Local Contestant Vies for Vowels on ‘Wheel of Fortune’

823wheeloffortune.jpgWhen Deborah Koenig received an email from the Wheel of Fortune inviting her to attend a contestant audition in Washington, D.C., she didn’t believe it.

“The first thing I thought when I got the email was that someone was playing a trick on me, so I Googled the RSVP telephone number and was happy to see that it was Sony studios,” says Koenig, thrilled that the email was legitimate.

Koenig remembered visiting the Wheel of Fortune website a year earlier and registering for an ID. She suspects her status as a “Wheel Watcher” got her the invite. The audition announcing email asked her the following three questions before deciding whether to attend the tryouts.

The e-mail launched into the questions: “Do you think you can solve puzzles under pressure on national television?” “Can you be heard calling out letters?” and finally “Do you have a good presence and energy?” Koenig recalled calling out a letter loudly after reading the email, and satisfied with her performance, answered yes to every question.

The Wheel of Fortune confirmed in her future, Koenig was left anticipating what that future would bring.

“At that point auditioning would be an experience of a lifetime, even if I didn’t make it through, so what did I have to lose?” says Koenig. All she needed to do now was show up in D.C. with her invitation and photo ID at the ready.

Auditions were held in a large, generic conference room in a downtown D.C. hotel, attracting about 40 or 50 promising contestants. Koenig recalls: “I was still skeptical when I arrived, but there were a lot of other people there auditioning as well. Then I suddenly became competitive.”

First, these potential contestants completed a questionnaire, directed to include a recent accomplishment, something the host might be able to tell the audience if they were chosen to appear on television.

The Wheel of Fortune coordinators projected a puzzle onto a large screen and began to call out random names. Once called upon, the contestant guessed a letter.

“When my name was called, I stood up and clearly called out a letter, but it wasn’t in the puzzle, so I had to sit back down. That’s when I thought: I’m not going any further,” says Koenig.

With the first phase completed, the attendees received a five-minute timed quiz containing 10 word puzzles and took a quick break when the buzzer called time. Upon returning, the coordinators announced the names of those who would continue on to the next phase of auditions. The others were to leave immediately.

“I was surprised. My name was the first one called,” says Koenig. Polaroid pictures were taken, cementing contestant status with every shake of the floppy photo. “So much for the digital age.”

Finally, contestants formed into groups of four and the puzzle returned to the screen. “We needed to pretend we were playing a real game, spin an imaginary wheel and everything,” explains Koenig. After all groups spun the “imaginary wheel,” coordinators let them leave, promising a letter, if selected they were selected. They just needed to wait and see.

Lo and behold in less than two weeks time, Koenig received a letter. She was a chosen one, although it could be up to 18 months before the taping of her appearance, leaving her time to plan for the experience.

Approximately three months later, Koenig received a phone call from another Wheel of Fortune coordinator, Gary. He asked if she was available for a taping date of July 10.

“Of course, yes!” Koenig says, exclaiming without hesitation. Gary promised a packet of information containing more details.

One document, entitled “Wheel of Fortune Contest Information,” was just part of the packet. The cover letter confirmed her name, date of her taping and stated the necessary arrival time.

Besides the usual proper identification reminder, the information included some very specific television wardrobe rules.

These guidelines caused Koenig a lot of packing-related angst. Included in with the directions were instructions, which read: “Ladies should avoid wearing tight or clingy tops. Please wear a blazer or a loose-fitting blouse/shirt/cardigan sweater to avoid the ‘muffin top’/’love handle’ look.”

To Koenig, it seemed frustratingly nebulous. “In my mind, I began going through outfits trying to determine which would avoid the ‘muffin top’ look. Although, I was honestly more worried about ‘love handles’ than ‘muffin tops’,” says Koenig.

The promise of a professional make-up artist preparing her for taping was a highlight for Koenig, no pun intended. “I had never been airbrushed before. They did my face and neck. It felt funny, but good,” she says.

Contestants ensured their accompanying guests were also dressed properly, in case they had to join the winning contestant on stage.

So Koenig packed her attire to specifications, and booked an overnight trip to California’s Los Angeles International Airport and on to Culver City where the Wheel of Fortune is taped on location at SONY studios.

Arriving at the hotel where she received a special contestant discount, Koenig proceeded to make her reservation for the morning’s “WOF” shuttle – shorthand for Wheel of Fortune for those in the biz – that would deliver her and fellow contestants to the studio for orientation at 7:15 a.m. The specially designated bus would be full of potential winners.

Contestants were warned against being late, lest their slot might be given to another contestant. Coordinators also prepared contestants for the long haul; with five or six Wheel of Fortune shows taped a day, contestants might be at the studios until as late as 6 p.m.

Upon arrival, the contestants all walked as a group to the set. “A lawyer went over an hour and a half worth of paperwork. That was not the fun part,” says Koenig. The contestants, now opponents, were put into teams of three. One person on each team picked a numbered golf ball out of a bucket to determine in what order their episode would be taped.

“I was the last to pick. So there was only one ball left and it was number one! I was happy to be going first and not have to wait,” says Koenig.

Once back on the set after practicing, her first realization was that the big wheel of fortune isn’t really all that big, although still weighing two tons. She was shocked that even the board, where Vanna White stands and prances about professionally since her beginning in 1982 to reveal letters, appeared dwarfed.

Suddenly – it’s showtime. Pat Sayak arrived on stage, welcomed the contestants and introduced them to the guest audience.

“I thought I’d let him know I was a Maryland Terrapins fan, since I know he lives in Maryland; get in good with the host,” says Koenig.

It was time for the first toss-up puzzle. Koenig shouted out the sizzling correct answer “Back Yard Barbecue.” Lady luck was smiling on her. At the first commercial break, the production assistant reminded her to speak up, but other than that request, taping was running smoothly.

“I was nervous and kept cutting off Pat, it was like I had to get it out before someone else snatched away the puzzle.”

“WOF” staff reminded contestants to keep their energy up and act excited. Koenig took this to heart and reacted enthusiastically. “Every time I got a puzzle correct and Pat came over to congratulate me, I grabbed him. He was probably like, get away from me.”

Koenig bested her two opponents with solves like “Tennis Partners, Beer-Battered Fish and Chips and Western Europe,” making it to the finals round. A “WOF” assistant asked Koenig’s guest, this Virginia reporter, to join her on stage.

Sayak briefly welcomed me, for the viewers at home to get a glimpse. Better as an observer, when Pat directed a question to me – the guest – I found myself babbling a vapid answer. I knew if Koenig solved the final puzzle, winning whatever was enclosed in the mystery envelope, I would be expected to run up to her and celebrate on national television.

The pressure got to Koenig in the final round, stumped by “Hot Cocoa Mix” the food and drink themed puzzle. “It is so hard to figure out a word that an ends with an ‘A!'” says Koenig.

So maybe she didn’t win the hidden $35,000 in the envelope – ouch – but she still accumulated almost $14,000 dollars in cold hard cash – before taxes of course.

Although Koenig wanted to celebrate by flying home first class, as opposed to her economy class flight from D.C. – in the last row, in a seat that didn’t recline for 5 hours – she found the money wasn’t exactly hers yet. In fact, she wouldn’t actually receive her winnings until after the show’s airing.

“I was bummed that it would take so long to get my money, so my shopping would have to wait. I could handle that,” says Koenig. For this type of anticipatory wait, it is agreed, patience is an easy virtue.

Watch Koenig’s adventure in California when she appears on Wheel of Fortune on ABC September 8 at 7 p.m. on ABC.