Vanna White leans her Barbie Doll face over a large kettle of vegetables and beef strips simmering in hot oil when chef Sam Choy advises her to move back because the next ingredient might cause the flame to spurt thus ending "right here and now" her 18-year tenure as television's legendary letter turner.
By Tim Ryan
In true Vanna fashion -- spell that cute, vulnerable and very human -- the 5-foot-7 mother of two hops behind the hefty Choy, hands clutched over her chest. She then peeks over the chef's massive shoulders to see the explosion.
But the only noise is the applause and laughter of the 100-plus viewers gathered under a tent on the 11th fairway at the Waialae Golf Course to watch a cooking display by one of Hawaii's premier chefs and White.
White and "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak last week completed taping 10 shows on the beach fronting the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
White is an icon who's been picked on repeatedly over the years for her easy letter-turning job and frothy fashion sense.
"I'm an easy target," she says. "Most of what (the tabloids) say about me isn't true anyway and I really don't have time to care much about that stuff.
"I have a family and great kids that I love so much. I'm a mom who also works outside the home like a lot of women. I've been very, very lucky and I've made my family the priority."
White made her debut on "Wheel of Fortune" in 1982. Her current contract expires in 2002, although the show is guaranteed through 2005.
"I hope the producers want me back," she says.
White grew up in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and retains a touch of a syrupy Southern accent. After attending the Atlanta School of Fashion Design and becoming a model, White moved to Los Angeles hoping for an acting career. Two years later, while competing against more than 400 hopefuls, she was selected as co-host of America's No. 1 game show.
"Everyone knows me as a letter turner," she says. "At one time I wanted to be an actor but not anymore since I became a mother. The kids come first; it's what's best for me and for us."
White arrived in Hawaii Jan. 1, spending several days relaxing on Oahu with husband George and their children, Nicholas and Giovanna.
"We've spent so much time at Waikiki Beach in the water," she said. "We went to Pearl Harbor, the
U.S. Army Museum ... Sea Life Park."
This day dad and his 6-year-old son are fishing while mom does the cooking demo. That's particularly interesting because White doesn't cook.
"I can cook if I have to," she said. Her specialities include Southern dishes like black-eyed peas and fried pork chops.
White isn't shy about sampling Choy's cooking or serving finished portions to audience members who ALL want their pictures taken with the television star. White's smile seems a permanent fixture on her unwrinkled face.
"Honestly, it's a pleasure to have people want to talk to me like a friend," she says. "Sacrificing privacy comes with the territory; no one has to remind me about that."
She does find one thing "a bit" irritating about "Vannafans."
"It seems like every time I'm in a restaurant, right when the food is brought to my table and I'm about to take a bite, someone asks for an autograph," White says laughing. "Maybe I seem more vulnerable, less threatening."
White says she's "never, ever" not given someone an autograph who's asked.
"I'm a people pleaser," she says.
In 1992, Vanna was recognized in the "Guinness Book of World Records" as "Television's Most Frequent Clapper" averaging 720 claps a show. She puts her hands together more than 28,000 times per season. Since joining "Wheel," White says she's logged 376 miles turning and touching letters at the puzzle board which, along with "lots and lots of exercising," may account for her terrific shape.
"I'll be 44 on Feb. 18," she says.
"Looking good," Choy says.
White works four days a month taping "Wheel." In her off time she assists in carpooling duties, bakes cookies and works in her son's school's library.
"Hollywood is wonderful and I couldn't have a better television family to work with, but my life, my real life, is with my kids," she says. "After 18 years I pretty much know how to do the television thing and spin letters. But every day I learn something new about being a mom."
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