The day before Christmas, Shae Wilhite’s email box started filling up with some unusual messages. There were the normal notes from friends and family that always came in the days after her 2001 episodes of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? re-aired on the Game Show Network, which happens every couple of years.
This time, though, there was the vinyl-record collector who asked if Wilhite knew the full name of the man who appeared on the show before her, because the contestant had mentioned he was into old 45s. There was the creepy college kid from Gainesville, Florida, who posted an 8-second video on Facebook of himself watching her on the show, the point of which was lost on Wilhite.
And there was the email from a longtime stalker of Vegas-related contestants and stars who pop up on old game shows: Me. I’ve long been a junkie—I tried out badly in the 1980s for Family Feud with my mom and three aunts—and have always been fascinated by the impact of appearances on the crazy folks who make it on the air. Since GSN started airing reruns of shows as diverse as What’s My Line? and Password, it occurred to me that this was the original reality TV, the only time prior to the current craze when average people appeared on television as some version of themselves.
There was just something about Shae. I’d seen other Vegas civilians pop up on these shows, and I even have two good friends—The Strip Podcast substitute host Amy Turner and former Review-Journal political reporter Molly Ball—who had appeared on Millionaire. (Amy won $32,000; Molly bagged $100,000.) But Shae didn’t just hail from Vegas on Millionaire, she represented. When we clicked on the TV for the rerun that aired on December 23, there was this jovial, rotund lady with a gigantic smile and auburn hair in an updo pinned by a plastic clip calmly walking out from backstage holding hands with host Regis Philbin as that anxiety-inducing music swelled. She had already won $8,000 on the prior episode and was returning for more.
“You know,” Regis intoned in that famously husky baritone, “every year people flock to Las Vegas looking to make their fortune. But not Shae Wilhite. Even though Shae has lived there all her life, she’s come to New York in search of a million. And tonight she’s back in the hot seat. It’s nice to see you again, Shae.”
“Thank you, Regis, it’s good to see you,” she replied, large square-framed glasses propped up by the huge cheeks of her effervescent smile.
“So how does New York compare to Las Vegas?”
“It’s very Vegas-like,” she said. “You guys have the Empire State Building, we have the Empire State Building. We have the Statue of Liberty, you have the Statue of Liberty. So I was looking for the pyramid with the big yellow light on it.”
At home, we rolled eyes as if to say to one another, “What a comedian!” Still, I loved that she had the guts to tell groaners on national television. Then Regis introduced her and it all made sense.
“Now Shae works in an insurance company by day, but by night, she’s, believe it or not, a stand-up comedian right there in the heart of Las Vegas.”
“That’s right!” Shae gustily replied. “Right there on the Las Vegas Strip!”
“Well, how’s your comedy career coming along?”
“Uh, I think this will help it,” she answered, still bright and cheerful, but a hint of nervousness bleeding into her giggles. “I’ll have a lot more material now, absolutely.”
I was smitten. I needed to find this Shae, to find out what became of her. And as I and the record collector and the Gainesville stalker quickly discovered, it was easy to do so. Her Facebook profile led me to the website of her company, Glitter City Sweets. Wilhite, it seemed, had left her comedy dreams behind and started something that hadn’t even occurred to her a decade earlier but somehow made perfect sense for someone that jolly.
As it happened, Wilhite’s comedy career had largely petered out by the time she made it onto the hottest game show in the land. But she wasn’t lying or embellishing when she claimed Strip stardom, as many showbiz aspirants who land a gig at, say, the Bootlegger do.
The 1989 Western High grad earned a political science degree at UNLV—future former U.S. Rep. Dina Titus was her adviser!—but was aimless until 1994 when she enrolled on a whim in a community college course titled “How To Be a Stand-Up.” The instructor dubiously claimed to be kin to comic writer Albert Brooks, so Shae didn’t buy it when he promised the students would be performing on the Strip within a month.
That was true. The instructor arranged a showcase at the Alexis Park Hotel—close enough, really—and Wilhite knocked ’em dead in a 10-minute set that featured what became her staples, gags about being a Vegas native and, as she puts it, a “plus-sized single woman.” A producer soon started getting her gigs, and she recalls her first paying job was a five-minute set at Mad Matty’s on West Sahara, for which she earned $20. She’d go on to appear at conventions and private parties and on open-mic nights at the Laugh Factory and Icehouse in Los Angeles.
“People have this really warped concept of people who grew up here, so I just made fun of that,” she said. “I’d say, ‘I was in Girl Scouts and we did all the normal little things. We made the little fuzzy headdresses and the sequined pasties, the usual.’”
