For nearly four decades, Vanna White has been revealing letters as the hostess on the game show Wheel of Fortune — and always with a smile.
But for the television personality, who has been on the show for more than three decades, that smile has often covered up personal heartache, especially in her early years when she lost her fiancé in a tragic accident.
“It was May 17, 1986,” White told People magazine. “The second I heard about it, I fell to my knees. It was just devastating.”
White's fiancé died in a plane crash
For the South Carolina native-turned-model, everything had finally been coming together. After years as a struggling actress, landing bit roles in films like 1980’s Gypsy Angel and 1981’s Graduation Day, she rose out of a crowd of 200 applicants to take over letter-turning duties from former hostess Susan Stafford in 1982.
“They narrowed it down to me and one other girl, who happened to be a very good friend of mine, who’s now a successful writer,” White told Fox News. “I found out I got it the day before Thanksgiving 1982 and it was one of the happiest days of my life. I was sitting in my apartment when I suddenly got a phone call. I think I literally screamed out loud.”
Her instant connection with host Pat Sajak, which she said the show’s creator Merv Griffin described as “brotherly and sisterly chemistry,” helped propel the Wheel of Fortune to mass success.
By 1986, the show was bringing in $100 million a year and on a ratings high with 30 million viewers, twice as many as the next highest syndicated show, M*A*S*H. And that same year, she was getting ready to marry longtime boyfriend Josh Gibson, who was a stripper, carpenter, sculptor and appeared on The Young and the Restless.
But her world came tumbling down when Gibson’s single-engine Trinidad TB20, built in France, crashed during its final approach to Van Nuys Airport in the San Fernando Valley. He was killed.
“I was at the pinnacle of Vanna-mania when this tragically happened,” she told Closer Weekly in 2018.
'Wheel of Fortune' fans made White 'feel like I wasn't alone'
The juxtaposition of professional success and personal tragedy was a harsh reality to have to face, but thankfully there was a group of people ready to help White through the pain: Wheel of Fortune fans.
“I heard from so many people who had shared the same experience of losing someone instantly in an accident, and that really helped me,” she told People. “I didn’t feel like I was alone — because when something like that happens, you immediately think you’re the only one.”
She added, “The support I got from my fans was so tremendous that it made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
Tragedy struck again a few years later
While the unbelievable news came as an indescribable shock, White slowly started picking up the pieces, thanks to the strength the fans gave her.
By 1990, White married restaurateur George Santo Pietro and was thrilled to announce her pregnancy in 1992.
In fact, she did it in a way that only a longtime Wheel of Fortune hostess could, with a puzzle that was revealed to say “Vanna’s Pregnant.”
A week later, she suffered a miscarriage. “Obviously I lost the baby, which was devastating after announcing it,” White remembers. “Losing a child — there’s nothing good about that.”
She again turned to her support system to fight through the pain. “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?’ I’m a Christian and have always had my own personal relationship with God. I don’t preach about it — because everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs — but I pray. I pray every day.”
And there was a light at the end of the tunnel. "The good news is [that] I was able to get pregnant again and had two beautiful, healthy children," the mother to son Niko, born in 1994, and daughter Gigi, born in 1997, said. (Pietro and White divorced in 2002.)
Her game show 'family' has never left her side
Despite some roadblocks, White has continued to power through and achieve new milestones — she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in April 2006 and filmed her 7,000th episode of Wheel of Fortune on May 10, 2019.
She also earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for clapping as she applauds an average of 600 times per show, adding up to 28,000 claps a season.
And through it all, her Wheel of Fortune support system has been by her side. “We’re one big family,” she says. “It’s wonderful.”