The Untold Truth Of Vanna White

It's a sad fact of life that there are very few things that you can count on, but for generations of kids home sick from school, one of those things was "Wheel of Fortune." Millions of people have tuned in to some light-hearted banter, the sound of a spinning wheel, and the cheering of Pat Sajak and Vanna White. It's just wholesome.

And it was designed to be that way. When Merv Griffin picked White from a pool of contestants, she says that, in hindsight, she thinks he knew exactly what he was going for. "I think ... he saw something between us — a brother/sister-type relationship," she told People. Unlike siblings, though, they've only had a single argument in their 40+ years working together — and she told Fox that it was about whether or not ketchup goes on hot dogs. (She says yes.)

White has turned a lot of letters over the decades, and she's worn a lot of dresses, too. (No, she doesn't keep them, and instead, told InStyle that she prefers jeans and t-shirts when she's not on-camera.) She hasn't loved them all — particularly the ones with shoulder pads and an oversized, Cinderella-style look — and she opts for her own shoes to at least make sure that it's comfortable to do all the walking she has to do. And that's just the beginning of what fans probably don't know about Vanna White.

She ended up growing up in the south in a bizarre way

Vanna White wrote a memoir, "Vanna Speaks," in 1987, and in it, she gave a huge shout-out to her mother, Joan Marie Nicholas White. She says that her mother made sure she had a loving yet fun childhood growing up in Myrtle Beach, but she also says that just how the family ended up in South Carolina was shockingly non-traditional.

Joan was born to an unmarried mother in Syracuse, New York, in 1936, and since it was 1936, the idea was pretty scandalous. White says that although her mother's parents wanted to marry, their families forbade it ... so what were they going to do with this socially unacceptable baby? Little baby Joan ended up being taken in by a distant family relative and her husband, and it was all very hush-hush. White came to know the couple as her grandparents, writing, "Because the adoption was not handled through the courts and was not technically legal, my grandparents took Momma from the hospital when she was just a few days old, and immediately left the town where they'd lived all their lives to move south."

They had no idea where they were heading when they left, and they settled in Myrtle Beach. When Joan was 12, her biological mother died and she was legally adopted by the couple who had welcomed her into their home. The family stayed in Myrtle Beach, and White remembered their home as being a little run-down but "enough for them."

Her early animal encounters are wild

In her memoir, "Vanna Speaks," Vanna White wrote about a childhood that anyone would feel fortunate to have. Along with a loving family and effortless success in school, she wrote that she was particularly fond of lizards. Even then, though, she was accessorizing.

"One of my favorite things to do was to put a little string leash around a chameleon's leg, tie the other end to a safety pin, and pin the lizard to me and watch it change to the color of my outfit," she recalled. Weirdly cruel? Perhaps, but not the strangest of her animal friends.

She recalled going to visit her grandparents, who lived (via a few nearby neighbors) next to a pond. That pond had an alligator in it, and not only did White and her friend name the gator Mr. Bill, but "we fed him pieces of raw meat from the end of a barbecue fork." What did her parents have to say about this? In true, good-ol'-days fashion, they didn't really know about it until her brother disappeared for a bit, and they became convinced he was eaten by the alligator. (Don't worry, he was fine.) That, says White, was when she realized her new friend might not be as cuddly as she thought.

From the kitchen table to the White House

Vanna White has spent decades on the set of what's essentially a massive board game, so did she always enjoy games? According to what she told Esquire, that's an absolute yes: "I grew up playing games with my mother and dad," she said. "Jigsaw puzzles. Crossword puzzles. Card games. Board games. Scrabble. Life. Monopoly. I watched 'Wheel of Fortune.' I was a fan of 'Wheel of Fortune.'"

In fact, she told InStyle that before she auditioned to be a regular fixture on the show, she had written to the show in an attempt to be selected as a contestant. That didn't work out, but she did get on "The Price is Right." It wasn't great.

Pat Sajak was sitting in for Larry King when she was interviewed on his show, and revealed (via CNN) that Bob Barker had been incredibly rude to her. "He said if you would stop looking in the monitor maybe you might win something," she recalled, clarifying that she wasn't looking in the monitor, she was looking for a friend in the audience ... who was supposed to be signaling prices of items. 

She believes in psychic powers and spiritual manifestations

Vanna White was incredibly close to her mother, and in her autobiography, "Vanna Speaks," she wrote that it was her mother who first nurtured her belief in psychic phenomena. White wrote, "I believe now that we are all psychic to some degree but that some of us welcome these experiences, while others fear them and shut them out."

