My Journey To 'Wheel of Fortune': What It's Really Like Behind The Wheel
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My Journey To 'Wheel of Fortune': What It's Really Like Behind The Wheel

I still can't believe it even happened.

My Journey To 'Wheel of Fortune': What It's Really Like Behind The Wheel
Carol Kaelson

My journey to the Wheel, like many interesting stories, began in a Kroger parking lot.

Actually, I'll take that back: My road to one night of television fame and glory began with this little device:

I can clearly recall childhood nights sitting on the couch at 7 p.m. with my family trying to best them at solving the puzzles on the TV show. I didn't have cable as a kid — there was no "Drake & Josh" or "Hannah Montana" to tune in to between dinner, homework and bedtime.

But "Wheel of Fortune" never failed to glue me to the screen.

When I was around 10 years old, my parents gave me this "Wheel of Fortune" TV plug-in-and-play game. You could compete against two other people or play on your own. To this day, I still hold almost all the high scores in both game modes.

We even got another game to keep at my grandmother's house for when we visited her in Louisville; she loves to watch the show, too. So my family and I would watch and play at home, and then we'd go to Louisville and watch and play with my grandma and extended family on holidays.

That's why this past May when we were staying at my grandmother's house for my cousin's college graduation party, my Aunt Cathy insisted that I go and audition to be a "Wheel of Fortune" contestant.

Unbeknownst to me, the Wheelmobile was coming to Louisville that weekend for an audition event at Kroger. When my aunt first told me about it, I was skeptical that going there would actually lead to anything, but the prospect of fulfilling my lifelong dream of being on the show was too tempting to casually dismiss an opportunity to at least try.

So, the next day, my mom and I braved the heat and the sporadic rain showers outside Kroger to see if either of us could make it to the Wheel.

This Wheelmobile event had three sessions that lasted an hour each, and hundreds of people showed up to audition. Everyone got a colored slip representing which session they would be participating in. On the slip, we filled out information like our name, age, contact info, job, education, hobbies, etc. For each audition block, the applications were put in a huge raffle drum. For the next hour, five names were drawn at a time for people to come up to the stage, introduce themselves and play a speed-up round of the game (the type of gameplay that comes after the Final Spin, if you're familiar with the show). The whole affair was filmed, and everyone called to the stage was everyone who got to audition.

My mom screamed louder than I did when the announcer called my name.

Someone took a headshot to attach to my application slip before I was ushered onstage with four older adults. We each got to give a little introduction, and I also danced in front of the crowd.

Yup, danced.

Basically, if you said you had a talent in your intro (singing, dancing, etc.), they asked you to demonstrate it. Although I mentioned I was a ballet dancer, the DJ queued a hip-hop song, and I danced so awkwardly I thought I had failed my audition before they even put the puzzle on the board.

The category for my audition puzzle was Event, the solution was "Open House," but I wasn't the one who solved it. (Although, fun fact, the woman standing next to me who did solve it also appeared on the show in January.)

Maybe the "Wheel of Fortune" people really liked my dancing, or maybe they thought I looked cute in my photograph, or maybe I stood out because I was a college student. Either way, I was elated when I received an email in June saying that I had a callback audition in July.

The callback was nerve-wracking. Instead of a Kroger parking lot, it took place in a nice hotel conference room and had a business casual dress code. It was a group audition where everyone took turns playing the game (there were around 40-50 people there) and completed a timed written test. I started and solved the puzzle I received during the game at my audition (Phrase: "Great minds think alike") and felt extremely confident about my performance on the written test.

But there was still a lot of pressure at the callback: smile, look excited, remember to clap for everyone else, enunciate your letters clearly, speak loudly, remember strategies (like What Are You Doing? puzzles always end in "-ing," so you better call those letters), and, on top of all that, still reserve brain power for solving the puzzle.

At the end of the callback, they said that if we were selected for the contestant pool, we would receive a letter in the mail exactly two weeks from that day. If you don't get a letter two weeks from today, don't wait for one, they said.

Sure enough, exactly two weeks from my second audition, there was a large white envelope from Sony Studios in the mailbox. My mom screamed bloody murder in the driveway; I was surprised and concerned when none of the neighbors came out to see if anything was wrong.

There was a lot of information in that letter, but no specific dates. The letter said it could be awhile before I appeared on the show, and I'd only receive a maximum of two weeks notice before my tape date; the show's taping schedule isn't solidified until two weeks in advance. As a college student (and an anxious human being), the uncertainty kept me on edge for the months to come.

On February 7, I was on the phone with my dad when I got an email with the subject line "Wheel of Fortune taping on Friday, February 23, 2018 — College Week Spring Break!" and almost fell out of my desk chair. A couple weeks later (the slowest weeks of my life), my parents, older brother and I were in LA. That was also my first time on an airplane, which added to my nervousness and excitement.

I was also sworn to secrecy about the whole matter, so I couldn't even vent my nervous energy to my friends before I left. I wasn't permitted to tell anyone besides the guests I was bringing with me that I was going to be taped. I left Miami on a Wednesday night, came back the following Sunday and showed up to class Monday morning as if nothing had happened. It wasn't until the studio gave me the green light the week before my air date that I was allowed to tell people when to tune in to the show.

The day we taped the show was a whirlwind. There are six shows taped in the studio in one day; Pat and Vanna just switch outfits in between. Everyone, from the other college student contestants to the ladies who did our makeup to the people there to explain the rules of the game and get us pumped to play, was incredibly kind and supportive. The woman who did my makeup (whose name I sadly can't remember) holds a special place in my heart — I'd never had my makeup done by someone else before, and I felt beautiful. She was able to hide all my blemishes, and the eyeliner she used was definitely better than my $3 eyeliner pen from Walmart.

