'Wheel of Fortune' at 40: Fun Facts on Vanna White

In honor of 'Wheel of Fortune's' 40th anniversary on air, we look at 12 fun facts on Vanna White's ascent into letter-turning television history. And like her, you can clap now...
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Paulette Cohn
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In honor of 'Wheel of Fortune's' 40th anniversary on air, we look at 12 fun facts on Vanna White's ascent into letter-turning television history. And like her, you can clap now...
Vanna White Photo

(Photo: Photofest)

When Vanna White left her hometown of Myrtle Beach, S.C. to pursue her dream of becoming a star, the Wheel of Fortune TV personality only had $1,000 to her name. So, like the many hopefuls who came before her, she waited tables while waiting for her big break.

It didn't happen immediately. In fact, Vanna was finding L.A. a tough nut to crack when she got the devastating call that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Without giving it a second thought, she returned to South Carolina and cared for her mother until her death. 

When she eventually returned to Hollywood, it was back to waiting tables. It wasn't until November 1982 that Vanna landed the audition for Wheel of Fortune, winning the job over the more than 200 women who also applied. It was a casting call that completely changed Vanna's fortunes, and one she is grateful for to this day. 

Thirty-two years later, Vanna still has no thoughts of retiring. She says the best part of Wheel is "it is a happy show. Everybody goes home a winner."

Now, in honor of Wheel of Fortune's 40th anniversary on TV — the first years on broadcast and the 32 years in its present syndicated form, we've put together a dozen fun facts about TV's favorite lady of letters:

No. 1: The first letter that Vanna White ever turned on Wheel of Fortune was a "T." These days — actually since 1997 — the puzzle board is computerized so she no longer physically turns the numbers. She just touches them. Computerization also means that the board can be updated quickly since the puzzle letters no longer have to be swapped out manually. The benefit? Wheel can now tape a week's worth of shows in one day.

No. 2: When Vanna replaced Susan Stafford as Wheel's letter turner, she was a down-on-her-luck actress, trying to make it in Hollywood. It was in November 1982, two years after she moved to Los Angeles from her home in Myrtle Beach, S.C. that she got the audition. She recalls, "I was so nervous because I wanted this job so badly. My knees were shaking; my mouth was quivering; I could hardly talk." Still, Wheel creator and business tycoon Merv Griffin saw something special in White, and on Thanksgiving Eve 1982, she was hired, giving her something for which to be thankful. 

Vanna White and Pat Sajak Photo

Vanna White and Pat Sajak today. (Photo: Photofest)

No. 3: Vanna has worn more than 6,000 ensembles with no repeats during her tenure on the show. But her home closet is full of jeans and sweaters, which she says is "the real me." Every couple of weeks, Vanna meets with the show's costume designer and tries on in the neighborhood of 50 outfits and gowns. From those, she picks her favorites.

No. 4: The Guinness Book of World Records includes Vanna as "Television's Most Frequent Clapper." They figured she averages more than 600 claps per show, which comes to more than 28,800 times per season — and more than 3.7 million claps during the last 32 seasons.

No. 5: In order to get the job done right, Vanna is given the answers to the puzzles in advance so she knows where the letters are located. Even so, she does remember one time when she turned around the wrong letter and the puzzle had to be thrown out. 

No. 6: Vanna doesn't waste time at the studio when she isn't on camera. In the makeup room and between takes, you will often find her crocheting. "I love making handmade gifts," she says. "People just don't do it anymore… It is just special. I made a baby blanket for both of my children and brought them home from the hospital in them, and they will always have them."

No. 7: Because of her love for crocheting, which she learned from her grandmother, Vanna developed her own line of yarn, Lion Brand Vanna's Choice Yarn. Each year she donates a percentage of the proceeds from the sales to St. Jude's Research Hospital. To date, she has presented more than $1 million to the hospital. Vanna specifically chose a children's charity to support because she felt lucky that her own two children — Nicholas, 20, and Giovanna, 17, with ex-husband George Santo Pietro — were healthy.

No. 8: In 1996, Wheel of Fortune was one of the sponsors for the Olympic Games. As a result, both Pat Sajak and Vanna White carried the torch in different relays here in the U.S.

No. 9: You won't find it in the dictionary, but "Vannamania" is a word that was coined to describe Vanna's popularity in the mid '80s when Wheel of Fortune went from airing only in daytime to also airing at night. It was a time of great opportunity for Vanna. In addition to gracing the covers of popular magazines, she had her own fragrance, produced a line for a home shopping channel, and authored her autobiography, Vanna Speaks

No. 10: Born Vanna Marie Rosich to Joan Marie and Miguel Angel Rosich in Myrtle Beach, Vanna's father left when she was just a few months old. When she was two, she was adopted by her stepfather Herbert Stackley White Jr. and took his name.

No. 11: Vanna hadn't had any aspirations of becoming a TV star until the day she was home recuperating from an appendectomy when she was 11. She was watching The Rat Patrol when her mother said, "That's your 'Uncle' Christopher George." Vanna decided if her uncle could do it, she could, too.

No. 12: On June 20, 1980, before joining Wheel of Fortune, Vanna was a contestant on The Price is Right, but she never got off of contestants row.