Area woman takes a spin on game show

CHAMPAIGN – Being a TV star can be hard work – even if you're only doing it for 23 minutes.

That's one lesson from Stephanie Goebel's spin with fame.

Set to appear as a contestant on "Wheel of Fortune" on Wednesday (at 6:30 p.m. on WAND-TV, an NBC affiliate), the Champaign woman traveled a long way on the road to Los Angeles.

It started at her grandparents' house, where her family would often eat dinner, listening for the sounds of the long-running game show.

In college, Goebel was the girl who did the very uncool thing in the early evening.

"I was the freak that was like, 'Ooh! "Wheel of Fortune" is on,'" she said.

In May, when a "Wheel of Fortune" bus pulled up to a Decatur mall, she and about 200 people – including her husband, Mike, a News-Gazette sports copy editor – were there, waiting to be among those few chosen in a random lottery. Round after round came and went, until the last one. Goebel's name was called, and she answered the types of questions the hosts always ask contestants, the genial patter between rounds.

"If you can sing, they wanted you to sing. If you can dance, they wanted you to dance," Goebel said. "I didn't sing or dance."

But she got the patter part down.

"They look for really happy, energetic people," she said. "I'm pretty bubbly."

Fast forward, and Goebel gets a callback. Would she come down to Springfield to do another audition? Duh; of course. She and 73 other fans made the trip.

"They basically just watch you play," Goebel said. "You had to even pretend to spin the wheel."

Finalists also did timed individual puzzles – fill-in-the-letter games a bit like hangman. Goebel completed 12 of 16 and was feeling kind of bad about herself – until no one else she talked to said they finished that many.

"I love games – board games, competitive games," Goebel said. "I do win ... sometimes."

The organizers told the wannabe "Wheel"-ers they'd either get a letter announcing they'd made it in the next two weeks, or they wouldn't.

Mail delivery became a plot point in the day, and day after day passed until, on day 13, she got one.

Months later came a phone call: Could she be at a taping in two weeks? In Los Angeles? Obviously.

She had an ear infection, but that didn't keep her and Mike from practicing plenty on their computer game. Their daughter Hannah, 2½, likes to press the "spin" key and say "bankrupt" when she hears the doomed beep of the fatal spin.

Stephanie and Mike Goebel, and several members of her family, landed in L.A. on the late side, and didn't sleep much that night. At 5 a.m., Goebel gave up trying, and about two hours later, the family was on the set. The day started with paperwork, legal stuff from a group that jokingly called itself "The Game Show Police." They practiced spinning the heavy wheel and learned to look at four places for information they'd need on camera.

They even learned how to clap – soft enough not to make a loud smacking noise that would pick up on the microphone, constant enough to make sure contestants looked really enthusiastic.

Then Vanna White stopped by, in sweats and no make-up.

"She came in just to say 'hi' to us," Goebel said, adding that the famous letter-turner was very down-to-earth.

Then it was time to get their make-up done. With six shows taping that day – "Wheel" typically tapes a month of shows in four days – time was at a premium.

White switched costumes with each 23-minute session. Except for a major gaffe, like someone fainting or an audience member giving away an answer, there are no do-overs.

The second episode finished taping, and then it was Goebel's turn.

Did her dedication to letters pay off in the end? Like Vanna, she's not giving any answers away. She will say that she has a little more empathy for those silly mistakes she sees contestants make.

"When people say, 'Why'd they do that?' I say, 'I did that,'" she said.

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