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The Big Spin

COM student takes her chances on Wheel of Fortune

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Kaelin Merrihew (COM’11) tries her luck during a recent Wheel of Fortune taping in Boston. The episode airs November 9. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Dressed in a scarlet Boston University sweatshirt, Kaelin Merrihew nervously stands before the audience of 5,000 and calls out a letter.

“N?”

A bell chimes, drawing a toothy grin from Merrihew and applause from the audience. “Yes, there are four Ns,” says a familiar voice.

Merrihew’s heart leaps. It’s one thing to hear Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak on television, but it’s different when he’s standing three feet away.

Vanna White, adorned in a gold sequined gown, turns 4 of the 24 panels, and Merrihew once again spins the wheel.

“T?” she guesses.

The disappointing sound of the buzzer jolts Merrihew, and the next contestant, a sophomore from Yale, takes his turn at the wheel.

“It’s a bit surreal,” Merrihew says. “I’ve been watching Wheel of Fortune since before I could read. My sister and I used to pretend we were Vanna White.”

When Merrihew (COM’11), a Chicago native, learned that her favorite childhood TV game show would be taping 15 episodes at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, she registered online for a chance to appear. A contestant coordinator invited her to an audition several months later, and two weeks ago producers selected her as a contestant in the show’s annual College Week.

“I was working at J. Crew when I got the call,” says Merrihew, “and I wanted to laugh and cry and scream all at the same time.”

Now entering its 27th season, Wheel of Fortune is the nation’s top-rated syndicated television series, according to its Web site, with more than 5,000 programs aired. The concept is enticing and simple: contestants spin an eight-foot wheel and solve word puzzles to win cash and vacations. It’s Hangman with prizes — more than $9 million a year.

It’s the first time the show has taped in Boston since 1993, and producers have tried to instill some local color into the set. Replicas of Beacon Hill brownstones and the Old North Church flank the colorful wheel, and images of the Boston skyline, the Boston Common, and the Charles River interchange are on a large screen behind contestants.

Appearances by the BU Pep Band, the cheerleading and dance teams, and BU mascot Rhett the Terrier — who pumped up the audience, introduced the hosts, and provided entertainment during commercial breaks — added yet more local flavor of the BU variety. “It was great to have so many people from BU at the taping,” Merrihew says. “It made me feel right at home.”

Did she win a lot of cash? An awesome vacation? Those are questions she cannot answer, being sworn to secrecy until after the show airs, on Monday, November 9, on WSBK-TV (Channel 38) at 7 p.m.

Will Merrihew try her luck at the fickle wheel again? “Unfortunately, you can’t go on the show more than once,” she says. “But Family Feud had better watch out.”

Fortunate, or unfortunate? Check out BU Today on November 10 for an exclusive behind-the-scenes account of Kaelin Merrihew’s Wheel of Fortune appearance.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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