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After watching Wheel of Fortune as a child, Rikki Hegwood finally got her chance to spin the wheel.

Communication studies senior to be on Wheel of Fortune this month

Vanna White and communication studies senior Rikki Hegwood have several things in common: both women have signature blond hair, bright smiles, and welcoming personalities. However, there is one thing they share that’s not so obvious—they have both been a part of Wheel of Fortune

While White has made a career of it, Hegwood was a recent contestant. Her episode airs Thursday, April 23, on WBRZ, Baton Rouge’s ABC affiliate at 6:30 p.m.—the perfect ending to Hegwood’s long journey to the game show.   

A native of Picayune, Mississippi, Hegwood said she grew up watching Wheel of Fortune.  

“I knew the show was in California,” she said. “But I thought you had to live there to be on it.”  

For most contestants, auditions for the show begin with the “Wheelmobile”—a 39-foot-long yellow bus that travels across the country in search of potential contestants. In October, Hegwood saw an advertisement for the local audition in the Daily Reveille and was sold—but she was scheduled to work.  

As a representative for Red Bull, Hegwood drives the Red Bull car around Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and New Orleans, delivering the energy drink.  

“The last night of the audition we were on our way to New Orleans,” she said. “The tire blew out and by the time we got the tire fixed, I was able to make it back to Baton Rouge for the audition.”  

The auditions were held at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino’s atrium. Hegwood waited in line with hundreds of others, filled out a name card, and watched as it was put into a raffle.  

“They put all the names in a huge barrel,” she said. “They draw names and five people go on stage. If your name isn’t called, you don’t get to try out.”  

Hegwood’s name was one of the first to be called, sending her onstage to participate in a quick round of the game with lively hosts “Wally” and “Holly” posing as Pat Sajak and White.  

“I had to introduce myself and I said I loved karaoke. They insisted I sing a song, but there was no music so I sang ‘Hey Wally, you’re so fine,’” she said, singing to the tune of Tony Basil’s 1982 hit, “Mickey.”  

After the audition, Hegwood said she was feeling confident, but had to wait for an e-mail to confirm her place in the final audition. In November, she got the e-mail invitation to the final audition at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino in January.  

About 60 potential contestants made it to the final audition, which lasted two days and consisted of several simulation games along with a worksheet of 16–20 word puzzles. According to the show’s Web site, www.wheeloffortune.com, contestants are chosen based on their test score along with a general impression of the person as a game player.  

The site also said although more than a million people requested the chance to audition for the show last year, fewer than 500 actually got to spin the wheel. After the audition, contestants were told they would be notified by mail if they should fly to California.  

“Right after I left the audition, I got a call saying ‘we loved you, fly out in two weeks,’” she said. “I booked my flight that night.”  

To prepare for the show, she bought the Wheel of Fortune handheld game, played lots of hangman, and watched the show. Two weeks after the call, Hegwood made her first trip to Los Angeles accompanied by her mom and younger sister. They spent one entire day at Sony Pictures Studios for the taping of the show.  

“Nothing was what I expected,” she said. “The audience was smaller than I thought. The set was different. Even Pat and Vanna weren’t what I thought.”  

The show is currently in its 26th season, making it the longest-running syndicated television game show. Wheel of Fortune tapes six shows in one day, so they are able to fit a month’s worth of games into three or four days. Hegwood’s show was the last to tape, so she spent the majority of her day filling out paperwork, learning proper wheel-spinning techniques, and watching the other contestants.  

Each show takes about 30 to 40 minutes to tape, and the cameras do not stop unless White or Sajak make a mistake. Hegwood said there is a car on the set, the clapping is really from the audience, and the wheel is indeed heavy—a clunky 4,000 pounds.  

“They want to make it so everyone’s a winner,” she said. “Everyone there was awesome. What you will see on the show is exactly what we experienced.”  

Hegwood said the show is harder than it seems, mainly because of the added pressure from the audience and cameras.  

“I made a complete fool of myself on the first round,” she said. “But after I won a puzzle, I was good to go.”  

Although there was pressure, Hegwood said the experience helped her to see the show in a different way.  

“I get more nervous to give a speech in class than I was for the show,” she said. “You see people make so many stupid mistakes, but once you’re in that position it’s completely different.”  

Although the game often focuses on the big winner of the evening, Hegwood said the contestant wins money or prizes for each puzzle he or she solves. Since it wasn’t “College Week,” Hegwood was younger than her fellow contestants: Brian from Hawaii and Kim from Orlando.  

Hegwood is keeping her winnings a secret until her episode airs later this month, an event she deemed worthy of a premier party. Although her family was in the audience and watched the live show, Hegwood will see the show for the first time with her friends. However, it is no secret she did not walk away empty handed, as she has already brewed up a few plans for her winnings.  

“I never have money to vacation, so I might go visit a friend in Brazil,” she said. “I also have a friend in Philadelphia I want to visit. I might pay off my rent or buy DJ equipment. I do want to take my family to Commander’s Palace.”  

When she returned to Baton Rouge, Hegwood wore her Wheel of Fortune nametag to class and said her professors were excited about the show. Being on Wheel of Fortune was by far the biggest win for Hegwood, who said she has only won a few random raffles in her life.  

“It was a really fun experience. I’m going to put it in my obituary,” she said. “I am more excited about being on Wheel of Fortune than I will be on my wedding day.”

Holly Ann Phillips | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
April 2009