I’ve always had something of a fantasy about Vanna White—though of exactly what I can’t say. She is the perfect question mark. Growing up, I looked at her and imagined that she had a rich inner life. And somehow, watching her week by week on Wheel of Fortune, in a kind of trance, I became certain she did.
I’ve never been very good at any game that involves filling in the blanks—I was always more interested in the spectacle of it all. Vanna faces the camera while the phrase is being solved, and half the time I would just look at her, not the letters. I was more interested in what she might have been thinking. Seeing the same person on television every day, a certain curiosity develops. It’s like the neighbor you see leaving their house at the same time every day—where are they going?
When I described this phenomenon to my friend David, he said he didn’t think other people thought about Vanna White as much as I did. But I think they do. She is especially deep in the subconscious of anyone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, when we consumed television shows at scheduled times. I looked at the clock in such a different way then—making room for television, planning for it (while now I can gorge myself at any moment). And Vanna was there every weeknight, making words appear in her twinkling, energetic way. I was never able to remember Pat Sajak’s name, while hers sort of glowed, impossible to forget.
Wheel of Fortune has been on the air for forty-three years now, with Vanna cohosting the show for thirty-six of those years. I attribute much of its success to her specific vibe—a warmth somehow devoid of condescension. And to Merv Griffin’s clever way of linking gambling to a skill— the fantasy of any gambler: that they can somehow take control of chance. It’s also calming to hear all that clapping, to see the wheel turn and hear that weird grinding sound it makes. Someone once told me that the poet Gwendolyn Brooks was a dedicated fan of the show—everyone knew not to call her when it was on. I don’t know if that’s tru,e but I believe it.
I. “I LIKE IT WHEN THEY ALL WIN”
THE BELIEVER: I’m so excited to have you on the phone. It feels like some kind of dream.
VANNA WHITE: [Laughs] I’ve been here a looooong time.
BLVR: I want you to know that I don’t have an angle; I just find you interesting. As a kid I would watch Wheel of Fortune at my grandmother’s house and you were my favorite part of the show—you always seemed like the host to me. I loved your name. It kind of sounds like a name someone might give themselves but, if I’m not mistaken, Vanna White is your real name.
VW: It is. I was, uh—the name Vanna came from my grandmother’s next-door neighbor. Her name was Vana Woorell—W–o–r–r–e–l–l—and she spelled her name with one n—V–a–n–a—so my mother liked the name so much, she said, Well, I’m gonna name my daughter Vanna with two n’s.
BLVR: Can you describe your upbringing? Where did you grow up? What were your parents like?
VW: I grew up in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At the time, population five thousand. So I’m from a small town which is not that small anymore. But I had a normal childhood. You know, I rode my bike in the neighborhood. We didn’t lock our front doors at the time. It was a very simple life. My dad worked in the post office for thirty years, my mom was an accountant. And I have a younger brother, three years younger, named Chip White.
BLVR: What did you want to be when you were a kid? What were your dreams?
VW: I always wanted to be on TV—well, I shouldn’t say on TV. I wanted to be a movie star. When I was ten years old, I’d just had my appendix taken out and I was recuperating on the sofa and the TV was on and there was this TV show called [The] Rat Patrol, and my mother was in the kitchen making dinner and she said, “That’s your uncle Christopher George on TV.” And that stuck with me. I thought: Wow, I have an uncle on TV. I wanna be on TV.
BLVR: So how did you come to be on Wheel of Fortune? Can you describe the audition process or what led to that moment?
VW: Yes, well, funny enough, before I even knew about the audition on Wheel of Fortune, I was a fan of the show. When I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, before I moved to Los Angeles, I watched Wheel of Fortune. I even wrote in to be a contestant on the show. And they wrote back and said if you’re ever in Los Angeles, give us a call and you can come in and audition. Little did I know that many years later I would be coming in to audition to be the hostess on the show. So the way I got the audition for that was I went to a taping of Dance Fever, which was a Merv Griffin show—he also owned Wheel of Fortune. And I knew one of the dancers on that show and I said, “Hey, can you introduce me to somebody here? I hear they’re looking for a replacement on Wheel of Fortune. I would love to audition.” So the person was Janet Jones, who is now Janet Gretzky, who’s married to Wayne. She introduced me to Merv’s right-hand man. He said, “Here’s my card. If we haven’t made a decision by October 5, you can come in and audition.” So, ten o’clock I called him on October 5. He said they had not made a decision. So they put me on tape and I got the job. Two hundred other girls auditioned. I was the lucky one.
