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Oh, Vanna.


Vanna White is in a chipper moodthis morning. She bubbles and laughs, which is typical. The topic is fame, her fame, and she has some ideas on it. That's typical, too. From Socrates to Voltaire to Benjamin Franklin, fame has given illustrious individuals food for thought. Consider the giddy simplicity of Lord Byron, who mused, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."

The same holds true for White,television's Queen of the Alphabet, who discovered radiant fame cast up-on her with the same suddenness that Byron's was. And therein lies the mystery. The pretty Southern belle triumphed by turning letters on the TV game show "Wheel of Fortune." That's it. "They call me a hostess," she says. "But I'm really just a letter turner."

That's not to be taken lightly,though. In the past year, Vanna White seems to have become familiar to everybody on the planet with a television; she's a legitimate one-woman phenomenon who's ogled daily on "Wheel" by an audience that numbers a staggering 43 million. As the laureate of letters on "Wheel," she models some of the glitziest gowns this side of Barbie's wardrobe, turns letters on a game board, and occasionally busses the cheek of a big winner. Nothing more, nothing less. And for this she's become one of television's supernovae, a star who has enraptured the American public like the first intoxicating blush of spring. "I turn letters on a game show," she muses. "It's hard for me to define or understand why all this has happened to me."

Such artlessness has becomeWhite's stock in trade. She's the first celebrity ever to emerge from the anonymous position of game-show hostess, and her success is certainly not based on a talent for great dialogue: she has no lines on the show. No matter. Her country charm, gee-whiz smile, and centerfold figure are plenty, thanks. The payoff: a salary estimated well in excess of $100,000 annually and thousands of fan letters each week. "There's a lot of people out there who know who Vanna White is," she says, as if revealing a long-held secret. "It's very nice to reach people like that."

It's too easy to make fun of White,so most critics don't. The derisive comments ("just a dumb hostess") and the jokes ("never has so much been made of so little") are old news to the former cheerleader, whose only breach of modesty has been to say she's laughing all the way to the bank. But White, 30, is nothing if not herself--sweet, wholesome, and as genuine as the thick Southern accent she collected growing up in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She once got so excited when a "Wheel" contestant won a new car she fell off her platform. "I think people like me because I'm just a real person," she says. "I'm sincere and not intimidating to anybody."

That's an understatement, giventhat her harshest expletives are "my goodness" and "shoot." White seems to have taken her cues on charm and personality from Dolly Parton. Take her aw-shucks attitude toward fame. "I'm so close to it all that I really don't see it," she says. "I still feel like the same person. The only difference is when I walk through airports I hear people say, 'There's Vanna White.'" Then there's the silliness of her celebrity, which she takes seriously, knowing that people are interested in her favorite color (pink), food (potatoes), and TV show ("The Flintstones"). She even revealed to one interviewer that hers are "the ugliest toes in the world."

The effervescence is endless. Whitetypically works two days a week, during which ten episodes of "Wheel" are taped. That translates into ten different changes of wardrobe and make-up. Her tiny dressing room, replete with sofa, make-up mirror, and television, drips with enough rhinestone jewelry and tacky promstyle dresses to outfit an entire beauty pageant. In front of the camera at one taping, she is a fashion statement all her own, wearing a ruffled blue dress, purple eyeliner, and pink lipstick. The ensemble draws oohs and ahs from an admiring audience that can't quite get used to viewing the ebullient White in the flesh. "They don't let me keep the clothes, but I really like wearing them," she tells a woman in the front row.

At home in the Hollywood hills,exactly 4-1/2 miles from her NBC parking space, White tries to shut out the Hollywood hoopla and glitter that have put her atop the A list of tabloid quidnuncs. "Most of what people read about me in the gossip columns isn't true," she says of her virtually weekly mention in the scandal sheets. "They're making me out to have a lot of fun." She likes to hang out in sweats or jeans and pet her two cats, Rhett and Ashly--anything to avoid the spotlight. "I'm a shy person," she says. "I'm pretty private, maybe on the boring side. A fun night is staying home, watching TV, and petting my cats."

