THE TV ICON OPENS UP ABOUT THE TOUGH TIMES THAT HAVE LED TO HER HAPPINESS
How the star turned her toughest times into valuable life lessons.
“Age brings wisdom, for sure. My experiences have made me who I am today.”
When her youngest child, daughter Gigi Santo Pietro, 19, moved away to attend college in 2015, Vanna White came down with a severe case of emptynest syndrome. “I’d go to her room and into her closet to smell her clothes, lie on her bed and cry. I took it hard,” Vanna exclusively reveals to Closer. “I didn’t have to make my kids’ dinners anymore or help them with their homework. I kept asking myself, Now that I’m not a full-time parent, who am I? What’s my purpose in life?”
It’s a puzzle the Wheel of Fortune hostess keeps trying to solve. “I’m still figuring it out,” she admits with a laugh, noting that she’s slowly but surely learning to embrace her child-free home life with boyfriend of five years John Donaldson. But one thing she does know for sure is that through a string of personal struggles — the shocking death of her fiancé, a painful betrayal and a heartbreaking miscarriage — she’s managed to survive with the help of her family and fans. “Without them, I’m not sure I would have gotten through,” she says.
FINDING HER WAY
After working as a model in Atlanta, 22-year-old Vanna left her home in South Carolina for Hollywood in 1979 with dreams of becoming a movie star. A phone call from her dad would quickly delay her plans, however. “He said, ‘Your mom is going to die. She only has a few months to live.’ So I packed up and moved back home to take care of her,” Vanna says.
After her mother passed away at just 44 years old, Vanna returned to Hollywood brokenhearted but determined to make a name for herself. In 1982, she hit the jackpot when
she landed the job on Wheel of Fortune, hosted by Pat Sajak. Vanna now calls him a best friend, but surprisingly he had his doubts she was right for the gig. “She was so darn nervous,” he’s said of her audition. “You could barely see past her quivering lip, and I thought, I don’t know if she can get over this.” He even spoke directly to the show’s creator about his reservations. “I called Merv [Griffin] and he made the argument that he wasn’t looking for polished,” Pat says, explaining that Merv wanted someone the country could fall in love with — and viewers have taken to treating Vanna like family ever since.
She sadly needed their support after just a few years on the show when her fiancé, soap opera actor John Gibson, was killed in a small-plane accident in 1986 at the age of 37. “I met a man I fell in love with and four years later he was killed,” Vanna says of her sorrow.
“The support of viewers was incredible,” she shares. “I received so many letters from people who went through tragedies and went through tremendous loss. It made me feel like I was not alone and, for the first time, I felt I was surrounded by love.”
The relationship Wheel fans feel they have with its stars is special, Pat says. “We became in this strange way part of people’s lives,” he’s said of how fans have embraced him and Vanna. “We’re a comfort to people, and it would seem odd if we weren’t there, even if they’re not watching us every day. It’s a wonderful spot to be in. People think of us in a very personal way.”
A BITTER BETRAYAL
Vanna would again be supported by her fans after being subjected to a very public humiliation in 1987 when a skeleton from her closet was exposed. During her early days in LA, she struggled to make ends meet, “so I did some lingerie shoots to pay my rent,” Vanna says. “I knew that taking those pictures was a mistake, but I didn’t listen to that voice. I was too proud to ask my father for help. I wanted to prove I could make it on my own.”
Vanna never counted on those pictures appearing in Playboy — with her seductively posed on the cover. “What hurt me most is that Hugh Hefner was a friend of mine,” she says. “I went to him before the shots were published and I begged him, ‘Please, as my friend, don’t do this to me. This could ruin my career!’ But he did it anyway.”
The embarrassment was crippling. “He hurt my feelings more than I’d ever experienced,” Vanna recalls. “I went to a friend for help and I was ignored. I’d finally made it on an allAmerican game show that’s supposed to bring the family together and there are sexy pictures of me in Playboy. I thought I was going to lose it all.”
Once again, though, her Wheel family stood by her. “The fans and the people I worked with were so supportive,” she says, noting that the stressful situation taught her a lot. “It was a double lesson I had to learn the hard way. First, to listen to that voice inside your head,” she says, “and second, to be careful
who your friends are.”
Life for Vanna these days is thankfully scandalfree, and regrets are pretty much limited to not being able to see her kids — Nikko, 22, who lives in the Midwest, and Gigi, who’s based in New York — as much as she’d like. “I’d see them all the time if I could, but I want to give them freedom to be who they are,” she says. “It’s hard because I love talking to them. I miss them like crazy!”
Her kids’ father, George Santo Pietro, is still a big part of her life, too. “My ex-husband and I are great friends,” Vanna says of the man who comforted her through a miscarriage in 1992, just a few days after taping a segment that featured “Vanna’s Pregnant” as a puzzle. “Yes, we went through the horribleness of a divorce [in 2002], and it was painful, especially because we had children,” she says of their undeniable bond, “but we’re still close as a family, and I’m proud of the relationship I have with him.”
As for her current partner, contractor John Donaldson, whom she was introduced to by friends in 2012? “Life is good,” she gushes, adding that John is “easy, fun, real, honest and loving. We have a wonderful relationship. He’s the male version of me! We understand one another, and we’re so open and honest with each other.”
Marriage, however, is not in their near future. “Not at this time,” Vanna says. “I don’t feel like I have to get married because I already feel like I am married. I don’t need a piece of paper to have the relationship we have.”
Her on-camera relationship with Pat is equally strong, and she says he’s someone she can always turn to. “He’s so funny. We get along so well,” she adds. “We’ve been together 35 years and I can honestly say we have never had an argument!” It’s no wonder, then, that she’s not planning to leave Wheel any time soon. “I tape on average 34 days a year, plus we travel a lot. It’s like a second family. It’s just a wonderful and happy job.”
Considering the fun she has onset with Pat, Vanna says she’s actually hoping to keep things as low-key as possible for her big birthday on Feb. 18. “I’m not one who likes to celebrate my birthday. I never was,” she insists. “I remember for my 40th I went to bed early and just watched movies with my kids! So I may go away for the weekend to a spa or resort to just chill. I’m fine doing nothing; is that terrible?” she asks with a laugh.
Besides, she doesn’t want to have regrets later from overindulging on her special day. “Every two weeks we do a wardrobe fitting for Wheel of Fortune, and I have to fit in those gowns! That’s kept me on my toes for years and inspires me to stay fit,” she says. “I do the best I can to stay healthy, exercise, and get plenty of rest.”
Her dedication to her career is solid, and she’s not willing to let anything compromise how far she’s come. “I’m persistent,” she says, recalling how she landed her life-changing Wheel role back in 1982. “I wasn’t a confident person at all when I first moved to LA, but I said to myself that I was never going to give up. ‘I’m going to do this.’ The rest, they say, is history.”
Vanna is eager to discover what her future holds, but she’s thrilled with where she is today. “I’ve turned my life over to my work, to being kind to people and being a good role model. I’ve gotten more involved with charities, and I like helping other people,” says the star, who is involved with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
It’s her way of repaying all the kindness that’s been shown to her through the years. “I’ve been through a lot, and I’m sure this next phase of life will bring a whole new set of challenges,” she says. “My whole life’s been a lesson, and I know there will be many more.” — Reporting by Ilyssa Panitz
“Off-camera, I’m very casual. I’m a no-makeup, ponytail, jeansand-sneakers type of girl!”
“I’ve known Vanna longer than I’ve known any other woman,” Pat Sajak says of the duo’s successful history.