If you are Wheel of Fortune fan, chances are you were pleasantly surprised to catch one of our very own Dons competing on the long-running game show recently. USF staff member, Katy Bailey, fulfilled her lifelong dream of spinning the wheel on an episode that aired nationwide on Oct. 20.
Bailey, who works as a Professional Development Administrator in the human resources department, made the trip down to Los Angeles (where the show tapes) back in August. Bailey has been preparing for the competition, in which contestants solve word puzzles similar to those used in Hangman, since she was a little girl.
“I definitely grew up with the show. We watched in my house nightly, and my mom has stories and lots of photos of me as a young child pretending to be Vanna,” said Bailey, who referenced the program’s hostess Vanna White, the person in charge of revealing the letters contestants choose. “I’ve loved the show forever, and it’s the only one I’ve ever wanted to be on,” continued Bailey.
Bailey’s love for the show finally reached peak fandom when she decided to fill out an audition form one day. “I tried for a long time — nearly 15 years — to get onto the show,” said Bailey. After the online applications lead to nowhere, Bailey decided to take it up a notch by going to in-person recruitment events held nearby, thanks to the Wheelmobile, a Winnebago commissioned by the Wheel of Fortune to travel across the country looking for contestants.
“I did that three times, but it’s a random draw, and I never got picked. It was so frustrating, and I considered giving up, but instead of doing that, I decided to try something different,” said Bailey, who after the most recent Wheelmobile event back in March, had her spouse Brian film a 30-second video of her in front of the Wheelmobile explaining why she would be a good contestant. “I was a little self-conscious, but I did it and sent it into the Wheel folks that night,” said Bailey.
That proved to be the catalyst for Bailey’s journey, when the Wheel’s contest coordinators contacted her just eight days after she sent the video with a date and location for an audition. On March 23, Bailey showed up at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, where 40 other potential contestants awaited.
What casual viewers may not know is that the show chooses their contestants based on a rigorous vetting process which includes interviews, exams and mock gameplay. The initial test had the potential contestants finish words with only having a few letters to start.Contestant coordinators then graded the tests and made cuts. The group was whittled down to 18 people whom then played a sped-up round of Wheel, with introductions and everything.
“They told us we’d receive a letter in two weeks if we were selected to be on the show. No letter meant that they didn’t want you,” said Bailey.
“Each year, millions of people fill out applications and more than 10,000 are selected to try out to become a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. With all the interest, only 600 lucky contestants are selected to step up to the Wheel,” reads a fact from the Wheel’s official website. 15 days after her audition, Bailey received the letter she had been waiting 15 years for; she would become one of the 600 chosen to appear on the show. “It stated that I would be in the contestant pool for 18 months, and I could be contacted at any time to appear on the show with no more than 2 weeks notice,” said Bailey about the initial uncertainty of her taping day for the show.
The wheel beckoned to her only four months after she was promised a spot on the show, although more time for travel prep would have probably been appreciated. “[On Aug. 2] I got an email from the contestant coordinators asking me to come in for a taping on Aug. 11. I was nervous about it being just 9 days away with having to request time off work, find a dog sitter, make travel plans to LA, figure out what to wear, but it all worked out,” said Bailey.
As for the contest itself, Bailey said, “I was pretty focused during the show, but also could not believe I was spinning THE Wheel, actually talking to Pat Sajak, and that Vanna was clapping for ME.” One of the highlights of the night came when Bailey was able to solve the first puzzle up for grabs, and was then given an opportunity to talk about her life here in San Francisco, even name dropping our mascot. “Go Dons,” she said, while holding two thumbs up for the camera.
Ultimately, Bailey came in second place, having solved four out of the eight puzzles, taking home a total of $12,800. The show prohibits contestants from talking about the outcome of the show with anyone until after the show airs. So, for 71 days Bailey couldn’t tell family, friends and colleagues about how she placed. “I am actually very good at keeping secrets, but this one was torture,” said Bailey. She was finally able to talk about the show on Oct. 20., FaceTiming family on the East Coast watching it a few hours before she was to attend a watch party set up for her at the University Center.
Final thoughts as she settles back into life on campus include appreciation for her USF family, who have been “super positive, excited and supportive,” said Bailey. But she also entertains thoughts of finding a new challenge to take on. “Some may feel that it’s just a silly game show, but for me, getting on Wheel of Fortune represented the achievement of a lifelong goal which took a good deal of time, energy, persistence and creativity,” she said. “As cliché as it sounds, it didn’t even matter how I did – I felt like I won as soon as I stepped onto that stage. The only problem is that now, I just need to find a new ‘bucket list’ goal.”
Photo Courtesy of Katy Bailey