To scroll through photos of Vanna White’s onscreen wardrobe is to watch the evolution of eveningwear unfold—specifically very sparkly, extra eveningwear. In the 35 years that she’s appeared on Wheel of Fortune, the game show hostess has sashayed across America’s screens in more than 6500 gowns and never repeated a single one. She’s seen the rise and fall of shoulder pads, taffeta, spaghetti straps, and a great many sequins.
And yet, when asked to describe her personal style, White says, “I’m not a huge dresser-upper. Most of my closet is jeans, T-shirts, tennis shoes, and flats. I don’t even know if I have a sequin gown in my closet.”
That’s partly because, in answer to the most common question White gets asked, no, she doesn’t get to keep the dresses. Designers send batches of up to 50 looks to the show’s stylist for rapid fittings, and on each filming day, White wears six dresses, one for each half-hour episode shot back to back. There are fashion rules, like no greens that clash with the letter screens. And White almost always pairs the dresses with her own 5-inch heels. (She’s proudly mastered the art of comfortable footwear—insider secrets below.)
White, 61, has been perfecting this routine since she got the job in 1982. “I remember when I first started the show, I was sitting in the makeup chair next to Pat [Sajak], and I said to him, ‘I wonder where we’ll be in 10 years,’” she says of her longtime co-host. “Obviously Pat and I could be replaced with younger people.” But at this point, White says, her collaboration with Sajak is “just part of America.” White was instantly embraced by the millions of viewers whose living rooms she visited every night, becoming TV’s wholesome yet glamorous, all-American personality. A Playboy cover she appeared on in 1987 briefly threatened that image, but she quickly recovered it, apologizing for the “mistake” on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. She now receives fan letters from three generations. She’s a household name and a Nelly lyric (“I be on the next flight / Paying cash; first class, sitting next to Vanna White,” the rapper sang in his 2000 song “Ride Wit Me”).
But there’s a lot to White that America has yet to get to know—like that when White is not flipping letters, she spends her time flipping houses or decorating them as vacation homes. (HGTV, meet Vanna White.) On National Dress Day, the hostess shares her most hilarious TV wardrobe malfunctions, what Nelly said when she asked him about those lyrics, and the arm workout she does backstage before puzzles.
What was your reaction when you first heard your name in a Nelly song? My kids were thrilled, like “Mom, you’re in a song!” And, of course I was excited about it too. Funny enough, I ran into him at a party and I asked him, “Did we sit next to each other on a plane?” He laughed he said, “No, it just rhymed with my song.”
VIDEO: 6 Investment Pieces Every Woman Should Own
What’s your favorite dress you’ve ever worn on the show? There’s one that I distinctly remember. It’s white and it has pink feathers on the bottom. [Stylist] Johnny Wujek, he brought that in. I wore a week of clothes from him and that was one of them. I don’t know why that particular dress spoke to me. I think it reminded me of a Barbie dress I had when I was 10 years old. And in my personal life, I’m a huge fan of Carolina Herrera. I just think her stuff is timeless and classic.
That feather dress looks rather difficult to walk in. It was! That part wasn’t my favorite, but it looked good! It was hard to walk in because there were no slits in it. But that’s OK. I survived.
How does the dress selection process work? I do have some power. The way it works is the designer sends anywhere from 30-50 outfits at a time and we do 12 shows in two days. So I try on the dresses and we pick the top 12. I do have a say in those. I try to step out of the box of my own style because people watch the show to see what I’m wearing, and I want to show everything. I try them on up to a week before usually. We tend to stay away from off-the-shoulder. I can’t raise my hand to the top letter.
Which trends would you have preferred to skip? In the ‘80s it was the big shoulder pads. When you look back at those clothes, it’s like oh my gosh! I can’t believe I wore that. There was a period of ball gowns, like big Cinderella gowns. Those I can skip.
What has been your worst wardrobe malfunction on TV? Well, one of the funniest was during the Christmas holidays, there was a gift-wrapped package right by where I stand, and somehow it got caught in my dress. I didn’t know it and I’m walking back and forth on the puzzle board and this gift is attached to the bottom of my dress. And Pat’s just laughing hysterically; I had no idea. Through the whole round I carried it back and forth. It went viral.
Also, we still take lunch breaks between shows, after the third show [of six per shooting day]. And in the old days we used to have it catered. We had Southern food like mash potatoes and roast beef, and I would chow down. I guess one day I ate too much and I was walking down the puzzle board and my belt just popped off right in the middle of the round, it was so tight. Fortunately, nothing fell down. I just kept on going. Another time I stepped on the hem of the dress and pulled the hem out I just had to be careful not tripping. I wear 5-inch heels on the show.
Is it always 5-inch heels? It is! Every once in a while, I may get a dress from a designer that doesn’t need to be hemmed, so there’s been a few times where I’ll wear smaller heels, 2-inch, 3-inch. But most of them are 5-inch heels.
