Student takes spin on the ‘Wheel’

Marisa Hampers, a USF senior, used her dream of being a Wheel of Fortune contestant as an icebreaker in conversations.  A life-long fan of the show, her dream came true on her 25th birthday.

Hampers’ process of obtaining a place on the show was no simple task.

She frequented the Wheel of Fortune Web site and received e-mail updates about the show. 

“In March [2008] I received an e-mail that the ‘Wheelmobile was rolling in to Tampa,'” she said.  “I knew that was my opportunity to try to go.”

A huge audition was held for a weekend in March at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, Fla., she said.

“I dragged a friend and went,” Hampers said.  “Hundreds of people came.”

First try: failure

Hampers and the other contestant hopefuls were given applications to fill out.

“They had us drop them in a large hamper,” she said.  “And my last name is Hampers, so I wondered if it was going to be like an omen or something!”

Out of the hundreds submitted, a few forms were randomly selected. Hampers, however, was not chosen that day and left disappointed.

Before leaving, though, it was announced that there was room left for a few more contestants and that a smaller audition would be held again in a few weeks.

“I didn’t really think anything of it, because the chances of [being chosen] were very, very slim,” she said.

A couple weeks later in April, Hampers received an e-mail inviting her to a smaller audition in Safety Harbor for about 80 people. 

A puzzling audition

She went to the audition and realized immediately that the scouts knew what they were looking for. 

“Even with us just calling out our names they wanted us to be enthusiastic — you know, pumped up and ready to play,” she said.

The audition consisted of a series of simulated games in which hopefuls played against one another in different rounds.

“I was thrilled because I was able to solve one of the puzzles and won a free T-shirt,” Hampers said.  “I thought that was so awesome.”

Despite the games, the entire process was not all fun.  Next, she was given a timed, written test that required her to fill in as many answers as possible in multiple puzzle-solving categories.

“When they called ‘time’s up’, everybody panicked because I don’t think anyone had filled out the whole sheet,” she said.

Cuts were made after evaluation of the written tests and the group of 80 was reduced to about 30.  After the cuts, more games were played.

“They made us come up five at a time and pretend like we were spinning the wheel,” she said.  “We even had to tell a little about ourselves and, thankfully, I was able to get through that.”

Once the audition was over, Hampers was again left without a clear answer. 

“They weren’t able to tell us exactly if we had made it or not, but they did say we would receive an official letter in the mail,” she said.

Building anticipation

A few weeks after the audition, Hampers received a letter stating that she had been selected to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.  The excitement, however, was diminished by one very specific statement in the letter.

“It was specified that it could take up to a year to receive an opportunity to play,” she said.

Since she had no idea when she would get the chance to play, Hampers did not tell many of her friends.

“I thought, ‘What’s the point if it’s going to take up to a year?'” she said.  “I kept it kind of quiet and only told a few people like my family, but of course they told more people.”

She received an e-mail in October letting her know that Wheel of Fortune was coming to Sea World in Orlando.

“I wondered then, especially since they knew I was a student at USF and kind of in the area, if it would be my opportunity to play,” she said.

Whether it was her chance, Hampers sent away for tickets to be part of the audience anyway. And while she was studying for final exams, she got a phone call inviting her to be a contestant on the show at Sea World.

With only three weeks notice, Hampers said it was really hard to concentrate for the rest of the semester.

“I was just really excited about the chance to play and see Pat Sajak and Vanna White in person,” she said.

To prepare, she recorded some of the current episodes of Wheel of Fortune and watched older ones on the Game Show Network. 

“I had finally finished finals, so I headed to Orlando and was able to celebrate my 25th birthday playing the game,” she said.

Finally spinning the wheel

On the day of taping, Hampers arrived early in the morning along with 14 other contestants. 

“The whole day I was kind of a mess,” Hampers said.  “I tried not to let my nerves get the best of me, because I really just wanted to enjoy it and have the experience of a lifetime.”

Though her family was there, she was told she was unable to acknowledge anyone in the audience.

She was walked from the holding area past her family members — who had received the same conversation about how important it was not to acknowledge the contestants. Hampers said she had to block everyone out for the entire time.

“In fact, I never actually looked in their direction at all,” she said.

Hampers and the other contestants were sequestered in an area and were not allowed to speak to anyone passing by or any Sea World employees.  They were not even allowed to look at anybody working on the stage.  No cell phones or reading materials were permitted.  If any of the rules were broken, the contestants ran the risk of being disqualified. 

“It was difficult to be in that situation where I didn’t know anybody,” she said.  “Plus, I was nervous and I had to concentrate on trying to forget that this was going to be recorded for national television.”
Hampers did not have much time to sit and worry, though.  The crew kept her and the other contestants busy for the whole day.

“They did take us down to the stage to let us practice spinning the wheel,” she said.  “That was when I started to get really nervous.”

She said she had no clue the wheel was so heavy.

“It’s the heaviest thing!” Hampers said.  “And I’m not much for upper body strength, but I was concerned.  I thought, ‘If I’m not able to spin — what’s going to happen?’ But they instruct you, help you along and are really good coaches.”

It was a matter of pulling the wheel and pushing it with all your strength in order to get it around, she said.

Spinning the wheel was not the only source of Hampers’ nerves. The Sea World stadium is larger than the Los Angeles location Wheel of Fortune is normally filmed at. In L.A. there are about 120 people in the audience.  There were 3,000 in the audience watching Hampers play.

Pat and Vanna

During practice, two people stood in for Sajak and White. 

“We had heard we might get to see them prior to playing the game, but to not really count on it,” Hampers said.

She did not get the chance to meet them until the game began, but said it was thrilling to meet people who she had watched on TV for so long.

White changed her gown five times during the filming.

“Vanna was gorgeous, and her dresses were amazing,” she said. “She just looked so great.”

Unknown opponents

Of the five shows filmed, Hampers was on the third show, which began filming around 8 p.m.

She said it took about 40 minutes to record the entire thing, and between rounds they gave the contestants water and barked at them to pump everyone up.

The theme of the show was not college-related, as Hampers thought it might be.  Instead, the theme was “Big Splash Week.”

“I wondered if that was going to be the situation, but no,” she said.  “I don’t think I was the only college student, but definitely the only one from USF.  I think there were a couple others from community colleges across Florida.”

Her two opponents were not from Tampa.  She was not sure where they were from because she said she had difficulty hearing on stage and was unable to hear their bios. 

Mystery results and rewards

The airdate of Hampers’ episode is a mystery — all she knows is that it will be sometime in mid-March.  The outcome of the show also remains a secret, for now.

“I am not allowed to disclose the outcome of the show,” she said. 

The people that were there know the results, but Hampers has been telling friends that she is “very, very proud and happy with the outcome.”

“Competition and public speaking are not two of my favorite things, and I was put under the pressure,” she said.  “I am just very proud of what I could accomplish under those circumstances.”

As for receiving her payout, Marisa joked that she is waiting for Wheel to get back to L.A. before she starts harassing them.

“We haven’t received too much information about the rewards,” she said.  “I’m supposed to be notified later on.  It’s a long process, but hopefully sometime.”

Though the results of the game must remain a mystery for a few more months, Marisa did say that the compensation for showing up and playing the game is $1,000.

“That’s a pretty nice reward in itself,” she said.

The highlight of the experience for Hampers was not receiving the rewards, meeting Sajak and White or the thrill of being on television.  Rather, she created more meaningful memories during the once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

“Of the entire experience, I really felt like I overcame a lot of fears,” she said.  “People that know me know I’m introverted and not really much of a person that gets out there and tries to do stuff for TV, so actually getting through it was a really big deal for me.”