Want To Buy A Vowel? Vanna White Looks Back On 35 Years At The 'Wheel'

Dec 28, 2017
Originally published on December 28, 2017 11:49 am

Vanna White has been turning letters on Wheel of Fortune for 35 years. That's 6,500 shows — and I've seen a lot of them. It's amazing to think about how much the world has changed, even as White has been doing the exact same job.

No doubt, she's one of the most recognizable faces in American entertainment. We thought that 35th anniversary was a good time to reflect back with her, so I went to meet her at the Culver City studios, where Wheel of Fortune tapes. "That little room over there, which is now my office, used to be my son's nursery," she points out. "And he's 23. Does that say it all?"


Interview Highlights

On a difficult moment early in her career

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I came out here with a thousand dollars to my name. I immediately got a job, I got an apartment. I was barely surviving, but I was too embarrassed to ask my dad for rent money, so I did some lingerie shots. Fast-forward many years later, I become famous, so Hugh Hefner buys these pictures, decides to put them on the cover of Playboy and inside Playboy, and I had just, my career was just starting on Wheel of Fortune. And I went to him, because he was a personal friend, and I said, "Hef, if you do this, this could ruin my career. You're my friend, you could stop this from happening. Please don't do that to me." And he did it. And it really hurt my feelings more than anything. There's nothing I could do about it, because I did the shots — but taking those shots with the photographer, I knew it was not right. Fortunately, America was behind me, and I went on Johnny Carson and explained the situation, and Sony didn't fire me, thank goodness. 'Cause they could have.

On the changing roles of women over the past 35 years, and where she fits in

I think what you're saying, in this world, men seem to have more of an advantage. In my particular situation of my job, oh, I'm just a letter turner. I'm up there, you know, turning letters, so what does that mean? It means, I feel that I'm just as equal as Pat [Sajak] — even though he is the host of the show, I'm the co-host. That doesn't make me any smaller than him, or any bigger than him. I feel that the way that America has put us together as a team has made us equal. And I will be the first to make fun of my job — I turn letters for a living, really? And in the beginning I was put down quite a bit for that. But I've made the best of my job. I love my job. I've turned it into, I think, a different kind of job. Hey, you can't solve the puzzle if I don't turn the letter! They need me there. And I don't think of it as anything negative or less than Pat's job. We're a team.

On whether early criticism of her role hurt

In the beginning, it did, because I felt invisible. I felt, what do these people think of me? It made me feel like I'm not a human being. So again, everybody's entitled to their own opinion, and I think that I just maybe proved them wrong. Because even though I hardly talk on the show and I just turn letters, I will say I am a businesswoman. So I've taken my job, which has given me a chance to be in the public eye and have a name for myself, and I have turned that into other things ... so yes, I do this silly little job on the show, but I have made something out of it.

This story was produced for radio by Arezou Rezvani and Justin Richmond and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Noel, I've got a kind of funny way to introduce our next guests.

NOEL KING, HOST:

OK.

GREENE: The category is game show host.

KING: Game show host.

GREENE: Do you want to buy a vowel?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHEEL OF FORTUNE")

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: "Wheel Of Fortune."

KING: Oh, "Wheel Of Fortune." All right, so if the category is game show hosts, it's got to be Pat Sajak or Vanna White.

GREENE: You got it. It's actually Vanna. I went to meet her at the "Wheel Of Fortune" studios recently in Culver City, Calif.

VANNA WHITE: Hi.

GREENE: Hi.

WHITE: How are you?

GREENE: I'm David Greene.

WHITE: Hey, David, I'm Vanna - nice to meet you.

GREENE: It is so nice to meet you. It's surreal to meet you. I've watched you for so long.

WHITE: (Laughter).

GREENE: It has actually been 35 years I've been watching this show, and that's how long Vanna has been doing it.

So where are we? Is this your dressing room that you've been...

WHITE: This is my dressing room. Welcome.

GREENE: Thank you.

WHITE: Yes.

GREENE: How long have you been using...

WHITE: This dressing room - a long time. That little room over there, which is now my office, used to be my son's nursery, and he's 23.

GREENE: Oh, that's...

WHITE: Does that say it all?

GREENE: That gives us a sense for the longevity. And so we're looking at - I'm looking at a lot of outfits. You honestly have never worn the same outfit on on two shows. Is that...

WHITE: That is correct.

GREENE: That's extraordinary.

WHITE: And I've worn over 6,500 gowns - 6,500 - never the same one twice.

