I will point out that I have no callouses from all the clapping I’ve done over the years.”
When she’s not on screen, she’s not just sitting around behind the puzzleboard. White says that she usually spends her time off-camera signing photos and answering fan mail. And then there’s crochet. White has her own line of yarn, “Vanna’s Choice,” a portion of the proceeds from which are donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital — and she’s also admitted in the past to bringing that other pastime to the set:
And what’s next for Wheel, now that this particular milestone is spinning by? “I’m sure that our producer has something up his sleeve,” White says. “I’m not quite sure what that is yet.”