Vanna White

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Vanna White was given her best Christmas present ever - lots of fame and big, big fortune - in November 1982 when cast by mega-game show producer Merv Griffin as the comely letter turner opposite the quick-witted host Pat Sajak to replace the daytime ''Wheel of Fortune'' duo of Susan Stafford and Chuck Woolery. The greatest early Christmas present in White's young life hit the air on Dec. 13, and ''Wheel of Fortune'' - America's No. 1 syndicated show - still pays off like a slot machine during its 25th anniversary season.

"I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity," she said with some understatement. "In the beginning I thought, 'Gosh, what if it goes 10 years?' Here it is, 25."

A waitress and would-be actress, White was living hand-to-mouth in a tiny month-to-month apartment in Hollywood when Griffin picked her over 200 other lovely women to look wonderful on camera.



"I was the most nervous of all the girls, to the point where I could hardly talk because my mouth was quivering so, and my knees were shaking," she recalled, sighing. "I still don't know why he picked me, but whatever he saw in me I'm glad he did. I'm told he thought Pat and I looked like a brother-sister team."

All of a sudden it was a White Christmas again at her Hollywood apartment (where comedian Bob Saget was her next-door neighbor) with presents for family and friends close and distant. But the good times rolled in just in the nick of time, as she is a meticulous Christmas shopper who usually gets into the holiday retail spirit in May or June. Nobody is left out, including the sick kids at St. Jude's Children's Hospital.

If she has a tinge of regret about any part of her life, it may be that she did not get to know her patron saint a little better before he died of colon cancer in August. In fact, Griffin was rarely seen on the set.

"Merv created the show and was in charge of it, of course, but he would only come on the set occasionally," White explained. "But once 'Wheel' got rolling, he had very little day-to-day input. He just liked what was going on with our show and rarely had comments to make one way or another. Socially, I'd see him only occasionally as well, but we remained friends for 25 years. I miss him very much."

Fortunately, White, 50, never tires of working at Pat Sajak's side - for an average of 35 days per year.

"We usually work four days a week, doing five or six shows a day, but we catch up on each other's lives real fast," she said. "Our relationship is about the same on and off camera - meaning we're great friends."

And they always have a good time doing whatever they're doing, according to White.

"Pat is extremely funny and always has something to talk about, like our little chat at the end of each show. We don't know what we're going to talk about until 30 seconds before we go on camera. I also think people tune in for a half-hour of family fun, something they don't get a lot of in a world full of depressing news."

Although she divorced Los Angeles restaurateur George Santo Pietro in 2002 after 12 years of marriage, White is in charge of their two children - Nicholas, 13, and Giovanna, 10 - on a daily basis. Neither is impressed that their mom is on TV seven days a week and tapes episodes of "Wheel" on Stage 11 at Sony Studios in Culver City, Calif., a storied locale once inhabited by more stars than in the heavens.

When the lot was known as MGM Studios, Stage 11 was home for Richard Chamberlain on "Dr. Kildare," Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney in the feature film "Captains Courageous" and the movie musical "Silk Stockings" with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

"To my kids, I'm just mom on TV - so what? Isn't everybody's mom on TV?" said White, laughing. "The only comments come when they love or hate a dress that I'm wearing on the air. But I took Giovanna to the studio recently and as we walked up to Stage 11, she spotted a mural of Pat and myself about three stories high on the side of the building," she continued, giggling. "My daughter whispered, 'Mom, look at that! How does it feel?' Finally, she was impressed."

Of Croatian heritage, she was born Vanna Marie Rosich in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., but her parents divorced before her first birthday. Her mother, Joan, then married Herbert White, North Myrtle Beach's postmaster.

"I wanted to be in show business from the time I was 10 years old, when resting up on the sofa in front of the TV after having my appendix out," she recalled. "I was watching a show called 'Rat Patrol' with Christopher George when my mom walked in and said, 'Oh, that's your uncle.' It turned out he wasn't a blood brother, but my mother grew up with his family. Years later in L.A., he and his wife took me under their wing."
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 America's  Pat Sajak  fame  Hollywood  TV  game show  Chuck Woolery  Susan Stafford  lots  Merv Griffin






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