For 26 years, Vanna White has been winning hearts as America's favorite letter turner on the popular game show 'Wheel of Fortune'. But the glamorous, groomed-to-perfection image she presents on the show is just that–an image.
After a day at the studio, White removes her designer gowns and makeup. Her home closet is filled with blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, which is what she wears for the role that means the most to her: Mom.
"That is the real me," says White, 51, who appreciates the fact that Wheel of Fortune's production schedule allows her to be a full-time single mom who carpools, bakes cookies and does her own grocery shopping. It is important to her that her kids–son Nicholas, 14, and daughter Giovanna, 11, her children with ex-husband George Santo Pietro–be raised by family, just as she was by her parents and grandmother in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Each summer, she renews her hometown ties by taking Nicholas and Giovanna to visit family and friends.
"My mother always worked," recalls White, whose mom, Joan, opened an office-supply business in their home when White was a child, and later worked as an accountant and a restaurant cashier. White, born Vanna Marie Rosich, doesn't remember her father leaving when she was only a few months old; she was adopted by her stepfather, Herbert Stackley White Jr., when she was 2.
White had a nanny for her children years ago, when Wheel of Fortune was taping both daytime and nighttime versions. But these days, her kids are old enough to take care of themselves for the limited hours she works on the set each week, and White runs her household single-handedly. She feels her abilities to juggle motherhood and business came directly from her mother and grandmother.
"My grandmother stayed home. In her generation, this is what they did," she says. "I have that from her. Then I have the business sense from my mother. She was great with numbers and organization. I definitely have that, as well."
White's popularity soared to such heights in the 1980s that it not only had a name–"Vannamania"–but also afforded her the opportunity to hone her business skills by creating her own fragrance and clothing line for a home-shopping network.
"She has made such a big impact on people's lives, not just her friends and family, but people she doesnt know who watch the show. Everybody absolutely loves her," says Debbie Doyle, who's been a friend of White's since they were 3 years old.
White scaled back most of her outside interests when she became a mom, and these days, the only products she finds time for are the books she writes on, crocheting and her own line of Lion Brand Vanna's Choice Yarn. She donates half the proceeds from the sale of her yarn to St. Jude's Research Hospital, choosing it because she's grateful that her own two children are healthy.
"I love making handmade gifts," says White, who uses her own brand of yarn for all her projects. She crochets on planes, in the Wheel of Fortune makeup and hair room, and while watching TV at home. "People just don't do it anymore. I find it very relaxing and then to be able to give it as a gift, especially baby blankets."
Dreams of stardom
White remembers watching television when she was 9 or 10 years old and thinking, 'Wow! I want to do that!'
Of course, first she had to finish school. White was an excellent student, finishing in the top of her graduating class scholastically, as well as waving the pom-poms as a cheerleader. She didn't set out for Hollywood immediately, however. She eased herself into leaving home by first moving to Atlanta to attend fashion college and to model.
In 1980, White and a friend drove cross-country in a rented U-Haul truck. She arrived in Los Angeles with $1,000 in her pocket and dreams of being on television.
After renting an apartment and a car, she took a job as a waitress to pay the bills. Only two months later, she received a call urging her to come home to her mother, who was dying from a recurrence of cancer. So she returned to South Carolina and took care of Joan until she died several months later, at the age of 44.
A few months later, White returned to Los Angeles. She hired a manager and began to seek work as an actress. But the going was tough. Auditioning for parts alongside 100 other beautiful women, she rarely was chosen. "It pounds on you, being denied," she says. "You feel ugly and unwanted."
She faced a lot of rejection until she auditioned for the game show Wheel of Fortune late in 1982. "I was so nervous," she says, "because I wanted this job so badly. My knees were shaking, my mouth was quivering; I could hardly talk."
Even so, game show titan Merv Griffin, who created the show, saw something special in White. On Thanksgiving Eve of 1982, she was hired.
"She is so grateful and gracious and humble and modest, and all of those things you can't force. That is just who she is. I think the audience senses that," says Wheel of Fortune's executive producer, Harry Friedman.
Despite her fame, White wants to be remembered not as one of TV's longest-lasting game-show personalities, but as a normal person.
"I think people think of me as their next-door neighbor," she says. "I'm not this big movie star. It's just like being the girl next door."
"I'd like people to think, 'She was a good girl. She was real.'"