VANNA WHITE

THE TV ICON OPENS UP ABOUT THE TOUGH TIMES THAT HAVE LED TO HER HAP­PI­NESS

Closer Weekly - - News - By RON KELLY

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.”

— Vanna

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.”

BONUS ROUND

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!”

— Vanna

“I’ve known Vanna longer than I’ve known any other woman,” Pat Sa­jak says of the duo’s suc­cess­ful

his­tory.

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