Are the shoes also borrowed from designers? No, the shoes are mine, but I will tell you most of the shoes I wear at the studio are not expensive shoes because do you know how many miles I’ve walked on them?! And I’m not going to buy Louboutin shoes to wear on the show when it’s underneath a full-length gown. I’ll wear those at home, with jeans [laughs].
What’s the trick to finding elegant yet comfortable shoes? The ones that have platforms in the front. Guess makes good ones. They’re high heels but they have a 2-inch platform in the front, so it’s almost like you’re walking on 3-inch heels and not 5-inch heels. I probably have more Guess shoes than any other. Another one that’s I really like that’s comfortable is Stuart Weitzman.
What have you learned about your personal style from wearing so many looks on TV? Because I dress up elegantly for work, the last thing I want to do is dress elegantly when I’m at home. Or even when I go out. Also fabrics—taffeta doesn’t give, so I like more stretchy, comfortable fabrics.
You use your arms so much on the show. Do you have a pre-show arm workout? Yes! I do. I work out at home. I spin and I do Pilates, and I also do 10-lb. weight arm exercises. I even have two 10-lb. weights at the studio, and usually prior to the show I do 50 reps. My arms are bare and I want them to look good so it kind of pumps it up for the show. No one really knows that. [laughs]
Do you wear Spanx? I do on some dresses, but I also sometimes wear pantyhose, when I wear short dresses, because I can’t stand body makeup.
You recently celebrated your 35th anniversary on the show. That’s quite a remarkable run for an onscreen role. I’m very pleased that they have done that. It’s kind of like wearing those comfortable shoes. We have had generations of people that watch our show. We have 100-year-olds that watch our show; we have little babies that watch the wheel go around and love the colors. Someone just sent me a video today of their 1-year-old daughter squealing in front of the TV watching the show. With all the stuff on TV right now that’s so depressing, it’s nice to have 30 minutes of family-fun time.
What is your relationship with Pat like? He’s been your work husband for 35 years! He has, and we have the best relationship ever. We haven’t had one argument in 35 years. He’s easy to get along with. He’s funny. We’re good friends off camera. He lives in Maryland, so I don’t see him that often, but I do see him when we are on location, or if he’s in LA for the show, we’ll go to dinner. I’m friends with his whole family. He knows my kids. I mean, 35 years! He definitely is my on-camera husband and it’s great!
What were your feelings about switching from the green, mechanical letters to the touch screens? I often joke and say, “Is there any way you can make my job easier?” [laughs] It was to save time for the show. And, of course, it made my job easier too. I don’t make any mistakes because I won’t touch a letter unless it lights up.
Do you watch other game shows? I was a very big Jeopardy fan, and I watched Wheel of Fortune before I even got the part. I wrote in to be a contestant on the show. They wrote me back and said if you’re ever in LA, you can come by and audition. Little did I know…
Is that how you got the job? No, no! I went to a taping of Dance Fever, which was a show in the ‘80s, and my boyfriend was friends with one of the dancers—they had the same manager. So, we went to the show and he introduced me to a dancer on the show and I said to her, “Hey, can you introduce me to Merv [Griffin, creator of Wheel of Fortune]’s right-hand man? I hear they’re looking for a replacement on Wheel of Fortune.’ Because Dancer Fever was a Merv Griffin show too. I got an interview and auditioned, and I’m the one that got the job!
If you weren’t Vanna White, what would you be doing now? I would probably be a real-estate agent. I love real estate—how they flip homes, I love that. I love watching HGTV: Flip or Flop, House Hunters, House Hunters International. I like the one with Chip and Joanna [Fixer Upper]. She does an amazing job decorating and the transformation of the homes.
Do you ever do DIY home decorating yourself? Yes! A few years ago, before it became so popular, I would buy mostly vacation places. I got a place in the desert and I fixed it up and sold it. It’s kind of a hobby. I did it a couple of times. I have a couple of vacation condos that are in different parts of the country, and I was thinking about flipping them, but instead I decorated them for myself. I have a ski place, a beach place, and I rent them out. That’s a little side thing people don’t know about me. Nowadays, it’s hard to find a steal. Years ago? Oh man, they were everywhere.
Is Wheel of Fortune a dream come true for teenage Vanna? Yes! I was a huge Barbie doll [girl]. I always dressed up my Barbie dolls. When I was 10 years old, I [decided] I wanted to be on TV. It wasn’t necessarily fashion; it was the dressing up. So that was a dream from the time I was 10, and look! Here I have this amazing job where I come to work, they dress me in beautiful clothes and do my hair and makeup, and that’s my job!
Scroll through more of White's Wheel of Fortune looks through the years below.
Catch Wheel of Fortune every weeknight.