BLVR: Did they say what it was about you?
VW: Merv jokingly said when I asked him, “Why did you pick me?” He said, “Well, you turned the letters better than anyone else.”
VW: He also said he liked the way Pat and I looked together. We looked like a brother-and-sister team.
BLVR: Yeah, you do have a certain chemistry. And turning those letters around or making them appear—walking to them—it looks like it would be hard, though you also make it look easy. You have a way of gliding toward the letters. It’s such a dance.
VW: Well, thank you. It’s—I can’t say that it is a hard job, because it’s not.
VW: Basically, I wait for a letter to light up and I turn it—or touch it, I should say. That changed, by the way, in 1997. Prior to that, I turned the letters, and then we got a computerized screen, which saved a lot of time for the production. Instead of manually putting the letters in and taking them out, they computerized it.
BLVR: And what was that moment like for you? Did you think: Will I be eliminated?
VW: Yes! Right! I could easily be eliminated. It’s a computer! But they have it where I activate the screen when I touch it. And they need me, they need me.
BLVR: Yes, you are an essential presence—an essential part of the show. I cant imagine it without you. What is your favorite part of the show? And what do you attribute to its great success?
VW: My favorite part is every contestant winning something. I like it when they all win—but they are all winners, because they do not walk away without taking home a thousand dollars. I love making people happy. It changes people’s lives. We’ve had several million-dollar winners. We’ve had players that pay off their student loans, buy their first house.
II. “I’M NOT PLAYING A CHARACTER”
BLVR: Have you contributed any sort of creative decisions to the show?
VW: The only decisions that I make are the clothes that I wear. The designers send the clothes to the studio. I try on probably forty gowns at one time. And we do six shows in one day—two days, usually every other Thursday or Friday, so out of those forty gowns, we pick the top twelve that we’re going to wear and I wear them and then they go back to the designer.
BLVR: It’s nice that you get to choose—and you never wear the same dress twice, right?
VW: Never. I’ve worn over sixty-five hundred gowns.
BLVR: Wow. So how do you prepare for a show? Do you have any rituals?
VW: Mmm… not after all these years. We’re in our thirty sixth year and I come to the show with no makeup and wet hair, and I have a hairdresser, a makeup artist, and a stylist who turn me into a Barbie doll. [Laughs]
VW: And then I go out and do six shows.
BLVR: And how do you feel about being something of a sex symbol?
VW: A what?
BLVR: How do you feel about being a sex symbol?
VW: Oh, well, I don’t know if I consider myself… that’s nice to hear! [Laughs]. That is nice to hear. I think people enjoy watching the show—watching to see what I’m going to wear. I get letters from people saying, “Oh my gosh, where can I get that dress?” People are often writing in for that. And I also hear people telling me that they make bets on what color I’m gonna come out in. Like, they’ll be sitting at the bar and say, “Well she’s gonna come out in blue today.” “Oh, I bet she’ll come out in red. Wanna make a bet?”
BLVR: So you read the letters from your fans.
VW: I do.
BLVR: Do you have a favorite letter?
VW: Oh my goodness, there’s—over the years there’s been so many. I recently got one from a young girl—she was probably ten years old—and she sent a picture and it said, “When I grow up, I want to be Vanna White.” It was so sweet.
VW: I know.
BLVR: Do you identify yourself as a feminist?
VW: No. I don’t. I feel very fortunate to have the job I have and I feel that I’m the cohost of the show. Pat is the host, but we are a team. I don’t feel that he’s better than me or I’m better than him. I feel equal to him, you know what I mean? When I first started the show thirty-six years ago, people made fun of me. “Oh my gosh, she’s a letter turner. Really?” Hey, it doesn’t bother me in the least. I love my job.
