‘Wheel of Fortune’: Former Contestants Reveal What Playing the Game Is Really Like

TV Shows

When it comes to Wheel of Fortune, Pat Sajak and Vanna White may be the faces of the long-running game show, but it’s the players who are the big winners.

But what is it really like to play Wheel? Four former contestants open up.

Brenda Gallagher (Season 34)

Brenda on Wheel of Fortune

Remember When… the Las Vegas resident and Air Force veteran enthusiastically (and fittingly) solved a Song Title puzzle of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and then crushed her final bonus round by guessing “My Happy Place”? She may be the only player to have ever fallen to their knees and kissed Sajak’s shoes, but the still-ebullient Gallagher stands by her reaction. “Wheel of Fortune is my happy place!”

Instant Fan Club The internet immediately fell in love with Gallagher’s infectious energy, inspiring news articles, and online raves after her November 2016 episode aired. Many viewers posted that everyone should be as happy as her (#BrendaScream). “Well, they should!” she agrees with a laugh. “How many times do you get to win a brand-new car or thousands of dollars? It doesn’t happen every day.”

Wheel Watching When her episode aired, “we had a party over at a friend’s house,” the self-described “hometown comedian” recalls. “I didn’t tell anybody what transpired, but they always said, ‘We know you won…you always win.’ Because I live in Las Vegas.”

Winning Move Gallagher, who took home nearly $56,000, literally put her money where her mouth is. “I spent almost $20,000 on new choppers,” she admits.

Jack Louden (Season 3)

Jack on Wheel of Fortune

Remember When… this retired music teacher made it through an entire 1986 episode without winning a thing? “That was a bummer,” Louden good-naturedly admits. “I think my problem was buying vowels, and then I hit a Bankrupt.” But he didn’t go home empty-handed. “Back then, they had consolation prizes. I won a lot of cookware and a case of Rice-A-Roni…. The best was a case of L’eggs pantyhose. My wife was thrilled!” 

Got Game, Will Travel After hearing about auditions in Philadelphia, the “avid fan” hit the road. “I was living in Wilmington, Delaware, so I thought, I’m going to go up and just give it a shot. There were like 1,500 to 2,000 people there and we had to solve word puzzles on a sheet of paper. And of all those people, they picked 15. I was one of them.”   

That Awkward Stage Way before the current, high-tech set in Culver City, Wheel shot in Burbank with some decidedly lo-fi effects. Not only did Vanna turn the letters herself, but also, “I kind of remembered the word board was on a big tractor trailer,” Louden says with a laugh.

Fortune Favors Through a Facebook group and the efforts of Wheel’s alumni ambassador Alex Braun, Louden feels like his connection with fellow players is the biggest win possible. “It’s just one big, wonderful family,” he raves.

Fred Fletcher-Jackson (Season 40)

Fred Fletcher on Wheel of Fortune

Main Event More striking than the Maryland teacher and professional wrestler’s Hawaiian shirt was his March 21, 2023, clean sweep. But it’s Sajak’s move that left its mark. After Fletcher-Jackson (above left, with his father, Rich) added $40,000 with a correct bonus round guess (“His Mind Is Wandering”) to the $25,000 he’d already won, the host snuck up and put Fletcher-Jackson into a wrestling hold. Thanks to his improv skills, the amiable educator was ready. “When Pat came up to me, for a split second, I was like, ‘What is he doing?’ And then I figured it out and I was like, OK, I’ll play along!”

Get Ready to Rumble! Getting onto the Wheel stage was “surreal,” he says. “Everything is a lot smaller in the studio than it looks on TV…but I couldn’t believe that I was there. It felt like an out-of-body experience.”

Winning Move Fletcher-Jackson says part of his nearly $100,000 in winnings (earned from his first episodes and his Fan Favorites return) went to buying an engagement ring. “I proposed to [my fiancée] while we were on my prize trip to Costa Rica,” he adds.

Emilbert DeLeon (Season 31)

Vanna White and Pat Sajak

We’d Like to Buy a W-O-W This guy stunned us all by guessing “New Baby Buggy” with only an N and E on the board. “Once I got up there onstage, a switch just flipped,” says the Bay Area nurse. “I was like, ‘I’m in the zone. I got this.’ And the rest was history.” $63,099 worth of it!

Quiet on Set DeLeon auditioned for the Wheelmobile (the show’s bright yellow Winnebago that treks across the U.S. looking for contestants) at a nearby casino. “Basically they pick random people,” he says. “My name was number 48 out of 50.” He had to keep his win under wraps for two months between taping and the May 19, 2014, airing. “It was very hard,” he admits. “Even more so because I had 10 family members with me that day. I was like, ‘You all need to be quiet about what just happened!’”

Pat on the Back While being on set is “very intimidating,” DeLeon credits Sajak with keeping it light during commercial breaks, noting: “He just chitchats with us a little bit, throws in a little joke or two. And he keeps us at ease. It’s going to be hard to see him retire.”

Winning Move DeLeon also returned for a 2023 Fan Favorites round and scored almost as much as in his initial haul. “The first installment, which was a good $50,000 in cash, I paid off my nursing [loans],” he says. “The second time, I paid off my parents’ bills, which was great, and I also bought a house.”

This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s Wheel of Fortune: Farewell, Pat Sajak issue. For more inside scoop on the long-running game show and Pat’s final episode, pick up a copy of the issue available on newsstands and for order online at WheelofFortuneMag.com.

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