“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and those memories and friends from the show will stay with me.”
Ashley Mendoza never thought her life would change with the letter H.
In November last year, the McPherson resident competed on “Wheel of Fortune.” By calling the letter H in the final round, Mendoza solved the puzzle — the answer was “Kiefer Sutherland” — and completed her journey on a high note.
“I don’t even known what made me pick it. It must have been a God thing because that letter let me solve the puzzle,” Mendoza said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and those memories and friends from the show will stay with me.”
Her journey started months prior at a Wheelmobile try-out event in Mulvane in May 2016. The Wheelmobile cruises around to various host locations where staff hold mock games for participants to demonstrate skill.
“My mom and I went together. We’ve always watched ‘Wheel of Fortune’ together and we race to see who can solve the puzzles first at home,” Mendoza said. “It’s been a life-long dream of mine to go be on the show so I thought ‘let’s give it a try’ and it worked out for me.”
Mendoza was chosen to participate in the mock game, a second audition and finally to participate on the show when the time came.
“The main thing they’re looking for someone who is calm under pressure but still energetic and fun. I had a good time with the crew. I was myself and joked around with them so I think that shows that I’m calm under pressure,” Mendoza said. “They have you announce yourself to everyone, so that’s your first test of how you do in front of a large group. One of the main things they say is that everyone does well at home on their couch, but you need to still do well in the moment.”
Mendoza didn’t need to worry about keeping her excitement under control for long — she received notice of her filming date much sooner than expected.
“They give you between two weeks and 18 months to expect your letter that gives you two weeks notice of your show. I was thinking they would call me after a while and it was really only a few months,” Mendoza said. “I was freaking out at that point — I was excited, nervous, I was everything all at once.”
That excitement didn’t wear off through a long day of preparation and filming. Seeing the set and hosts firsthand further reminded Mendoza that she was in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It was a dream come true. The set is pretty on TV, but in real life, those decorations are that much more real and beautiful. It really sinks in that we’re really here,” Mendoza said. “They gave us a run-down for the day and then they took us onto the set to see the wheel and spin it. It’s very heavy so they want you to practice first. You don’t expect it to be that heavy. Vanna White even came out to say hi in her sweats, no make-up, and she was so sweet. She was just her everyday self and it was so neat that she wanted to wish us good luck.”
The “Wheel of Fortune” crew films six shows a day, so Mendoza spent that 12-hour day with 18 equally excited contestants.
“Everyone was genuinely supportive and happy for other contestants,” Mendoza said. “There wasn’t much of a sense of competition. We got excited when people did well and we felt for them when they didn’t.”
Mendoza won an all cash prize of $8,750, but her memories of living a life-long dream are more valuable.
“I went into it with the mindset that even if I didn’t win anything, I’d win the $1,000 consolation prize. So if I won that, I’d be happy because it was such an awesome experience,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza’s husband Miguel stayed home with their daughter Ava, 6 and sons Maverick, 4 and Major, 1, as no one under the age of 12 is allowed in the audience. Instead, she traveled with her parents Jill and Tony Unruh and friend Amy Anderson.
Mendoza’s episode aired Dec. 28, 2016. She recorded the episode at home, and now, it’s one of her children’s favorite videos to watch.
“It’s so funny to hear my youngest shout “mommy!” whenever he sees me on the episode. They think it’s so cool to see me on TV,” Mendoza said. “Looking back, it was fun to watch my show on TV because it went by in a blur in the moment. It was nerve-wracking until the moment I stepped onto the podium. It happens so fast.”
Now, Mendoza is glad to share her memories with those competing on each evening’s new episodes of “Wheel of Fortune.”
“We still watch it and it’s funny to see some of these things after you’ve seen them in real life. In the studio, if they’re not sure if someone beats the buzzer, they’ll stop the show immediately and watch the instant replay to see if they made it in time. On TV, it’s instantaneous because they can edit it,” Mendoza explained. “It was so cool to see that behind the scenes and how things actually work so it looks good on TV.”