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Cult of Vannaphoto by Gary Payne
It was one of those rare but welcome late-March Santa Anas, just in time for spring break. A clear blue sky hung over San Diego Bay like a net, and the convention center sparkled like a tennis bracelet in the simmering heat.
Wheel of Fortune, the trusty old TV game show hosted by Pat Sajak, was in town for three days of taping (the shows were slated to air over three weeks, starting in late April). Thanks to aggressive ticket giveaways coordinated by NBC 7/39, upwards of 18,000 fans came out to be in the studio audience, split into groups of 3,000 per taping.
Judging by the applause, the big draw for many was celebrated letter-girl Vanna White, the former model from South Carolina who, over the past 20 years, has become a pop culture icon. She’s been tabloid fodder, wrote a best-selling autobiography and has her own line of clothes and shoes. Her official bio notes that she earned a nod from the Guinness Book of World Records as “television’s most frequent clapper” (an average of 720 claps per episode, or 28,000 claps per season).
For all her fame and fancy duds, White, 46, is remarkably down-to-earth. Interviewed in her dressing room with her hair down and her makeup half-done, she says, “You don’t mind if I don’t look at you” as a stylist curls her eyelashes. From the side, she looks almost frumpy—until her dazzling smile reveals a sliver of perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth, and the glamour girl is revealed.
White is quite comfortable with what she is: window dressing. “I love it—I get paid to make people happy,” she says. “I don’t take it seriously ... I like making people laugh. And I only have to work four days a month, which gives me time to be a mother, to have a normal life.”
Indeed—instead of partying it up in San Diego with cast and crew, White spent virtually all her free time with her children, Nicholas, 8, and Giovanna, 5. “I’ve been to SeaWorld, the Wild Animal Park and the zoo,” she says. “And before I leave, there’s Legoland.” Ah, lifestyles of the rich and famous.
When she was still Vanna Marie Rosich, she did see stars. She attended the Atlanta School of Fashion Design in the late 1970s and became one of the South’s top models. In 1980, she moved to Los Angeles with the goal of becoming an actress. Two years and a handful of “B” movies later, she was tapped by Merv Griffin to join Wheel of Fortune as the lady who turns letters on the puzzleboard—and smiles a lot.
That’s pretty much where she is today. “I still feel I’m that same girl from North Myrtle Beach,” she says. “I’m a carpool mom; I bake cookies with my kids; I feel very normal. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”