It was a T. The phrase was GENERAL HOSPITAL. The show was Wheel of Fortune. And with the flip of that consonant on Dec. 13, 1982, Vanna White turned into a star. The former model from North Myrtle Beach, S.C., handpicked by Wheel executive producer Merv Griffin to replace Susan Stafford (who had been the letter girl since the afternoon game show began in 1975), got the job because, he says, she had ”the Rita Hayworth look.” In 1983, Griffin began syndicating Wheel at night. And as it became the most successful game show in TV history, Vanna, now 34, became one of the medium’s oddest pop stars.
By 1987, Vannamania was at its peak. Pat Sajak was Wheel‘s host, but it was Vanna on the cover of Newsweek. She hawked mattresses, burgers, and chocolate. Her autobiography, Vanna Speaks, was a 1987 best-seller. She dated Sylvester Stallone and Corbin Bernsen (she recently married L.A. restaurateur George Santo Pietro). She made a workout video.
No matter that Playboy published some of Vanna’s old ”lingerie ad” photos. No matter that her major acting debut in the 1988 TV movie Goddess of Love became a running joke for David Letterman. Her fans loved their girl. Her marvelously overdone gowns, supplied by New Leaf and Oleg Cassini, among others, still fetch up to $5,000 at charity auctions. Her own lines of dresses, fragrances, dolls, and jewelry are hot sellers on the Home Shopping Network. Vanna’s name even came up in the gay palimony suit this year against Griffin; his former employee, Brent Plott, claimed he had discovered her.
The secret of her success? Maybe that she’s a pro at letter turning, which reportedly pays her more than $250,000 a year for taping four days a month. ”She has to know where the lights are going to pop, and if you swing those letters too far, they turn back around,” says Griffin. ”That’s a lot to think about — especially in high heels.”
Dec. 13, 1982
Heads were in the clouds: James Michener’s Space and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge were best-sellers, and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. was the hot movie ticket. Closer to earth, the Ewings ruled Dallas, and Laura Branigan belted ”Gloria.”