Fairmont grad gets her moment on ‘Wheel’

FAIRMONT – A Fairmont High School graduate has joined the ranks of the elite few selected to be contestants on “Wheel of Fortune.”

Melissa (Botzet) Hicks will appear on the show at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 28, on KEYC-TV, Mankato.

Hicks is the daughter of Richard and Judy Botzet of Fairmont and a member of the Fairmont High School class of 2001. She lives in Pasadena, Calif., where she is an editor for a Christian publishing company, U.S. Center for World Mission.

Hicks says more than 1 million people apply to be on the show each year, but only 600 contestants are chosen.

“There’s a couple of ways to apply,” she said. “I applied in October 2012, just filling out a simple form on the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ website.

“The other way is by the Wheelmobile. It’s a big RV. ‘Wheel of Fortune’ uses it to hold auditions through the country.”

An appearance by the Wheelmobile draws thousands of people. The names of hopefuls are put in a big bin for a random drawing.

“In February 2013, I got an e-mail to actually audition for the show,” Hicks said. “That was a really big deal. They only audition about 10,000 people.”

The tryout was held in a nearby hotel conference room, not at Sony Studios where the show is normally taped. It involved about 60 to 70 people and was closed to the public.

Auditions consisted of three parts. During the initial portion, contestants are called at random to guess a letter.

“I missed the second letter so I sat down,” Hicks said, recalling that she feared that was the end of her adventure.

The second round required contestants to finish 16 puzzles in five minutes.

“They tell you the categories, but it was very difficult,” she said. “They don’t give you much to go on.”

Luckily, Hicks made the final cut.

She joined about 20 other people who stayed to work with a contestant coordinator, who gave instructions on what to do, such as showing enthusiasm or how to react to a spin resulting in bankrupt or losing a turn.

“At the end, they say: ‘You’ll hear from us in two weeks. If not, thanks for your time,'” Hicks said.

Twenty days later, Hicks received notification that she had been selected as a contestant.

“I’m sure all the neighbors heard me,” she said.

The letter also informed her that she would be called sometime within the next 18 months.

“Eighteen months is a long time to wait,” said Hicks, adding that five months had already passed since her initial application.

In July, she was called to serve as an alternate contestant. Each show has two alternates in case an original contestant cannot compete for whatever reason.

She arrived at Sony Studios at 7:30 a.m. “Wheel of Fortune” tapes six shows a day, 40 days a year. Taping usually is completed by 6 p.m.

“I got to go through the motions, but not be on the show,” she said. “It was good for me to do that. It was a positive experience.”

Her appearance as an actual contestant was taped Nov. 22. Contestants are given two weeks notice so they can make travel arrangements. All expenses, including travel and lodging, are the responsibility of the individual contestants. Hicks said she was fortunate, already living in the Los Angeles area.

Upon arriving at Sony Studios the day of the taping, contestants are escorted to the “green room,” an area where guests gather prior to their appearance.

“The green room basically looks like a church basement,” Hicks laughed. “It’s not fancy at all.”

Contestants can have no contact with the crew or production staff, but Vanna White did stop by, in street clothes, to greet the guests and wish them luck.

Four contestant coordinators care for and work with the group the entire day, and Hicks had words of praise for them.

“They were like our cheerleaders,” she said. “They want everyone to do well.”

Contestants were separated into groups of three for the tapings. Each group drew a number, with Hicks’ group drawing a 2, indicating they would be the second show taped that day and the show would air on a Tuesday.

Her husband, Rich, and friend, Helen, supported her from the audience, which is separated into three wings: one for contestants not on stage, one for families and friends, and one for viewers.

“The audience is actually pretty small,” Hicks said, estimating total attendance at 160.

Surprisingly, the actual wheel also is deceptively small.

“The wheel is really heavy,” she said. “It’s only about 6 feet wide, but it weighs 2,000 pounds.”

Contestants’ contracts prevent them from revealing the outcome of their appearance before the show airs on television, but for Hicks, her whole experience with “America’s Game Show” was enjoyable and memorable.

“This is the 31st season for ‘Wheel of Fortune,'” she said.

The show’s stars, Pat Sajak and Vanna White, have been with the show since its inception, and many of the crew has been there more than 20 years.

“It runs like a well-oiled machine,” Hick said. “It’s such a privilege to even be called.”