She told a strangely unsettling story of sneaking off to a bar that her parents had strictly forbidden her from visiting. While she was there, she noticed a strange woman sitting in the corner, overlooked by everyone else. When she returned home and her mother scolded her for going to a bar she'd been told was off limits, "I was stunned. ... For some reason I blurted out, 'I knew that was you in the corner ...' But when I really thought about it, I knew that that didn't make sense either. Momma didn't do any such thing. She wasn't there. But somehow she knew that I was."

She also wrote that her mother regularly saw an apparition of her grandmother, a figure that White saw once and described as incredibly disturbing. Also disturbing was the Ouija board, which White says she initially dismissed as a game when she and her mother used it together. Until, that is, she tried it herself — alone and with her eyes closed — to find that it really did spell out messages to her. She put it away, and decided it was better to just leave it alone.

She hated what her first personal manager did to try to get her roles

It's no secret that getting attention in the entertainment business isn't easy, and some people resort to shady measures. In her autobiography, "Vanna Speaks," Vanna White wrote about hiring a "personal manager" to help her break into the business. She was taken on as a client by a man she only refers to with the pseudonym "Tom," saying when she found out about the methods he was using, she found herself conflicted.

"Though I'd been in Los Angeles just a little over a year, I was slowly — and in some cases, painfully — learning how Hollywood really worked," she wrote. In addition to taking a few years off her age, White said that she felt like she was put in an awkward position when he advertised her birthday party in Variety, claiming she'd signed to breakout roles when she absolutely hadn't. 

Her feelings of misgivings ultimately led to her parting ways with the manager, a professional break-up that happened after she met another aspiring actor from South Carolina. She says that he put things in perspective for her: "He told me that it was nice to meet a southern girl who had not gone Hollywood," she recalled. "... His comments just seemed to drive home how far from that I was beginning to stray." She had been raised to be truthful, "And letting a manager lie for me wasn't that much different from me doing the lying myself." 

She ended a dry spell with a hilarious one-liner

Vanna White might be instantly recognizable and a common sight on countless televisions these days, but it didn't come easy. In her memoir, "Vanna Speaks," she wrote about how difficult it was when she was trying to find work in commercials. It was so hard, in fact, that many people may have given up: She shared the almost unthinkable fact that after going to more than 100 auditions, she'd had zero jobs.

It was so disheartening that she decided something needed to change, so she found a new agent. It ended up working better than she probably expected, because she was hired on the first commercial they sent her out to audition for. That, however, probably had more to do with her snappy one-liner than it did with the agency.

She shared that during auditions, all applicants were recorded saying their name and the agency they worked for. White said they'd occasionally ask questions — usually to see how a person moved when they knew they were on camera — and when she was asked what her plans were for the rest of the day, she responded, "I have a gynecologist's appointment ... but you can't come!" She said she not only got a laugh, but the part — without having to do the customary follow-up auditions. Best of all? She was telling the truth: She really did have a doctor's appointment that day.

She got Wheel of Fortune because she was awful

It's hard to imagine "Wheel of Fortune" with anyone else up there turning those letters, even though she wasn't the first. (Pat Sajak wasn't the first host, either: The original pair were Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford.) When it came time to hire someone, Vanna White actually threw her name into the proverbial hat at the end of the selection process — and she didn't get it because she was the best candidate.

In 2000, Pat Sajak sat in for a vacationing Larry King, and interviewed White for CNN. He started things off in a big way, and confessed that he was going to share a massive secret. That secret? That when he got word that Merv Griffin was leaning toward selecting White for the job, he called Griffin and tried to talk him out of it. "Now, there was another woman who did the show," he recalled. "I won't mention her name. But, while you were tremendously lovely, and couldn't have been sweeter, this other woman had a little more broadcast experience, and had done some hosting. So, I was kind of leaning toward her for that reason. ... And that's my confession. I voted against you."

White admitted that during the audition, she had been so nervous that she'd had trouble speaking, and recalled being a trembling bunch of nerves. But at the same time, that's what Griffin wanted: A glamorous yet down-to-earth girl next door, and White was perfect.

She credits Wheel of Fortune fans for helping her through the loss of her fiance

During the early days of "Wheel of Fortune," Vanna White seemed to have everything going for her. In her memoir, "Vanna Speaks," she reflected on talking about falling in love with the aspiring actor John Gibson, talking about getting married, and his work on various soap operas.

Tragedy struck in 1986, though, when he was killed in a plane crash. According to the UPI report on the accident, he was the only one on board when the plane "skimmed across busy Roscoe Boulevard" before bursting into flames. In her memoir, White wrote about hearing about the crash on the evening news, failing to get through to the airport, and then answering a phone call asking for the name of his dentist: They needed dental records to positively identify his body. 

