NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WECT) - After living on the west coast for four decades, and rising to stardom as the co-host of the immensely successful Wheel of Fortune gameshow, you’d think Vanna White would be more at home near the Pacific Ocean than the Atlantic Ocean, where she grew up. The South Carolina native insists that’s not the case.
“I really am just a normal person,” she said recently prior to the taping of another week’s worth of shows. “I dress up on the show, all kinds of jewelry and high heels, beautiful gowns and such. But I’m really a down home southern girl from South Carolina. it will always be my home.”
Vanna and her co-host Pat Sajak have fronted Wheel for 37 years, and more than 7,000 episodes. They are nightly staples in millions of homes across America, Pat at the wheel with the contestants and Vanna turning the letters on the puzzle board. But late last year, an emergency threw her into a new role. Pat had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery because of a blocked intestine. Vanna ended up hosting several weeks’ worth of shows without her long-time on-air teammate.
“So, the producer came and said ‘Hey, how do you feel about hosting the show to fill in for Pat till he comes back?’,” she says recalling back to the day of Pat’s emergency. “I was petrified. I thought ‘Oh my gosh!’. It’s like being a first baseman and them telling you you’re going to have to pitch that day. I don’t know how to pitch. But, I did it. I was very nervous, and it’s okay. I felt I had to be there for Pat and fill in for him. It all worked out great! He’s back. He’s healthy. I’m back at my puzzle board. All is good!”
Success did not happen overnight for Vanna White. After growing up in North Myrtle Beach with dreams of wanting to be on TV, which she talks about at 4:30 of the podcast, Vanna moved to Atlanta after high school to pursue a modeling career. In 1979, with one thousand dollars to her name, Vanna and a girlfriend decided to go all-in on chasing the TV dream, driving across the country to Los Angeles.
“We found an apartment together, the rent was $600 each,” she remembers. “For $300, I bought a white Ford Pinto used car, and I immediately got a job as a waitress to pay the bills. I slept on the floor, too. We didn’t have furniture or anything. But I was following my dream.”
Vanna went on what she said were ‘thousands’ of auditions for television and movie roles. In 1982, she was among 200 women auditioning for the role to replace Susan Stafford as co-host of Wheel of Fortune, which at the time aired on NBC’s daytime lineup. Vanna didn’t think she had a chance at getting the job, until she got the call.
“Merv Griffin, who is the man who hired me, he was the producer of the show,” she says. “He said I turned the letters better than anyone else. I don’t know! Whatever! I’m just so glad and God Bless him that he chose me.”
Despite the celebrity stature she has attained because of the show’s staying power, Vanna has never forgotten her childhood home. She visits North Myrtle Beach at least twice a year and stops in often when she is in the southeast. Vanna still calls her 94-year-old dad every day, “just to hear his voice” she says. It’s a quick reminder of her childhood growing up along the beach.
“It was a long time ago, when I was a little girl,” Vanna says about her early years in South Carolina with her mom, dad and brother Chip. “During that time, we didn’t even lock our doors. We would go out during the day, ride our bicycles and pick up coke bottles and sell those for whatever they were, three cents apiece, and come home for dinner.”
Even though Wheel tapes episodes only four days a month, Vanna has plenty on her plate to stay busy. She serves as executive producer for projects done by her brother’s production company in Charlotte. She loves to crochet, and has donated nearly two million dollars of the proceeds from her Vanna’s Choice Yarn line of products to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Both of her children are in their 20’s, and pursuing careers outside of television.
“I wanted them to follow their hearts whatever it may be,” Vanna says about Nicholas and Giovanna. “My son is an organic farmer. He loves doing that. My daughter is about to graduate and she’s going into art, photography, writing. She’s not quite sure which direction. Whatever it is I want them to be happy. That’s the most important thing in anyone’s life, follow your dream and do what to do and don’t give up. Pursue it!”
You can hear Vanna White talk more about her favorite memories of growing up in North Myrtle Beach, visiting Wilmington, the reason for the success of Wheel of Fortune, and many other topics. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
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