40 Behind-The-Scenes Secrets From The Set Of Wheel Of Fortune

For decades now, Wheel of Fortune has been a staple of American television. Audiences in their millions tune in to watch Pat Sajak and Vanna White usher contestants through letter-based puzzles. But even if you watch the show religiously, you might not know these 40 fascinating details from behind the scenes.

40. Vanna White wasn’t the first hostess

Back in the ’70s, when Wheel of Fortune was still a network show, a different woman turned the letters on the board. This was Susan Stafford, a former model – but she didn’t like the job much. In 1987 she told the Chicago Tribune newspaper, “I mean, for seven years I stood there and turned letters. I had to ask myself if that was any way for a grown woman to live her life.”

39. Contestants have to pay for their own travel

In 2012 a 1992-era show contestant named Shane O’Donnell wrote about his experience on the website Quora. He talked about all the good parts, but there were bad parts, as well. Contestants had to cough up for their own travel expenses, for example. And even once they’d paid for the transport, there was no guarantee they’d actually be picked for the program.

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38. The set and equipment weighs a lot

The Wheel of Fortune set can’t be easily packed up and moved. According to The Week magazine, the whole thing weighs almost a million pounds. So, whenever the wheel and puzzle-board need to be moved, they’re carefully dismantled first. It then takes 14 trucks to move the entire set from place to place.

37. Vanna White beat 200 women for the hostess job

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When Susan Stafford left the show, plenty of other women wanted her job. Vanna White – who was then a waitress in Los Angeles – decided to apply. She was up against 200 ladies at first, but she fought her way through to become one of three finalists. Then, the program’s creator Merv Griffin picked her out of the trio because he thought she was best at turning the letters. The rest, as they say, is history.

36. Contestants aren’t allowed to have their phones

Come 2020 a blogger called Tania wrote about her experience as a Wheel of Fortune competitor. She shared some behind-the-scenes details that some people might never have thought about. For example, what do contestants do about their smartphones? Tania wrote, “You lock up your phones when you get there, so no pictures, and no looking things up on your phone. You can’t contact friends and family until your show is over.”

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35. Vanna White has worn thousands of dresses on the show

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To many people Vanna White has the best job in the world, seeing as how she gets to wear a new stunning dress for every appearance she makes. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get to take them home for free afterwards. She told Us magazine in 2018, “I don’t get to keep any of my clothes. But I have purchased a few items.”

34. The hosts don’t actually do that much work

In 2011 Pat Sajak told CBS News, “We shoot 35 times a year, 35 days a year, but it’s stretched out over nine months. It’s not exactly the most grueling schedule you’ve ever heard about.” He added, “A typical day for us we’ll start at noon and by six o’clock we’ll have done six shows with two different audiences. We’re pretty efficient.” It’s alright for some.

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33. Millions of people apply each year

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Wheel of Fortune is so massive that it seems almost everyone wants to be a contestant. Literally millions of people apply every year. From there, it’s whittled down to about 10,000 people who are asked to audition. Sadly, far fewer than that get to appear on the program. If you get through, you’ll be one of only 600 a year.

32. The show wasn’t always called Wheel of Fortune

It’s hard to imagine Wheel of Fortune being called anything other than, well, what it is. But the pilot episode of the show was actually titled Shopper’s Bazaar, and it even had a different format involving in-show cash being exchanged for prizes. Audiences didn’t like it much – not back then, anyway.

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31. Vanna White once made a big mistake

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Vanna White once turned over the wrong letter on the show and it still haunts her. In 2014 she told Time magazine, “I was so traumatized, I don’t remember if it was a ‘D’ or an ‘M’ that I turned,” she says. “The puzzle was either ‘Doctor Spock’ or ‘Mister Spock.’ Whenever they called it, I just turned the – we’ll say ‘D’ – I turned it and it was an ‘M.’ I was mortified. They had to throw the puzzle out.”

30. Contestants must keep their thumbs down

Many past contestants have written about their experiences. Michelle Mink, for example, wrote for the blog LA Dreaming in 2020. And one of the tips she gave was, don’t put your fingers too close to the answer button. She said, “They told us that you cannot have your thumb hovering over the device, which is good to know when you are practicing at home.”

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29. The best letters to choose

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People have studied Wheel of Fortune intensively, all in an effort to crack the best ways to win. And according to those in the know, panicking contestants should try selecting “T” from the consonants and “E” from the vowels. And if they’ve still got nothing they should go on to “A,” “I” and “R.” Good luck!