Years later, she spoke with People about how she got through the tragedy. She credited "Wheel of Fortune" fans with being there, and helping her through those dark days. "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," she recalled. And, in a weird twist of fate, she wasn't the only one in her family that had experienced that loss: Her mother had lost her fiance in a car accident, just two weeks before they were supposed to be married.

She finds going to the dentist relaxing

Vanna White is as well-known for her smile as for her dresses, and she spoke to Dear Doctor about her dental hygiene regimen. Unsurprisingly, she said that it's incredibly important to her, and that she's instilling the same good habits into her children. They even have toothbrushes at the kitchen sink, she said, to make brushing more convenient.

As for her, she said something that's unthinkable to most people: "I don't have any problems with going to the dentist. For me, it is relaxing and maybe that is odd to say, but it is true. I am laying in their chair for an hour or however long, getting my teeth cleaned. It is not painful. It is kind of relaxing!"

She had some advice to pass along, too: Don't forget to brush regularly, fluoride treatments are a good thing — especially for those who drink bottled water — and while mouthguards are a must for anyone playing sports, she added that her mouthguard was a necessity because she'd caught herself grinding her teeth at night. She admitted that it took her a while to get used to wearing it, but stressed that good habits will last a lifetime.

She says that she unintentionally ended up on the cover of Playboy

It doesn't get more family-friendly and downright wholesome than "Wheel of Fortune," so when Vanna White appeared on the cover of Playboy after five years of turning letters and cheering on contestants, it's safe to say that it was a bit of a scandal. White thought so too, especially since they were old pictures she'd never agreed to have published. In 2017, The Washington Post reflected on the incident, saying that since it was at such odds with her girl-next-door image, it got way more attention than the photo shoots of other celebrities. So, how did it happen?

She explained to Fox News that the photos were taken when she was new to Hollywood, and in desperate need of some cash that she definitely didn't want to ask her parents for. It wasn't until after "Wheel of Fortune" made her a household name that Playboy bought the photos, running them in spite of her saying that she absolutely did not want them to see the light of day.

White sued to try to get the publication stopped — saying it would tarnish her image — but Playboy accused her of working with them to arrange to have the issue released at the same time as her memoir. She ultimately dropped the lawsuits, and went on Johnny Carson to not only apologize, but issue a warning to others: "Never do anything that you don't want to do. Listen to your instincts and follow it."

She's turned the wrong letter once (and other mishaps)

Vanna White might make it look like she's the epitome of grace, but she's had her share of slip-ups — sometimes literally — and mistakes, but viewers haven't necessarily seen them. She was on The Kelly Clarkson Show when she admitted that she had been mortified the one and only time she turned the wrong letter around on the board, a mistake that led to the whole puzzle being scrapped and replaced with a new one as contestants started the round again.

She spoke to InStyle about some of her malfunctions, which included a wardrobe issue where a gift-wrapped Christmas present attached itself to her dress, and she glided gracefully back and forth across the stage, completely oblivious. She's also lost a belt in mid-show, stepped on and torn hems, and in her memoir, "Vanna Speaks," she admitted that one of her worst moments happened during her first season. She was so excited about congratulating a contestant who had just won a new car that "I fell flat on my face while the cameras were rolling. ... I stepped off the puzzle board, I fell. I jumped up, dusted myself off, and walked over to congratulate the winner. ... When the contestant quipped, 'Did you have a nice trip?' I was so embarrassed."

No one's likely to out-clap her

Clapping is a natural part of Vanna White's job, and she makes it look both earnest and natural. Watch how often she claps, though, and it's almost hypnotic. She does it more than it seems, too, and she's actually in the Guinness Book of World Records for Most Frequent Clapper. She made it there in 2013, when it was estimated that she had clapped 3,480,864 times during her stint on the show. She's obviously been in many more episodes since then, so let's break this down.

They estimated that she clapped an average of 606 times per show, and as of the 2023 season, she's been in a whopping 7,740 episodes. That raises her clapping total to 4,690,440, give or take ... and while that's a lot, numbers that big can be hard to relate to.

So, let's put it this way. If White were to clap once per second, it would take her 54 days — clapping 24 hours a day — to clap that many times. Context is important, right? Now, he's a little bit of heartwarming: In her memoir, "Vanna Speaks," White wrote that she loved getting mail from viewers, especially letters from parents and grandparents who wrote to tell her that their little ones were obsessed with watching her clap. And that? That's the stuff of wholesome childhood memories.