Vanna White has been one of the stars of Wheel of Fortune for nearly four decades, landing the dream job in 1982. When she auditioned for the gig, she says she was so nervous that her lips and knees were shaking — but the show’s creator Merv Griffin loved the chemistry between her and Pat Sajak, and gave her the letter-turning gig.
“He said it was like brotherly and sisterly chemistry,” White, 62, says in the new issue of PEOPLE, adding that in the 37 years they’ve been on air together, she and Sajak have never had a single fight in real life. (Well once, about whether or not to put ketchup on a hot dog — something that Chicago-native Sajak says is verboten.)
But in 1986, tragedy struck for White when her then-fiancé, the Young and the Restless actor John Gibson, was killed when the plane he was flying crashed outside Van Nuys airport near Los Angeles.
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“It was May 17, 1986,” White recalls. “The second I heard about it, I fell to my knees. It was just devastating.” White now credits the outpouring of love from Wheel of Fortune fans with helping her cope at the time. “I heard from so many people who had shared the same experience of losing someone instantly in an accident, and that really helped me. I didn’t feel like I was alone. Because when something like that happens, you immediately think you’re the only one.”
White later wed restaurateur George Santo Pietro in 1990, but tragedy struck again in 1992 when she became pregnant with their first child and announced it via a puzzle on the show. (The answer was “Vanna’s Pregnant.”) A week later she miscarried. “I so wanted to be pregnant and have a baby, so then when I finally got pregnant, I wanted to tell the world immediately,” she says.
“Obviously I lost the baby, which was devastating after announcing it. The good news is I was able to get pregnant again and had two beautiful, healthy children. … But losing a child — there’s nothing good about that.”
White says she once again turned to friends, family and fans. “You have to take their support and try to be strong. It’s so hard, but you just have to think, ‘What would they want me to do?’ ” She also embraced her faith. “I’m a Christian and have always had my own personal relationship with God,” she says. “I don’t preach about it, because everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs. But I pray. I pray every day.”
After White and Santo Pietro split amicably in 2002, White found love again seven years ago with her now live-in boyfriend, real estate developer John Donaldson, 53, whom she met when a friend brought him to one of her barbecues.
“I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘He’s really cute,’ ” she says with a laugh. “We ended up talking for a long time that night.” They’ve been together ever since. “It just works,” she says of their breezy relationship. “He lets me be me, I let him be him. There is no drama.”
As for staying on the job a little while longer, White says she has no plans to retire from the show anytime soon. “We’re one big family,” she says of the Wheel of Fortune cast and crew. “It’s wonderful.”