Dec. 30, 2016: I’m watching the Michigan football team play in the Orange Bowl when Head Coach Jim Harbaugh starts wildly clapping, clipboard in hand. I turn to my dad and shout, “Jim Harbaugh claps like a seal!” Then I take to Twitter and retweet everyone saying the same thing.
I had been accepted into the University of Michigan about a week before, but this was the first real bond I felt with my future school. See, Harbaugh and I have something in common: We both made fools of ourselves by clapping incorrectly on national TV.
July 4, 2011: I’m sitting on my couch, family gathered around, watching myself on “Jeopardy!” Being on the kids’ version of the quiz show was a dream that had materialized out of nowhere, one I thought would never happen. And yet, here I was, watching my TV debut.
On TV, I hit a Daily Double and began clapping, as is customary on the show. But instead of clapping like my competitors, like a normal person, I held my hands perfectly straight and parallel to each other and clapped, well, like a seal.
I put my head in my hands, unable to watch.
The first thing no one tells you about being on a quiz show: Watching yourself on TV isn’t fun. It’s a cringefest made infinitely worse once you realize millions of people are watching it.
I was self-conscious about the way I clapped from then on. Hey, at least Harbaugh is good company.
My second-place finish netted $2,000 and 15 new friends (the other contestants from my tape day — they tape a whole week of shows in one session). Not bad for a day’s work. But after that, I came to the realization that maybe I would never do anything that cool again. I was washed up at the age of 12.
Still, I had been on a quiz show, and that itself was something I could use to my advantage — or so I thought. A year after my show aired, I moved to Michigan where I would start eighth grade not knowing anyone. Everyone already had their friends, so I needed a way to stand out.
By my second week, the entire grade might as well have known. I got the attention I wanted, but there would be unintended consequences. By making my “Jeopardy!” appearance the first thing anyone knew about me, I was basing my identity around it — an identity I would later realize I didn’t want.
The second thing no one tells you about being on a quiz show: You’re quizzed about your experience. Constantly.
“How did you get on the show?” (Online test, in-person audition, lots of luck.)
“What’s Alex Trebek like?” (We barely interacted with him, but nice I guess.)
“Is your episode online?” (No, thank god.)
And of course, “Did you win?” (The conversation usually ended when I said no.)
The third thing no one tells you about being on a quiz show: There comes a point when the show becomes your identity, and at that point it almost becomes out of your control.
There were no words I dreaded more from a teacher than, “We’re playing Review ‘Jeopardy!’ this week.” Review “Jeopardy”! was usually a PowerPoint with “Jeopardy!”-style questions where teams competed for extra credit right before a test. Every time, all my classmates — some of whom I barely knew — raced to be on a team with me, convinced I would lead them to victory and the ever-important extra credit points, never mind that Review “Jeopardy!” requires very different skills from actual “Jeopardy!”. A win was meaningless because of how I had been used. A loss meant I had let everyone down.
Being introduced to people often followed a script: “Hi, this is Aria, and she was on ‘Jeopardy!’” It was cool, until my appearance got further and further in the rearview mirror and I was dying to be known for something else. Anything else.
Toward the end of my freshman year of high school, I discovered Twitter. It wasn’t long before my curiosity got the better of me and I looked up tweets from the day of my “Jeopardy!” appearance. I had to see what people had said.
“What the hell they got this little girl dressed in?” one tweet said. “Looking like a freeze-dried strawberry?”
“Aria looks like Gilbert Gottfried,” read another.
And then, sure enough: “This little girl Aria on ‘Jeopardy!’ claps like a seal.”
They were supposed to be insults, that much I knew. But here I was, years removed from my 15 minutes of fame, and all I could do was laugh. The mean tweets were ridiculous and overblown, but I could see a kernel of truth in them, and that was all the ammunition I needed to reclaim my identity.
I did something I hadn’t been able to for years: rewatch my episode. I found the exact moment that spawned the “claps like a seal” tweet. I made it into a Vine, which I subsequently posted on Twitter. It was my pinned tweet for almost two years.
The Vine was a joke, yes. But I didn’t make it to own the haters, at least not really. I made it because it finally gave me control over the narrative. If I was going to be washed up, at least I could make fun of myself for it.
Once I got to college, I realized that people didn’t have to know about “Jeopardy!” –– so I didn’t tell them. In Introduction to Psychology we played Review “Jeopardy!”. My team was a random group of people who sat near me. We didn’t win and they didn’t care. It was refreshing.
When people did find out I had been on “Jeopardy!”, it was usually because they’d gone to my Twitter and seen the Vine. We’d laugh about it together, but the pressure was gone, because I was no longer “that girl who was on ‘Jeopardy!’”
Instead, I was Aria: Amateur sports writer, Twitter addict, U-M student. “Jeopardy!” was a thing I had done, but as it faded further and further into the past, it became less and less a part of who I was. Maybe getting bylines in a student newspaper isn’t quite as cool as being on a quiz show, but it’s close.
It took a surprisingly long time for me to unpin the tweet about clapping like a seal, because it had become as much a part of me as my original appearance on the show. But it was the moment I realized I didn’t need it anymore — that I didn’t have to dwell on the past to find something I was proud of — that I started to feel like maybe I hadn’t peaked after all.
Nowadays, my pinned tweet isn’t about “Jeopardy!” It’s about my favorite stories I wrote while covering softball for The Daily.
Of course, I haven’t left my quiz show days totally behind. It’s still in my Twitter bio, and sometimes, people still find out, and they ask me about it, the same gamut of questions I’ve gotten for seven years now. But it’s different.
“Wait, you were on ‘Jeopardy!’?” they say. “Did you win?”
“Nope,” I say.
Then I smile and change the subject.