Wilhite won a best-new-comic honor in 1996 at the Comedy Stop at the Tropicana and even worked at the Hacienda and Sands between performances of her then-boyfriend’s lounge band. But her peak came in 1999 when she became the opening act in Funniest Females, which played 12 times a week at O’Sheas and featured comediennes Joni Grassey and Michelle LaFong. Wilhite earned a rave from R-J critic Michael Paskevich.
But Wilhite soon faced the reality that she’d likely go no further. She didn’t want to work on the road or move to Los Angeles, the two main avenues available to aspiring comics, so she reduced comedy to a hobby and, in early 2001, became assistant office manager at the Vegas law firm of Alverson Taylor Mortensen & Sanders.
Meanwhile, she became infatuated with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the juggernaut prime time game show that, at the turn of the millennium, was a massive pop culture phenomenon.
She started calling up the toll-free number and taking the Millionaire phone quiz that qualified people to appear on Philbin’s vaunted stage. She passed several times but never got The Phone Call, so she gave up until March 2001, when the show held auditions at the Las Vegas Hilton.
The reason the show began doing auditions was, in fact, to find perky contestants like Wilhite. When Millionaire drew its contestants solely from the phone test, the result was many brainy-but-boring hot-seat occupants. Wilhite, with her ready wit and infectious smile, was catnip to producers, who flew her to New York in April to appear.
At that time, the show was flush with money and spent it wildly. ABC flew 10 contestants and their companions to Manhattan and lodged them at the swanky Empire Hotel near Central Park. But to actually play for the money, the 10 had to first compete on air in the “fastest finger” round where they had to put a set of four items in their proper order in the quickest time. If you didn’t win a fastest-finger on your episode, you went home and couldn’t try again to get on the show. (In the current half-hour syndicated version of the show hosted by Meredith Vieira, there’s no fastest-finger round and contestants pay their own way to New York.)
Wilhite flubbed her first fastest-finger question, asking contestants to put four TV shows in order of their debut, because of a typo. The guy who nailed that went on to answer enough questions to win $32,000, but then Shae failed the next fastest-finger, too, this time unable to put four European cities in order from east to west. Two fastest-fingers was a lot for a given hour of the show, so she was stunned when the geography nerd finished quickly and also departed with $32,000.
Her third fastest-finger was the charm. She put four novels in order of publication—Call of the Wild, 1984, The Bell Jar and Beloved—in under 4 seconds and then leapt up with a piercing scream. “I really thought I’d won the million dollars,” she recalled. “I was like one of those poor women on The Price Is Right who jump up and down and act like complete and utter idiots.”
To actually win the titular prize, Wilhite would have to answer 15 multiple-choice questions correctly. She, like all contestants, would have three “lifelines” and could use each once: she could poll the audience, have two of the answers removed or phone a friend who might know.
Watching quiz shows at home is frequently an exercise in regarding other people as morons inferior to your own brilliance. Wilhite felt that way, too, until she slid onto that Lucite chair—producers made contestants practice because many fell. Her second question asked, “Where you would take a sick person?” The choices included a park, a morgue and a hospital, and all she could think was, “Well, how sick is he?”
“You totally second-guess everything you ever knew in your entire life,” she said. “You overthink everything.”
Wilhite answered eight questions on that first stint before the blaring horn marked the end of the episode. She had used two lifelines, polling the audience to ascertain that Greenland bordered the Arctic Ocean and reducing her options to two to be confident that Barbara Woodhouse was a famous dog-trainer.
She made it to through the $8,000 question before that show ended. Wilhite and her brother Will returned to Las Vegas for a week, then headed back to complete her Millionaire run. When she did, she got primped by Philbin and then-co-host Kathie Lee Gifford’s hair and makeup artist and then opened her “set” with that patter comparing Vegas to New York. Philbin erred in saying she worked at an insurance company, but she didn’t want to embarrass him. She moved ahead to easily knock out the next two questions. (She knew claret is wine and the main character in Clueless was named for Cher.)
With that, Wilhite was guaranteed a $32,000 win. But she hesitated on her next question, one that could double her haul. “The siege of Troy,” Regis intoned, “is the subject of what Greek classic?” It was The Odyssey or The Iliad, but which?
Time to “Phone A Friend.” The show allowed her to pick several potential contacts, and ABC staffers called each when she began playing to have them on standby. Her friend with the computer company was waiting to assist on a technology stumper, comic Grassi could help out with pop culture and a gay pal waited for a summons on all things British royalty.