GREENE: Sixty-five hundred shows - I mean, it's amazing to think about how much the world has changed even as Vanna White has been doing the exact same job - turning those letters. No doubt she is one of the most recognizable faces in American entertainment, and we thought her 35-year anniversary was a good time to reflect back with her. Vanna White, who was born in South Carolina, took us back to a difficult decision she made shortly after moving west to look for acting work.

WHITE: When I first moved to Los Angeles, I came out here with a thousand dollars to my name. I immediately got a job. I got an apartment. I was barely surviving, but I was too embarrassed to ask my dad for rent money, so I did some lingerie shots. Fast-forward many years later, I become famous, so Hugh Hefner buys these pictures and decides to put them on the cover of Playboy and inside Playboy. And I had just - my career was just starting on "Wheel Of Fortune." And I went to him because he was a personal friend. And I said, Hef, if you do this, this could ruin my career. Please, you're my friend. You can stop this from happening. I don't - please don't - don't do that to me. And he did it, and it really hurt my feelings more than anything. There was nothing I could do about it because I did the shots. But when I was - when I was taking those shots with the photographer, I knew it was not right.

Fortunately, America was behind me, and I went on Johnny Carson and explained the situation, and Sony didn't fire me - thank goodness - because they could have, you know. Here's my whatever on the cover of Playboy. And they were - again, the fans and everyone were supportive on that, but it was a great lesson.

GREENE: So what makes this show so enduring? I mean, I - my summers were every afternoon, I mean, being on the beach and then coming in and sitting on the edge of my grandmother's bed and watching you.

WHITE: I think you've said it all right there with saying your grandma because it's a family show. It's 30 minutes when you're spending time with your family. You're solving the puzzles together. You're just being together. There's so much horrible stuff going on in the world right now. To have 30 minutes of quality time with a family member is special.

GREENE: Let me ask you this, Vanna White. The roles of women over 35 years have changed a lot. You see women in roles that you never saw before. And a lot of people see that as progress. It's part of a movement. Where do you fit in to that doing this job, you know, through all those years?

WHITE: It's funny because my job has not really changed in all these years. And Merv Griffin - whatever he saw 35 years ago in this little game show has been around for a long, long time. I think it's - part of it's - it's a cult almost, right?

GREENE: What's really complicated for me to work through, and I really want to hear you talk about, is the - you know, a lot of women would say the example we want to see is women who are in roles that men usually play that are not stereotypical things like that. And, you know, your relationship with Pat Sajak, it's, very, you know, he's sort of the male host and you're up there.

WHITE: Sure. I think what you're saying in this world, men seem to have more of an advantage. In my particular situation of my job, oh, I'm just a letter turner. I'm up there, you know, turning letters, so what does that mean? It means I feel that I'm just as equal as Pat. Even though he is the host of the show, I'm the co-host. That doesn't make me any smaller than him or any bigger than him. I feel that the way America has put us together as a team has made us equal. And I will be the first to make fun of my job. I turn letters for a living. Really? And in the beginning, I was put down quite a bit for that. But I've made the best of my job. I love my job. I've turned it into, I think, a different kind of job. Hey, you can't solve the puzzle if I don't turn the letter, so they need me there. And I don't think of it as anything negative or less than Pat's job. We're a team.

GREENE: I was reading some of the early criticism. I mean, it - words like bimbo and robotic.

WHITE: Oh, yeah, yes, yes.

GREENE: I mean, did - how much did that hurt?

WHITE: In the beginning, it did because I felt invisible. I felt what did these people think of me? It made me feel like I'm not a human being. So again, everybody's entitled to their own opinion. And I think that I just maybe proved them wrong because even though I hardly talk on the show and I just turn letters, I will say I am a businesswoman. So I've taken my job, which has given me the chance to be in the public eye and have a name for myself, and I have turned that into other things. I have my own line of yarn. I mean, if I wasn't on TV, I wouldn't have that. So yes, I do this silly little job on the show, but I have made something out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRASS IN POCKET")

THE PRETENDERS: (Singing) Got brass in pocket.

GREENE: That was Vanna White. She is marking 35 years as the co-host of "Wheel Of Fortune."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRASS IN POCKET")

THE PRETENDERS: (Singing) Intention I feel inventive. Gonna make you, make you, make you notice. Got motion, restrained emotion. I've been driving, Detroit leaning. No reason, just seems so pleasing. Gonna make you, make you, make you notice. Gonna use my arms. Gonna use my legs... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.