BLVR: I think to be a feminist is to want equality. But everyone defines it differently.
VW: They do. And that’s OK. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. And I don’t care if people judge me for that. I love my job. I love what I do, and it is a silly job. It reall—if you think about it, it is. You know, to put “letter turner” on my tax return—I don’t do that, but jokingly I could, right? Because that’s what I do.
BLVR: I wonder—so many people in our culture want to be famous, almost everyone it seems—and I don’t think they grasp the full reality of that role, how vulnerable it is.
VW: It is definitely not what you think it is. You lose a tremendous amount of privacy. Everybody wants to be in your world and they think that for some reason your world is different from their world. And it’s not. We all do the same thing. We all put our pants on the same way. You know, I’m a mother of two. I did homework with my kids. I go to the grocery store. I don’t know why there’s this feeling of celebrities being different—put up on a higher echelon or something. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I feel very normal. And the only downside is when you go out —it’s not a downside, but you’re always getting recognized, or you—if you go out, say, just looking absolutely horrible, somebody might take a picture of you and put it on social media or in some magazine and make up some story. Those things I do not like.
BLVR: I’ve always felt that you had a powerful aura on the show, a unique soulfulness—you overshadow the potentially mechanical or objectifying quality of this role with your humanity.
VW: [Pleased] Oh.
BLVR: I’m wondering how you do this. Is there something you strive to project?
VW: No. I’m just myself on the show. That’s another thing I do—I am Vanna White on the show. I’m not playing a character. That is who I am. I was raised in the South and I believe in kindness and truth and all those things, so maybe that’s something that you’re picking up [on] when you see the camera. I am myself. I’m not trying to portray anyone else. I am who I am.
BLVR: How do you handle your emotions onstage? Like, if something is going on in your personal life, if you’re sad or angry or in love, how do you maintain your center?
VW: It’s— I compartmentalize. When I’m on the show, I have to concentrate, because when they’re calling the letters, of course I can’t be thinking about, uh, whatever it may be that’s not related to the show. I really have to be part of the show.
VW: I keep my personal stuff away from the show. When I’m at work, it’s work, work, work.
III. “OH MY GOSH, I’M HAVING THAT TRAIN DREAM AGAIN!”
BLVR: And you’re present—you’re there. Well, I’ll admit I’m most curious about your interests outside of the show. Like, do you listen to music? What kind of music do you like?
VW: I listen to all kinds of music, but lately I’ve really been into Diana Krall. I love the old standards like Nat King Cole and all that kinda stuff, but I also like country. I was in Nashville a few months ago and just fell in love with it, so I’m very versatile, you know, when it comes to music and stuff like that. And I’m a very simple person at home. I enjoy crocheting, believe it for not. I’m a big crocheter. So, that’s my downtime. Now I’m an empty nester at home so I have more time to do things like that. Really, I’m so boring. Every week I usually stay home and on the weekends my boyfriend and I will go to dinner or go to the movies or that kind of thing.
BLVR: What do you like to read? Do you have a favorite author?
VW: I don’t have a favorite author but I like reading biographies. And sometimes I do like reading some juicy fiction, like even Danielle Steel, you know. Every once in a while it’s fun to just throw in something like that, just to get your mind—just to enjoy the moment.
BLVR: Yeah, be transported.
BLVR: What was the last biography that you really enjoyed?
VW: Um, gosh, gosh, I haven’t in the past couple months. I’ve been terrible because I’ve started binge-watching a couple of TV shows.
BLVR: Oh, tell me about that.
VW: Well, right now I’m in Game of Thrones. I was sick and tired of people saying to me: “Have you seen it, have you seen it, have you seen it?” So finally I thought, I better watch this; everybody watches it.
BLVR: And you’re really into it?
VW: I am. It’s totally different than anything I’ve ever experienced, but I’m enjoying the characters and the writing and the scenery is beautiful.
BLVR: It’s so fast-paced. Every three seconds it seems something happens.
