While Ann Arbor was recently named the third best city in the U.S. at playing Wordle — a daily word game owned by The New York Times — LSA and Business junior Lahari Vavilala made over $13,000 for playing one of the most popular televised word games in the world. In March, Vavilala represented the University of Michigan on Wheel of Fortune’s “College Week.”
Vavilala, a long-time Wheel of Fortune fan, applied for the show in December 2020 but was not contacted for an audition until December 2021. After a Zoom interview and a quiz involving various word puzzles, she was selected to represent the University on the show’s annual“College Week.”
Every year for one week, Wheel contestants are selected from a pool of undergraduate students who apply to be on the show. From cash to free vacations, the students can spin to win various prizes, as is typical of the show’s structure.
Vavilala said she was watching Wheel before the COVID-19 pandemic, when she saw an announcement indicating that applications to be a Wheel contestant were open. When she auditioned a year later, she said she was initially doubtful she would ever hear back which added to the excitement when she got the call.
“I decided to apply after watching (Wheel) with my mom,” Vavilala said. “She really loves Wheel of Fortune and we would watch it together every night. I saw an ad asking to apply and I thought ‘why not?’ I didn’t expect too much after the audition, but was so happy when I was selected to participate and represent Michigan.”
Contestants on Wheel of Fortune are tasked with uncovering hidden phrases by guessing one letter at a time. Along the way, contestants can win money or prizes for each consonant they guess correctly and must pay to see what vowels are in a puzzle.
After preparing to compete by watching reruns of the show and playing various word games and puzzles, Vavilala flew to Los Angeles on March 3 to film the episode she was competing on, which aired on March 23. Vavilala competed alongside students from Occidental College and California State University San Marcos. Despite the various COVID-19 protocols that were in place at the time, Vavilala said she still enjoyed her experience on set with the other contestants.
“Even though I traveled to and explored LA with my family, I could only be with other contestants on set,” Vavilala said. “Because there were COVID-19 guidelines and testing in place, it was just the college contestants. At first, I was a little disappointed, but it ended up being so surreal to be with a bunch of students who were so starstruck and excited to be on Wheel of Fortune.”
On the game show, Vavilala came in second place on her episode and won $13,850 in cash prizes along with an all-expenses-paid trip to visit the set of the latest Spiderman movie in New York City. Though she was excited about the prizes, Vavilala said the experience of being on Wheel of Fortune was the most rewarding part.
“Throughout the whole show, I was so nervous when spinning the Wheel,” Vavilala said. “I tried to take a moment to relax and let the pressures go. Even though I won prizes, I didn’t want to focus on the money or trips. I remembered that I was selected here for a reason and this is such an insane experience to be grateful for. I checked something off my bucket list. Over everything, I just wanted to enjoy my time on the show.”
When the episode aired, Vavilala said she and her friends watched it together at a watch party in the Michigan Union. She said she received countless congratulatory emails and texts from other members of the U-M community who were watching Wheel at home as well.
“All of my friends, my advisors, and even my past history professor were contacting me saying how proud they were,” Vavilala said. “It was a really rewarding experience because it brought together so many people I know from Michigan. It was a great community celebration of my work.”
Engineering sophomore Hilary Lam,one of Vavilala’s friends who attended the watch party,said she was extremely proud to watch her friend compete on such a well-known game show.
“It was an amazing experience seeing her perform so well,” Lam said. “It was such an important moment for her and we were all so proud to see her on TV.”
Business junior Malavika Venkatesh also attended the watch party with Vavilala and Lam. She said Vavilala was the perfect student to represent the University during College Week.
“Wheel of Fortune was something that Lahari has always wanted,” Venkatesh said. “Her experience really shows how important it is to go after your goals. She’s ambitious, she’s intelligent, and she’s the perfect candidate to represent the University. She truly represents the lesson that if you want something and put your mind to it, you can accomplish it.”
Daily Staff Reporter Carly Brechner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.