For this question, though, Wilhite called John Secco, an attorney at her firm.
“It’s actually in a court transcript somewhere,” Wilhite claimed. “They were actually in a deposition and one of the partners of the law firm said, ‘One of our employees is on Millionaire’ and they adjourned so he could go to the conference room.”
Shae had 30 seconds to read the question and answers to Secco, who quickly chose The Iliad. She asked how he knew. Secco replied, “I know it, Paul knows it and …” before the buzzer cut him off, but the attorney successfully telegraphed to Wilhite who was present in the room.
Wilhite picked The Iliad, which was correct, and hit the $64,000 level as the show went to commercial. On the return, Reege asked her what she’d do with the money. She vowed to go to Disneyland and buy her mom a new car.
The next question, which could’ve bumped her to $125,000, would be her last. She didn’t know the Guerrilla Girls were activists who fought art-world sexism, but she didn’t really care. Contestants could keep the money they’d won if they chose not to answer a question that stumped them, but if Wilhite had gotten it wrong she would have fallen back to $32,000. Wilhite opted to depart, but not before offering this valedictory: “I just wanted to sit here. I just wanted to sit here and play. It’s a lot of money to risk. You have the best staff on television. I’ve had more fun than anyone has the right to have. I think I’m gonna walk away.”
But not, that is, before she landed one more little prize. Off-camera, Philbin had chatted her up about her comedy career and offered to call Caroline’s, an iconic Manhattan club, and get her an open-mic slot. She went, all prepped with new material.
“I talked about Regis,” she said. “I said, ‘You know, ABC does great things with animatronics. You would never realize he wasn’t human.’ ”
Wilhite returned to Las Vegas hopeful the exposure might lead to something. “You know, Lana Turner was discovered at Schwab’s sipping on an ice cream soda. You think, maybe somebody will see me and think, ‘What a vivacious young lady, maybe we’ll put her in the movies and TV’ or whatever.”
Instead, nothing. She hosted a party at her grandmother’s home in May when the first of her two episodes aired, then celebrated when the $64,000 check arrived via FedEx. After taxes, Shae cleared about $38,000, with which she did go to Disneyland, had LASIK surgery to do away with those bulky glasses, bought a laptop and got herself, not her mom (who refused to accept it), a new car. It’s a Toyota Corolla and she still drives it today with the license plate FNNYGRL.
She did comedy on the side for several more years, playing gigs at clubs in Primm, Pahrump and occasionally Vegas. The audiences were more responsive, she found, when she mentioned her Millionaire appearance. Perhaps that was pop-culture curiosity or perhaps, as she said, they viewed her “as an intelligent comedian. That was interesting, to see my stock rise in front of my eyes.”
Wilhite has never given up on show business. She slipped a script for a short movie to a director who had filmed a low-budget flick using the law firm’s offices, and in 2006, the director helped her make Supermodels, an odd 9-minute flick about pajama-clad frumps whose secret identities are as crime-fighting models.
In 2008, she left the law firm, cashed out her 401(k) and took aim at becoming a screenwriter. “I said, ‘I want to live the creative life, I don’t want to work for The Man anymore,’” said Wilhite, still sporting her trademark gleeful smile. “But it’s amazing how fast you get writer’s block when you quit your day job, isn’t it?” She did land a lead role in the Vegas-filmed movie You People, about a trio who design an offensive board game. Otherwise, her efforts to break into cinema have been slow in paying off.
Still, someone as irrepressibly sunny as Wilhite doesn’t stay down for long. In the depth of the recession, she rented space from a caterer in North Las Vegas to start a dessert business. From there, the goodies that make up the menu of Glitter City Sweets are crafted and packaged for delivery. She even claims to have perfected the “pie cake,” which is—and this sounds like a potential $100 question topic on Millionaire—a pie baked inside of a cake.
She also hit on something that’s fast supplanting cupcakes as the snack du jour.
“I realized a lot of companies do (cupcakes), so I said, ‘What can I do to set myself apart? Marshmallows!’” she said. “Marshmallow treats in other shapes, in other flavors! I put the marshmallows on the website and they started outselling everything five to one. So I make gourmet marshmallows.”
Wilhite hasn’t abandoned the idea that her Millionaire experience could lead somewhere, somehow. Besides, she said via text last week, revisiting her prime-time moment has her pondering the addition of a Regis Philbin cake to her menu. It would have pound cake and “lots of cream cheese.”
So I asked my own $64,000 question: Why? “He’s older, so it’s a firmer cake,” she wrote. “And he’s a little cheesy, so you need some cream cheese.”