VW: I know, and you know what, though, I’m not crazy about the blood and guts. I close my eyes for those things. Anyway, back to… the last book I read was Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
BLVR: I wonder—are you a spiritual person?
VW: I am a very spiritual person.
BLVR: You believe in God.
VW: I do believe in God. I grew up Baptist—I was baptized Baptist. I went, you know, I go to church. Do I go to church every Sunday? No. But I have my personal relationship with God. I say my prayers. I am a Christian and I don’t preach, because I feel everyone’s entitled to their own religion and their own beliefs, but if anyone asks me, I am Christian and, I mean, I’m not embarrassed to say I am and I openly enjoy it. You know, it is my belief and…
BLVR: How do you define God? I’m curious; it’s fascinating to me.
VW: Well, for me, God is good. I think when you’re a good person on the inside and you give people a good feeling or you’re a good role model for them and you live right, you’re good-hearted, kindhearted, I feel that’s the way we all should be. There would be peace in the world if everybody could be that way and not be greedy and all that stuff. So I just try to look at the best in every situation and live good.
BLVR: Interesting. What responsibilities do you think we as citizens have at this particular moment in history?
VW: Well, I think that there is a lot going on in the world. I am not a political person. I hate politics. And I especially hate everything that’s going on, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, I—it’s everybody’s choice. I don’t get into it, but it just is making me crazy with all this stuff that is going on in our world.
BLVR: So you like to keep that private.
VW: I am private about that. I mean, I have my own feelings and opinions about it but I don’t like—I hardly even go on social media because I don’t like, you know, one’s saying this one, the other one’s saying that one, and [sighs] it’s like, OK, I don’t need to hear the back-and-forth of this. What about your child’s dance rehearsal that you filmed? I’m more into our life. Not the political side of it.
BLVR: Did you vote in the last presidential election?
VW: I did.
BLVR: And you don’t have to answer, but I’d love to know who you voted for.
VW: Yes—no. I’m not gonna get into it. And again it goes back to, you know, everybody has their own opinion, no matter what it is, it’s—I stay out of controversy or… I just…
BLVR: I wonder… when do you personally—when does your soul feel most alive?
VW: Um… gosh, when does my soul feel alive? It’s, it’s when I feel good about something… if… giving someone a good feeling. When I’m here at the show, I really love seeing our contestants win, or—I don’t get to spend a lot of time with them, obviously, because we’re on the show, but it just warms my heart when I see something touching—or a kind act out in the world.
BLVR: A friend pointed out that you probably appear in a lot of people’s dreams.
BLVR: Yeah, and it made me wonder about your dreams—do you have any recurring dreams?
VW: Hmm. I haven’t had one in a really long time. When I was a kid—that’s weird you should say that—the only thing that comes to mind, I dreamed that I was in my little house that I grew up in and for some reason a train would come through. I would hear the whistle of the train and it would, like, come through. It didn’t hurt me, but it would go by really fast and it was real windy and it just—I don’t know what that meant, but it’s like, Oh my gosh, I’m having that train dream again—what does this mean? But I don’t have it anymore.
BLVR: Wow, I love that.
VW: I had it when I was younger. What does that mean?
BLVR: I don’t know. With dream analysis, I think there’s… a dream means so many different things. It’s so multiple.
VW: Yes. I’m sure. I mean, it could just be, it could have been from feeling fear of—I was, I’ve always been a shy person. Maybe sitting in my house and it’s safe and all of a sudden this big locomotive comes through and scares me or is overpowering. I don’t know! [Laughs]
BLVR: Yeah, something about the vibration maybe. I don’t know. Someone once told me that everyone and everything in your dream is you.
BLVR: And I always resisted that idea—and I still do, but something about resisting it is interesting, like I have exciting thoughts as a result of that struggle with the idea. [Pauses] Have you ever written down your dreams?
VW: No. No. But I should do that. Even though I don’t have it anymore, maybe that was my ambition that was coming through, because I always have felt: Go for it. Even though I’m shy and a quiet kind of a person, I never give up; I keep going. So maybe that train was me. Like, OK, I’m in this little house but I am going to push forward; this big, powerful engine is coming through. That’s what I’m gonna go with.
