In 1975, Vanna White was plucked from relative obscurity to star on television mogul Merv Griffin’s latest production, NBC’s Wheel of Fortune. White was just 26 years old, and some worried she was too inexperienced to be the show’s letter turner. Even her eventual cohost, Pat Sajak, wasn’t sure she was the right fit. “He was very concerned because I was so nervous. I wanted the job so badly, and I was just shaking [during my audition]. I was scared to death,” White tells me in her singsong Southern drawl. But Griffin believed in her talent, and her chemistry with Sajak. Now, 37 seasons and more than 7,000 episodes later, it’s clear that his risk has paid off. The game in which contestants spin a wheel to determine their prize, then guess hidden phrases one letter at a time, is a mega hit. The show averages 10 million viewers—with the original twosome of Sajak and White still at the helm.
When White first signed onto the show, she couldn’t imagine doing it for more than five or so years. Now 62, White has spent almost her entire career on Wheel. In that time she’s gotten married, had children, gone through a divorce, and become an entrepreneur. And in a landscape where just 3% of women on TV were aged 60 or above in 2018, having a woman in her seventh decade sashaying in often skintight sleeveless gowns and five-inch-heels while turning the letters on a game show is remarkable. But White, who’s currently signed onto the show until 2022 and reportedly earns $4 million per year, has never feared “aging out” of the role. “I’ve been so lucky," she says. "When my contract is up, they come back to me and say, ‘Hey, we’d like to renew with you,’ instead of saying, ‘Oh, we would like to get somebody else.’ Fortunately, I haven’t had to cross that bridge."
Last week the show made an even bigger investment in White. On November 8, Sajak had emergency surgery to correct a blocked intestine. Because his operation took place while the show was filming, the network found itself in need of a fill-in host. Execs didn’t have to look far to find their perfect fit; she was waiting in the wings.
For the first time in almost four decades, White is now at the proverbial wheel for a three-week run (with Mickey and Minnie Mouse characters—for some inexplicable but welcome reason—turning the letters in her stead). Though the stint isn’t permanent, White will now join a small tribe of women who have taken on the male-dominated mantle of game show host. As reported in the New York Times, prior female hosts include Betty White (for the short-lived program Just Men!), The Weakest Link’s Anne Robinson, Meredith Vieira after taking over for Regis Philbin on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and now Ellen DeGeneres with her Game of Games series.
Of stepping into Sajak’s shoes, White says, “I was very nervous because it happened suddenly, so I didn’t have a chance to rehearse. And the nerves were there throughout all 15 shows because I didn’t want to mess up. It was like playing second base on a ball team and all of a sudden you’ve moved to third base.” But despite her jitters, she was more than happy to oblige. “I wanted to be there for Pat in every way I could.”
For White, Sajak and the rest of the Wheel team are her family; just one of the perks that makes White “love everything about [her] job.” And the perks are plentiful. Take the show’s taping schedule. An entire season is filmed in just 35 shoots per year, doled out in increments of four days a month (which in earlier years allowed her the freedom to almost always take her now adult children to school and be there when they got home). Call time begins at 8 a.m., with six shows shooting back-to-back until production wraps around 6 p.m. White has the schedule down to a science. She manages outfit changes in under three minutes—thanks to her prearranged dresses, accessories, and shoes—and gets in reps with 10-pound weights between takes.
In her role she’s worn more than 7,000 gowns (never having repeated a look, and constantly varying their style), has made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most frequent clapper in history (averaging 600 claps per episode), and has even earned herself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She’s traveled far and wide to film Wheel’s special episodes, like a recent visit to the Downton Abbey castle. “We’ve been to Ireland, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and everywhere in the United States,” says White. “In Alaska they put me on a glacier and shot me from above in a helicopter. And here I am, standing as far as I can see, just white, white, white, on this glacier. It was awesome.”
White’s enthusiasm for her job is matched only by her audience’s zeal for her. In the ’80s, the fanfare around America’s favorite letter turner hit such a fever pitch that it was dubbed “Vannamania.” White remembers, “Standing in line at the grocery store [in the ’80s] and seeing myself on the cover of Newsweek, I thought, Oh my goodness, gosh, I guess I’ve made it.” White was the girl next door, done good. And in pop culture her name became ubiquitous with over-the-top success. Weird Al Yankovic went on to release “Stuck in a Closet With Vanna White.” Later, Nelly rapped about “paying cash, first class, sittin’ next to Vanna White” in his early-aughts hit “Ride Wit Me.” And over the years White has been invited to play herself in episodes of popular TV shows including The King of Queens and Fresh Off the Boat.
Of course, there have been critics—both of White and women in her line of work. Feminists have challenged the mere existence of game show roles like “briefcase girl” (which helped catapult both Chrissy Teigen and Meghan Markle to fame on Deal or No Deal) or the ever pervasive silent and smiling female cohost who exist purely to look good in a sequined dress next to their male counterparts. Though White has made a name for herself on the show in her own right and says she feels “equal” to Sajak, her detractors are voluble, calling her names like “bimbo,” “dumb blond,” and “real-life barbie doll” and often weaponizing the same sexist tropes they claim to want to overturn. One article even posed the question, “How much Vanna can we Stanna?”
But the preternaturally sunny White—whose role model is Dolly Parton because she’s such a “positive person” who “hasn’t been affected by show business”—brushes it off. “I would be the first person to make fun of my job. Wow, I turn letters. But it’s like, okay, this is what I do, and I love doing,” she says. “I feel grateful to have this job and to have had it for 37 years. And I take it for what it is. It’s a half hour of fun, without all [the darkness] you see on TV. It’s a half hour of lightness, sincerity, and happiness. It’s a happy show.”
And these days the chorus of excitement to see White take first command far outweighs any hate. Fans on Twitter have written to lavish praise: “You were absolutely fabulous…. They definitely picked the right person to step in.” Another teased, “Pat may not have a job when he gets back.” But when her hosting duties are over, White pledges she'll be just as satisfied back at the letter board. “[My role] is an important part of the game," she says. "I’m involved in every game so I get attached to the players. When I come to work everybody’s happy. People win and it’s a very positive job.”
White has just three years left in her current contract, and Sajak has publicly said he will retire in a “single digit” number of years from now, but White doesn’t seem to have any immediate plans to walk away from the show. So when I ask her, if the network came to her with a lifetime contract tomorrow (the ultimate job security), would she sign on the dotted line? White’s interest piques. “I would consider it,” she tells me.
Samantha Leach is the associate culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_sleach.
Originally Appeared on Glamour