Like I said, there are multiple shows taped on the same day, and by the luck of the draw, my group was the first taping. As someone who likes to see things done before I try them myself, this only added to my nerves. It's one thing to watch people play on TV, but being in the studio changed things.

Photo Credit: Carol Kaelson

First, the studio, audience size and the Wheel are a lot smaller in person than they appear on TV. Also, that wheel is HEAVY; it weighs over a ton! While all the contestants went through a practice session that morning where we took turns spinning the Wheel, calling/shouting letters and rehearsing our introductions, I still didn't feel 100% prepared for the actual taping.

It probably didn't help that I had watched game show fail videos on YouTube the weeks leading up to that day. I'm not sure what I was more afraid of: not solving any puzzles at all, or trying to solve a puzzle and saying something incredibly stupid on national TV in the process.

The actual taping of my episode, which aired on Monday, April 2, was the fastest 22 minutes of my life. My performance wasn't exactly how I always imagined it would be, but I suppose that's the downside that comes with dreaming about something your whole life and then finally doing it.

I didn't solve any puzzles until the last one after the Final Spin, and I walked away with $3,000. Now, I know that $3,000 is nothing to turn my nose up at, but we always like to imagine ourselves as the Big Winner. The other two contestants in my episode each won amazing vacations and a lot more money, which, I'll admit, made me feel disappointed in myself. Like I said, you always want to identify with the winner. Unfortunately, the pressure got to me in the end.

On two occasions I almost completely filled out the puzzle but wasn't able to figure out the answer before making a mistake.

In all fairness, solving puzzles at home from the comfort of your couch is completely different from actually being on the show. At home, it's always your turn, you aren't playing for actual money or prizes and there are no real consequences for making a mistake or saying something silly. When you're standing there in front of a camera, the lights shining down on you, a microphone clipped to your sweatshirt, Pat Sajak standing beside you, thinking about how you could win real money to start paying off your college loans and only have seconds to decide whether you want to buy a vowel, spin or solve, the puzzles become a lot harder. I swear I lost 50% of my knowledge of the English language behind that Wheel, and I'm an English major.

Even Pat Sajak makes mistakes sometimes. For example, at the start of a puzzle, he accidentally told another contestant to spin first when it was really my turn. He had to spin the Wheel backward to restart the round, and this was edited out for the aired episode.

Still, even understanding these circumstances, I was upset with myself for not being able to see the answers that were right in front of me. Ever since my first audition, I had imagined big plans for my prize money: paying off most of my student loans, getting a car that played CDs instead of only tapes, making a big charitable donation somewhere, helping my parents get our old kitchen floor replaced. I shouldn't have counted my chickens before they hatched, but being on the show was a dream in the first place. Once I knew one dream was coming true, my imagination ran wild.

One thing I won't say, however, is that I lost. I read a Tweet from someone who said that, that I had "lost" and only got $3,000. I didn't "lose" anything by being on the show. I shook Pat Sajak's hand and got to see Vanna White in yoga pants and a messy bun when she stopped by to say hi to the contestants early that morning. I had the time of my life on the show and spent a weekend in LA with my family. While one of the other things that upset me was that I couldn't pay my parents back for the airfare and hotel (those expenditures aren't covered for contestants, FYI), my dad told me that I didn't have to worry about it as long as I promised to use my winnings for school.

And again, the amount I won is more than mere pocket change. I still solved a puzzle and walked away with more than the $1,000 minimum. The money is coming at the opportune time, too. This will be my first year not working a summer job since my sophomore year of high school because I'll be studying abroad. With the money I made on "Wheel of Fortune," I don't have to stress about the fact that I won't be receiving paychecks this summer and can still cover my fall tuition. My bank account won't receive a huge boost as a result of the show, but it will at least remain stable.

Plus, the support I've received from my friends and family as they tuned in to watch my episode gave me the most incredible feeling in the world. One of my coworkers sent me a picture of my show playing on the flatscreens in the restaurant, and my old friends from grade school sent me Snapchats of me on their TVs. People, even alumni from my university who found me on social media, messaged me for days afterward congratulating me and telling me I did a great job.

Even appearing on the show is a win. According to the Wheel of Fortune website, more than one million people applied to be on the show last year, and only 600 were selected. Being among the hundreds is an incredible honor and an experience I'll never forget.

If you ever want to be on "Wheel of Fortune," here's my advice. Smile and be energetic at your auditions. Speak loudly and clearly. Listen to the instructions and advice the people running the audition give you.

If you're lucky enough to make it on the show, enjoy every single moment in that studio no matter how much you win. Feeling disappointed about not solving a puzzle is ok, but don't let it drag down your whole experience. No one can go back and change the outcome, but you can't relive this once-in-a-lifetime event either. Filming my episode was such a blur of action and emotion that I think I'm still processing it, months later. I wish I could go back and soak in every moment again and again.

For everyone, no matter what your dream is, never doubt that you can make it a reality.

Because if someone had told me when I was sweating in that Kroger parking lot or dancing like a fool on that stage that in less than a year I would win $3,000 on a TV show I'd been watching for as long as I could remember, I would never have believed them.

* * *

Thank you to everyone who helped make my "Wheel of Fortune" aspirations a reality, especially my parents, for being there every step of the way and picking me up when I thought I'd fallen; my MeeMaw, for her enthusiastic and unwavering support and prayers; Aunt Cathy, for making sure I got to that first audition; all my other family that it would take a whole other article to list out by name, for your contagious enthusiasm; the fabulous production staff at "Wheel of Fortune" for the amazing opportunity and infectious energy; and my RA staff at Tappan Hall, for making sure I got my duty shift covered before I left for LA.

I couldn't have done it without you.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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