Still, her life is hardly as anemic asshe describes it. White credits the unprecedented popularity of "Wheel" for her sudden stardom, an occurrence the Washington Post's TV critic, Tom Shales, calls "a television phenomenon that bears no serious analysis." No matter. Her question isn't why, but how. She's spent the past year attempting to capitalize on this phenomenon without tarnishing her appeal. First, she released two tasteful posters bordering on the sweet side of cheesecake. Then, she tackled her autobiography, entitled Vanna Speaks, which she calls one of the best things she's ever done. "It felt terrific writing it," she says. "It was very therapeutic. I started reliving my past, experiencing things I did as a child, and it was very cleansing."

"It's just a fun thing, not a heavybook," she says, though the resulting work is surprising, if for no reason other than its lack of surprises about a woman whose professional feathers have been ruffled only by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner's promise to publish old photos of White modeling scanty lingerie. She says of her book: "People will see that I'm just a normal person like everybody else." To her credit, the focus isn't entirely fluff. "I've experienced death in the family, and it's how I dealt with all that," she adds. "I've also experienced negative things when it comes to my success, and I hope it will teach young girls "[not to make] the mistakes I've made along the way."

However, it would be difficult foranyone to follow the path White strode to fame and fortune. The daughter of a real-estate broker and a "very independent" mother, she was dominated in childhood by the dream "of being a movie star." She took courses at a school of fashion design in Atlanta and then worked as one of tha city's top models, but she desired more. She moved to Hollywood in 1980. "I got in a 20-foot U-Haul truck and drove out to California not knowing anybody or anything," she says. "But that's what you sometimes have to do.

"Anything could have happened,"she says of the move. "But I think you should do what you feel, what your heart tells you." Aiming first at the movies, she landed bit parts in minor films--Looker and Graduation Day. But television quickly became the ticket when she auditioned in 1982 for "Wheel" in front of the show's creator, Merv Griffin, who chose her from among more than 200 women. "He told me that I turned the letters better than anyone," she recalls. Now this serendipity strikes her as funny. "It all started when I was about three and ate a bowl of alphabet soup," she says. "I knew something would come of that."

Despite all the fireworks, there wasone bleak event with which she had to cope. Little more than a year ago, her actor boyfriend, John Gibson, 37, was killed in a plane crash. (White discusses the tragedy in Vanna Speaks.) "I'm a basically pretty optimistic person," she says, describing a trait that no doubt buoyed her in those difficult times. She's now packaging that optimism in the form of a diet-advice video. "It's just going to be me and what I do, not a Jane Fonda kind of thing," says the svelte beauty, who stands 5'6" and weighs 107 pounds. "People will probably be shocked to hear me talk."

If anyone's waiting for a pall to settleover White's dizzying rise, he's in for a long wait. More deals and dollar signs lurk in Vanna White lines of clothing and jewelry, more TV commercials, and guest-star appearances. But she's about a likely to change from all this as New Orleans is to renounce Cajun cooking. "I still have that Southern accent when I talk to my family back home," she says. Money's not going to corrupt her, either. "People automatically think that if you're on TV, you're a millionaire," she says. "I'm not. I will say that my cats are eating well, though." When hit by the urge to splurge, she's the soul of sensibility. "I'm easy," she says. "I like fingernail polish and shoes."

How much longer White remainsthe ornament on "Wheel" is another open-ended question, but the three years remaining on her contract make it unlikely she'll depart any sooner. "I have no desire to leave," she says. "It's too much fun." That's not to discount the many offers tempting her to branch out in other directions. "There's some things in the works, but nothing definite," she says. "I think it would be fun to play some kind of villain, kind of like a Joan Collins." However, it's more likely that when the time comes to leave, she'll end up typecast in some sort of situation comedy--which would be dandy by her. "My all-time secret goal is to be in a series like the 'Donna Reed Show,'" she admits. "That was such a wonderful show, and I can see myself doing something like that."

The shower of options is comfortingto the woman who still can't believe she's living out her girlhood dream, but White is naturally wary of too much good fortune. "In this business, you're on top of the world one day, and the next day you don't have a job," she says. "I want to make sure I'm covered." Skepticism aside, White will undoubtedly be a fixture on television in some capacity for years to come, flipping her skirt, smiling, and doing what she does best--being her bubbly self. "I'm not exactly sure what the future holds for me," she says. "But I enjoy being in front of the camera and giving people a good feeling out there. As long as I can continue doing that, I'll be happy." Viewers already know that makes them happy, too.
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Title Annotation:Vanna White
Author:Klein, T.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:interview
Date:May 1, 1987
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