28. Pat Sajak gets paid a lot for the show

According to Forbes magazine, Sajak gets paid pretty handsomely for presenting Wheel of Fortune. In 2017 the publication reported that he was getting a whopping $15 million a year for his work. It then noted, “[Sajak] proves that there’s still cash to be made on game shows – especially when you’re the presenter.”

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27. The show got Vanna White a world record

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Thanks to Wheel of Fortune Vanna White now holds a world record – and quite an unusual one at that. She’s thought to be the world’s “most frequent clapper.” According to the people at Guinness World Records, she’s clapped more than 3,700,000 times over 32 seasons of the show. Let’s hope she’s taking care of her hands.

26. Contestants might encounter fans of the show

Writing on Quora, contestant Shane O’Donnell recollected that Wheel of Fortune fans “would call me by name, running over to shake my hand, to tell me how great I did and that they couldn’t wait until it was on TV and wondering if I knew when it would air. One even asked me for my autograph.” Clearly it’s the place to be if you enjoy being treated like a celeb.

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25. Producers give contestants subtle warnings

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In her blog post for LA Dreaming, former contestant Michelle Mink remembered, “I tried being a good team player by paying attention to the other players and cheering them on. I had a producer come up to me and tell me to keep my eye on the puzzle and the used letter board the whole time.” So, always be careful where you’re looking – producers may not like it.

24. Sajak didn’t think White was up to the job

Before White got the role as hostess Sajak didn’t think she would be able to do it. He told the CBS News show in 2020, “Not that she wasn’t lovely and wonderful and personable and all that, but she was the most nervous, by far, of any of [the auditionees].” White, apparently, is aware that Sajak once held that opinion.

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23. Contestants are recruited via the Wheelmobile

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The delightfully named “Wheelmobile” is a bus that goes from place to place recruiting participants for Wheel of Fortune. The team sets up shop in a town, and if you want to do a trial game you just have to fill out a form and try your luck on stage. From there, you might be called up for further auditions.

22. The show has only had a couple of announcers

There’s only ever been two announcers in the history of Wheel of Fortune. Currently, the position is held by Jim Thornton, but before him it was a man named Charlie O’Donnell. For almost three decades O’Donnell did the job, before passing away in 2010. He always said that he was very lucky to have that role.

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21. Contestants have to bring a change of clothes

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In his Quora post, former contestant Shane O’Donnell remembered that he and his fellow competitors were told to bring three sets of clothes. This was because, “…if you win and were going to be the ‘returning champion’ on the next show, you could change clothes and look like it was a different day. In reality, it usually isn’t.”

20. You can lose if you mispronounce a word

Unfortunately, if you mispronounce a word on Wheel of Fortune it still counts as a wrong answer. Take the case of one unlucky contestant in 2018 who said “flamingo” instead of “flamenco.” He ended up losing $7,000 and a vacation in prizes. That’s a harsh penalty to pay for a mistake.

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19. Stafford doesn’t regret leaving the show

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Susan Stafford believes that she’s better off without Wheel of Fortune, even though her replacement became famous. In 1987 the Chicago Tribune newspaper asked her if she regretted not receiving the fame and fortune that Vanna White had. She answered, “Do I kick myself? No, I like myself too much for that. Do I miss the money? You bet I do.”

18. The audience is hyped up before the show starts

People known as “contestant coordinators” play an important role on the show’s set. Shane O’Donnell wrote on Quora that these folks were “responsible for keeping the contestants happy and smiling and generally excited to be there. They are also responsible for getting the studio audiences energized when they come into the studio while there is little action going on for them to watch.”

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17. Players very rarely tie

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Wheel of Fortune ends in a tie so rarely that when it does happen it makes headlines. In 2016 two players tied for the first time in ten years and everyone got excited. It had happened only twice in the entire history of the show before that point – once in 2003 and once in 2006.

16. A happy day for Vanna White

Vanna White did an interview with Fox News in 2017 and talked about how she got her job. She said, “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.” Awww.

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15. All winnings are taxable income

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In his Quora post Shane O’Donnell explained that all Wheel of Fortune winnings are subject to tax. You have to complete a 1099 form once you’ve finished on the show, he said, and then, “…come next January, you get your 1099 for your winnings and run the numbers to see what that’s going to do to your taxes. It’s not pretty.”

