I usually don’t get excited while perusing Nextdoor, but a couple of weeks ago I saw a post about a neighbor competing on Wheel of Fortune. As a devotee of the hit show, I couldn’t message the Mill Valley man fast enough for an interview. I wanted the inside scoop, and I know I’m not alone.
Wheel of Fortune, in its 39th season, reaches more viewers than any other program on television, according to ViacomCBS, the show’s distributor. A whopping 23 million viewers tune into the game show each week to watch contestants solve the word puzzles inspired by hangman.
Lucky for all of us, Paymon Ghazanfarpour, who appeared on Wheel of Fortune on the evening of Monday, Dec. 13, happily answered my questions about Pat, Vanna and anything else to do with his experience on the program. Yes, host Pat Sajak pronounced “Ghazanfarpour” correctly when he introduced our hometown contestant to the audience. And as every fan suspects, the wheel is quite heavy.
Ghazanfarpour, 29, watched Wheel of Fortune with his grandmother, starting at age seven or eight. Busy now with his real estate career, he doesn’t watch the program too often anymore. Yet, Ghazanfarpour still belongs to the Wheel Watchers Club, which is how he received an invitation to try out for a show slated to air during Disney Secret Santa week.
“I got an email saying they’re looking for contestants within driving distance to Los Angeles due to Covid,” Ghazanfarpour said. “There was a link that led to an online application, and I decided to go for it.”
The application was brief and required Ghazanfarpour to provide a photo of himself. He also took the optional step of recording a video telling a bit about himself and why he wanted to appear on Wheel of Fortune. In his under-a-minute video, Ghazanfarpour explained how he started watching the program as a young child and spoke of his life-long passion for all things Disney, the prize partner during the Secret Santa Holiday Giveaway.
Apparently, the show’s producers liked what they saw. Within six weeks, the Marin native received another email scheduling a Zoom audition.
“I’d totally forgotten about the application when I sent it originally, so when I heard back about the audition, I was super stoked,” Ghazanfarpour said.
A few other prospective contestants joined Ghazanfarpour during the virtual audition. Most of the on-screen test involved the players demonstrating their puzzle-solving skills for a show producer. Again, Ghazanfarpour performed well.
From there, the process moved quickly. Just a couple of weeks later, Ghazanfarpour received the news that a spot on the show was waiting for him. Of course, he agreed and was then scheduled for an episode that taped in mid-October.
Then the real work began. It had been a while since Ghazanfarpour had watched the show regularly, and he needed to brush up on the game. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. He downloaded Wheel of Fortune onto his phone and practiced every chance he got.
“On Sundays when I did open houses and no one was around, I would pull out my phone and play the game,” Ghazanfarpour said. “Kicking back in my free time, I was solving puzzles.”
Finally, the day arrived for Ghazanfarpour to make the six-hour drive down to Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, where Wheel of Fortune is taped. He traveled solo because of the program’s pandemic policy—no guests allowed. Although Ghazanfarpour wished his mother could have been there to cheer him on, he was still thrilled about playing the game.
While Wheel of Fortune has given away hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and prizes since its debut in 1975, the show inexplicably doesn’t pay for contestants’ travel expenses, lodging or meals. Instead, players are offered Sony’s corporate rate at a nearby hotel.
Ghazanfarpour arrived at the studio at 6am on Oct. 14, the day of the taping, and didn’t leave until 6pm. The all-day event started with six hours of prep time, including hair, makeup and a review of the rules. Then, they shot five Wheel of Fortune episodes.
As chance would have it, Ghazanfarpour’s wish came true when he was assigned to play in the first game of the day, competing with two women. If everything falls into place for a player during the regular game, the final puzzle could be worth a million bucks. Regardless of the outcome, each contestant is guaranteed to leave Tinseltown with at least $1,000 in cash.
“I was super eager to play,” Ghazanfarpour said. “Just seeing the set was exciting. But I was very nervous.”
To keep anxiety to a minimum, a staff member was assigned to each player for approximately 10 minutes. While Ghazanfarpour rehearsed spinning the wheel and calling letters, his coach gave pointers and helped set his energy level for the game.
Wheel of Fortune co-host, Vanna White, came by offering words of encouragement as Ghazanfarpour and his two competitors practiced. They were never formally introduced to the glamorous White, who uncovers the hidden puzzle letters.
The players met Emmy Award-winning Sajak when taping began. He, too, assisted in easing their nerves.
“He was really nice,” Ghazanfarpour said. “We’d do a couple of puzzles, then stop. In between commercial breaks and other breaks, Pat would joke around and keep it light. He’s a funny guy.”
Ghazanfarpour stood in position No. 3 during the game, which meant he would spin the wheel last but certainly not least. After Sajak introduced him, Ghazanfarpour earned a laugh from the show’s host when he shared that he’s such a big Disney fan, he even has a Lion King tattoo somewhere on the front of his body.
Fortune was bestowed when he solved a puzzle early in the game: ICE-SKATING ON A FROZEN LAKE. With that phrase, he picked up $1,850 in cash.
The last puzzle of the regular play proved to be tough. Many of the letters had been filled in, and Ghazanfarpour figured he wouldn’t get another turn. Try as they might, the two women couldn’t solve the puzzle, and the play returned to Ghazanfarpour. He correctly called the letter “M” and then said “PROGRAMMABLE COFFEEMAKER” for the win, which earned him $6,200 in cash.
Our favorite contestant did Marin proud, coming in second place with a total cash prize of $8,050. I thought Ghazanfarpour would decide to visit a Disney park with his winnings. Instead, he’s toying with the idea of going somewhere he’s never been before: Europe.
“I have to pay some taxes on the winnings,” Ghazanfarpour said. “But I’m thinking about buying a ticket and going in the summer. Wheel of Fortune doesn’t pay you until about four months after your episode airs. I’ll get my check in April. Summer is just around the corner from there.”