VW: See? I just analyzed my own dream, thank you very much. I never realized that, for all these years.
BLVR: Yeah, I think that the person to deconstruct the dream is the person who had it. I do think that.
IV. “LUCK IS LUCK”
BLVR: Are you someone who keeps a diary?
VW: I do.
BLVR: Every day?
VW: I don’t do it every day but I definitely keep a diary. I’ve kept the diary of my children. They’re twenty-three and twenty, and from the time—even before they were born—I wrote how I felt, how I was feeling about being pregnant and about becoming a mom, and after I had them, when little things, even their first words or any little things that they did that I thought were interesting, I wrote it down. I wrote the date. And oftentimes there were pictures attached to it as well. So I have a diary of my children, twenty-plus years.
BLVR: And is that a text that you return to?
VW: Oh, I do. I mean, I don’t often, but I—even today, they’re both in college, and even when they send me pictures of something or they’ll— Like my daughter just got a cat, right, so even that, even though they don’t live with me anymore, I put that in her diary. And I’m going to give it to them one day. And I think they will really appreciate that. I tell all of my friends who have babies, “Start a diary, keep a diary of that.”
BLVR: So it’s an account of their lives from your perspective.
VW: It is their lives from my perspective, but it’s not—it’s true stuff that I think they would find interesting when they got older.
BLVR: And do you write about your personal life also?
VW: And I do the same with myself, yeah. I enjoy it.
BLVR: That’s an incredible thing to be able to do—to be able to have intimacy with your thoughts in that way. I’m a writer but I’ve never been able to keep a diary in any consistent way.
VW: I think you have to have a release of some kind. People hold everything in for so long and don’t let it out. You need to write what you’re thinking at the moment or what you’re feeling. It might be gratitude, it might be anger. It might be… whatever it is, just, even writing a little paragraph or a couple of sentences just kind of keeps you Zen.
BLVR: Yeah. [Pauses] I’m wondering, as a writer, you know, there are always other people in my field that I track with a certain amount of curiosity, like, “What are they doing now?” Was there ever anyone who you watched, in that way, when you were younger or currently? Sort of, you know, taking note of their choices and their career in relation to your own?
VW: Well, when I was younger, I always looked up to Dolly Parton.
BLVR: Oh, wow.
VW: I loved her heart. She was so genuine to me. And so sweet. And I always wanted to be either Susan Dey from The Partridge Family, because I had a huge crush on David Cassidy, or Marcia Brady. I liked her just because I liked—I just wanted to be her because she was on The Brady Bunch. I loved that show growing up.
BLVR: Me too.
VW: [Laughs] Right? So that’s it, but I would say Dolly Parton would be my biggest inspiration when I was younger. I said, If I ever become famous, I wanna be like her, ’cause I don’t feel that she is affected in any way.
BLVR: I can see it—I see that connection between you.
BLVR: How do you feel about the element of luck on the show? How does it feel to watch so many people get lucky and unlucky? Do you have any superstitions?
VW: No. That’s the way life is. Luck is luck, and sometimes you spin the wheel and you might get bankrupt every time—you know, it’s just—
BLVR: Yes, some people do. It seems like—
VW: Some people do, but it’s out of our control. You know, it is what it is.
BLVR: Do you yourself gamble at all?
VW: I gamble for fun. Not—I mean, for me gambling for fun is maybe spending a hundred dollars. Like going to the tables in Vegas and saying, OK, I’m gonna take this hundred dollars, I’m gonna play on the five-dollar table, and I’m gonna gamble. For me it’s a hundred dollars of entertainment. It’s worth the entertainment thinking, you know, I hate losing, but sometimes I lose, sometimes I win.
BLVR: That seems sane.
BLVR: That seems really sane.
VW: I mean, I work too hard for my money. You think I’m gonna go and give thousands away to—for nothing? No. I can have just as much fun on a hundred dollars as I could on a hundred thousand dollars. I couldn’t do it, I could not do it. No. A hundred dollars is my limit.