Kelley Helfand stands in front of the famous board with husband Michael and sons Griffin, lower left, and Preston. 

Courtesy of Kelley Helfand

I recently went bankrupt, but it wasn’t as bad as you might think.

I wasn’t in court when this happened. I was a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune.”

It all started last spring, when I opened up an email invitation to try out for the game show. My husband had signed me up on the “Wheel” website to receive notices of contestant auditions.

The audition took place on a weekday in mid-May at The Saguaro Scottsdale hotel. The show’s producers watched 46 of us hopefuls as we took quick turns playing a modified version of the game. At this point, they were looking for people who were enthusiastic, had good stage presence, and could call out letters clearly and loudly.

Next, the producers put our puzzle-solving skills to the test. The timed paper test was quite difficult. Several puzzles under different categories filled the page, with only a few letters given. I remember one under the “Person” heading: “__ __ v __ __ __ __ t t __ __ __ __ __.” If you can get “David” for the first name, the late night talk show host’s last name might spring to mind.

The producers made cuts based on these first two parts of the audition. Eighteen of us remained. We were asked to introduce ourselves as we would to show host Pat Sajak, then we played more simulated “Wheel of Fortune” games.

Before the audition ended, the producers said they would mail a letter within the next two weeks to those chosen as contestants. Those of us not selected would hear nothing.

On the 14th day after my audition, I saw an envelope in our mailbox. Good news!

The letter congratulated me on being selected as a contestant and said I would be taping an episode within the next year or so. The producers would give me two weeks’ notice, and I would have to pay for my flight and hotel. Every contestant is guaranteed $1,000 even if he or she doesn’t solve a puzzle. In part, I’m sure, to cover those expenses.

Once I opened the letter, I started recording every “Wheel” episode on our DVR for practice. Months passed, and I saw a few contestants on those episodes that had been in the audition with me.

Finally, at the end of January, I got a phone call, and was asked to tape my “Wheel of Fortune” episode at the Sony Studios in Culver City, Calif., on Feb. 13.

That day, the “Wheel” staff would tape six episodes of the show. So I, along with 17 other contestants and two alternates, arrived at the studio at 7:45 a.m. for a long and exciting day.

We spent hours completing paperwork and being coached. Smile! Keep the puzzle category in mind. Hold up the prize cards after you pick them up from the wheel. Keep an eye on the used letter board. Remember what to do if you land on the “Free Play” space. Remember how to use a wild card.

Vanna White stopped by to briefly say hello to us contestants and offer some encouragement. She was heading to hair and makeup, and she would be changing in and out of six gorgeous gowns that day.

We went into the studio to take a couple of practice spins with the wheel, which is actually quite small compared to what you see on television. Next, professional hair and makeup artists made us look shine-free and camera ready. We also recorded our “hometown howdy,” a 10-second promo that our local television station could air in the days leading up to our episode.

The studio audience, including my husband and sons, filed in, and taping began a little before noon. My group of three would be in the third show of the day. That was a relief, since I could watch some others go before me, yet wouldn’t have to wait all afternoon for my turn.

As I took my spot onstage and looked over at Sajak, I was nervous. My fear was that I’d not solve a single puzzle, or worse, have an epic fail, like the guy last September who mispronounced “Corner Curio Cabinet” and ended up all over the Internet. But I told myself that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I should enjoy.

The game was over in a flash. The producers do not want the contestants to share the results of their show until after it airs. But I can tell you that I had a great time, even though I did go bankrupt at one point.

Kelley Helfand is a Foothills resident and mom to two sons. Email her at