14. The show went digital in 1997

In 1997 the show switched to a digital board, which was a big relief for Vanna White. She told CBS News in 2020, “…it took time, because they had to manually stop tape and change those letters [for each puzzle], which was [a] couple of hours, at least, to do. So, when they turned it into a computerized puzzle board, it went like that [snap]. So, it saved hours.”

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13. Contestants can’t look at their families

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In her 2020 blog post about being on the show, contestant Tania revealed, “When you’re practicing on set, your friends and family start to come in, but you can’t acknowledge them or look at them. And they aren’t allowed to wave at you.” So, there’s a source of moral support there that contestants won’t be getting.

12. White’s fans helped her through a difficult time

Vanna White had been doing Wheel of Fortune for four years when her fiancé, actor John Gibson, was killed in an plane accident. Fans of the show rallied around her and sent messages. White told CBS News in 2020, “…all my fans were so supportive. I received tons of fan mail, like letters: ‘I’ve been through this.’ And it just made me feel like I wasn’t the only one.”

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11. Potential contestants are grilled via email

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Former contestant Tania revealed in her blog post that would-be contestants are asked some serious questions via email first. These include, “Are you able to stay focused and control your nerves under pressure?” “Can you call out letters with a strong, clear, confident voice?” and “Do you have a good presence, vitality and energy?”

10. Contestants have a dress code

A contestant named David Gilbert wrote about his time on the show for The New Yorker in 2020. He remembered that potential players had to adhere to a certain dress code. Men were told “business casual,” but women got a long list about “the negatives of tight tops, and loose tops, and clingy tops, and striped tops, and black or bright red or white tops.”

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9. Sajak and White used to drink before the show

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Back when the show was in its infancy, Sajak and White enjoyed a drink beforehand. Sajak told the Los Angeles Times newspaper in 2012, “At NBC in Burbank we had a place called Los Arcos across the street… and they served great margaritas. Vanna and I would go across and have two or three or six and then come and do the last shows and have trouble recognizing the alphabet.”

8. It’s okay if a contestant can’t make the show

The Wheel of Fortune producers know that people are likely to have busy schedules. So, if a contestant is asked to show up for a particular date and they can’t make it due to work or other commitments, they’ll just reschedule. The same thing happens if they can’t afford the trip at that time.

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7. You have to demonstrate any talents you have

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When you first apply for a shot on Wheel of Fortune you’ll be asked if you have any special talents. Whatever you do, don’t lie at this point. If someone says in their introduction that they’re good at singing, for example, they’ll be asked to sing on stage in front of everyone.

6. A photo in the background caused major controversy

The Wheel of Fortune team once had to release a big apology. It came after one background picture used for “Southern Charm Week” in 2017 turned out to be depicting slavery. The producers later commented to Entertainment Weekly magazine, “We regret the use of this background image, and we will be replacing it moving forward on any rebroadcast.”

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5. White got to host the show in 2019

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When Pat Sajak experienced a serious health problem in 2019, Vanna White stepped in to host Wheel of Fortune in his place. She told the show Good Morning America after the fact, “I was petrified, terrified. But I did it.” She added, “Those three weeks without him was very hard. I really missed him.”

4. You should watch the show before applying

In 2020 producer Harry Friedman talked to ABC News about getting on the show. He said, “The ideal Wheel of Fortune contestant, first and foremost, is someone who’s been watching the show for a long time, so they really understand how the game is played. Some of our best contestants are avid readers, crossword puzzle players, and solvers.” Good news if that’s you!

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3. White considers Sajak her “work husband”

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Yep, even off-camera White and Sajak are close. In 2017 White told Fox News that he was “definitely” her “work husband” and went on, “…we get together, ask how have the last few weeks been, say it’s great seeing you, do our two days of work and go on with our lives. And it’s nice.”

2. The show and Sajak have won Emmys

It might be a little surprising that it took so long for Wheel of Fortune to win an Emmy. But the beloved game show finally picked up an “Outstanding Game/Audience Participation Show” award in 2011. That same year Sajak received a Lifetime Achievement Award Emmy, as well. Really, that was only fair, since he’d been nominated for an Emmy no less than 18 times.

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1. White tries to telepathically send answers

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White made an unusual confession to Time magazine in 2014. She revealed, “During the bonus round, when [the contestants] start calling letters, I telepathically try to send them a letter, you know what I mean? I do not say anything, but in my head when they start calling their letters I’m thinking, ‘D! B! K!’” No word yet on whether or not it works…

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