East Quogue Woman Lands Spot On ‘Wheel of Fortune’

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After spending 20 years watching contestants spin the shining steel wheel on her television screen, it was finally her turn.

Michele Paolillo, a longtime resident of East Quogue, was picked from hundreds of applicants to appear in a 30th anniversary episode of “Wheel of Fortune,” one of her favorite television game shows. Her appearance, which was filmed last month at Madison Square Garden, will air on Thursday, May 2, at 7:30 p.m. on the ABC television network.

She explained this week that she had written off her chances after receiving only an automated thank you note from the show when submitting her application online. But last October—about four years later—she received an email asking her to send in a one-minute video explaining why she would be a great contestant. She did and, a few weeks later, found herself at an audition in Brooklyn, along with 400 others, all competing for 60 coveted spots.

The casting staff looks for people who are not intimidated by the camera, and who speak confidently and clearly in a large room, she explained. “Believe me, everyone there was just as loud, if not louder, so I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m not going to get on,’” she said.

Only those chosen would receive a package in the mail, the staff told her. Then, on Christmas Eve, Ms. Paolillo called her boyfriend, Dean Colombo, to say that her dream had come true.

“He saved the message—it’s hysterical,” she said, chuckling.

Ms. Paolillo recalled making her way to the stage first thing after arriving on set in March and catching her first glimpse of the revered game show prop beneath the lights. “That was very exciting,” she recalled.

Though her long, thin frame seems fit for a career in ballet—a hobby she has enjoyed for 25 years—Ms. Paolillo is no stranger to tough work. The 45-year-old spends her days in a bucket truck, splicing cables for Verizon.

Still, she said she was surprised by the strength it takes to spin the famous wheel—all 2,400 pounds of it. Contestants are routinely led through practice rounds before filming begins, and she said she hurt her finger when it got caught on one of the spokes in a test run.

The production is run like a well-oiled machine, with hundreds of staff members on hand to complete various tasks, including airbrushing makeup onto the contestants between takes, and adjusting the platforms they stand on to ensure that they are within arm’s length of the wheel. (That is also the reason why they all appear to be the same height on television, Ms. Paolillo shared.) There is even a coach designated to give pep talks to contestants between takes so that they appear excited and lively on camera.

The producers filmed four episodes a day, for five days. Though she arrived at 9 a.m. on her assigned day, wearing an outfit that complied with the show’s strict guidelines—casual attire, dark pants and top, but no stripes, red, white or black—Ms. Paolillo’s episode was not filmed until 7 p.m. She sat in the audience with the other contestants to watch the other episodes take place, though she was under strict supervision: contestants could use the restroom only during a designated break, and she was not allowed to have any contact with the five friends and family members who were sitting in the audience.

“It takes an army to get that show running, and Pat and Vanna do the least amount of work,” Ms. Paolillo said of the longtime hosts, Pat Sajak and Vanna White.

The contestants have no interaction with Mr. Sajak or Ms. White, who hastily change outfits between each taping, until they step on the stage to film. Ms. Paolillo said Mr. Sajak was not as short as she expected—she estimated that he is about 5 feet 10 inches tall—while Ms. White was simply beautiful.

“It was really Hollywood,” Ms. Paolillo said. “I was very shocked with how much fluff is involved.”

Though each is awarded a monetary prize, the contestants are sworn to secrecy about the outcome of the game until the episode airs, and the checks arrive about four months later. But as a lifelong fan of the show, Ms. Paolillo said she knew each answer after only a few letters were revealed—which bodes well for her chances.

“I’m a puzzle person,” she explained. “I do crosswords before I go to bed.”

She said she plans to watch the show with friends and family at Buckley’s Irish Pub in Center Moriches it airs next week. She appeared ambivalent about the prospect of seeing herself on national television.

“I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I’m hoping I didn’t make a fool of myself—but I won’t know until I watch it.”

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