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The wheels of good fortune

For two local teens, an appearance on 'Wheel of Fortune' turns out very well.

Posted: April 20, 2008 12:17 a.m.
Updated: June 21, 2008 5:02 a.m.
They finally got their cars. West Ranch High School seniors Ashley Cha, 17, and Jill Tuso, 18, picked up their brand new 2008 Pontiac G6 Coupes on April 2. They won the cars, and a bunch of cash, on "Wheel of Fortune," during a show taped Jan. 11.

And the hardest part wasn't the waiting - or even the winning. It was keeping the results a secret from their friends from Jan. 11 until the show aired on Jan. 28, as they were required to do by the show's producers.

"People would come up and ask how we did and we'd just say, 'Oh, we did all right,'" said Tuso. And then the girls would share a secret smile or a nudge, fairly bursting with the knowledge of just how "all right" they had done.

But, after they had earned their prizes and finished the show, a twist of TV scheduling almost took it all away.

It was definitely a roller coaster ride of emotions, and one the girls are still bursting to tell.

Getting there
Both Cha and Tuso said they were fans of "Wheel of Fortune" before they got on the show, and were pretty good at playing it at home. Cha said her mother encouraged her to try to get on the show, which she did by completing the online audition application "like ten times."

That was in February of 2007. As the months went by, she forgot all about it.

This past August Cha got an e-mail from the show, offering her, and a friend, an opportunity to audition for Teen Best Friends Week - where, on each of the week's daily shows, pairs of teen "best friends" would compete. She called Tuso, and four days later, on Aug. 18, they were gathered with about 100 other hopefuls at a Los Angeles hotel for their audition session, which was one of several.

When their turn came, the girls worked well together and were able to solve their first puzzle.

"Jill and I just seemed to feed off each other," Cha said.

After that, they had to take written tests, where they couldn't help each other. Then they had to take a spin at the wheel. Things went well and they made the final selection group, from which the actual contestants would be chosen later.

The girls explained that solving puzzles is only part of the audition process and that the show's producers also look for people who will come across well on television.

"It's about personality. We're really outgoing," Tuso said.

The girls were told the taping would be in October and that, if they were chosen, they would be notified about two weeks before.

As Tuso wrote in her show diary: "The countdown began, but the beginning of October came and went, and reality sunk in for us. For the next two months, Ashley and I questioned what we could have done differently. Well, we had given it our best shot and we didn't regret anything about it."

Then a surprise came.

The diary continued: "Right before the school break in December, we both got a call from a 'Wheel of Fortune' staff member, explaining there had been a delay and that we had been chosen for the show. We're going to be on 'Wheel of Fortune!'"

From that point until the show was taped, the girls watched "Wheel" every evening and played along to practice. They bought the show's board game and played that. In free moments at school they would play "Hangman," which is a similar word game.

The show
Cha said she was up at 4 a.m. on Jan. 11 and that the tense and exhausting taping day ran from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Their parents were allowed to come along and share the experience.

Sung Cha, Ashley's father, explained that it was a tense day for the parents, too, and that "We just hoped they didn't get skunked."

And, while the worst the girls could have done would have been to go home with $1,000 each, everyone wanted them to do well and have fun.

There was no time to get comfortable.

Six shows were going to be taped on the day, and the girls were hoping they could watch other teams compete before they had to step up. But the selection was random, and they were chosen to go up first.

Tuso said that during the first round, "I was scared to commit to the buzzer and say it." But she did commit and say "Instant Messaging," which was the correct answer to the puzzle.

"After that we said, 'We can do this.' It was such a relief," she said.

Sung Cha said it was a relief for the parents as well.

Ashley Cha said that they couldn't directly share the experience with their parents because, to prevent the possibility of parents passing hints, the contestants were not allowed to look at their families.

Tuso wrote: "Honestly, no matter how nervous we were at the time, once we started actually playing the game, Ashley and I were having the time of our life, jumping up and down and hugging each other as the show went on."

The puzzles in following rounds included such names and phrases as "Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus" and "Fairy Tale Princess." The girls were doing well but, entering the final round, one team of opponents had a good lead. Only winning that round would send Cha and Tuso to the bonus round, where the big prizes could be won.

"We needed to win to go on," Cha said.

As it turned out, the last phrase was "More than Meets the Eye." Tuso guessed it, and Cha and Tuso moved on to the bonus round.

At this point their winnings totaled $13,250, or $6,625 each. But more would come.

Tuso's spin of the wheel selected the envelope that held the bonus prize they would win if they could solve the bonus puzzle. At this point they had no idea what that prize was.

They played on and Cha eventually figured out that "Brick Oven Pizza" was the final phrase.

"No one knew how she got that," her father said.

Then the envelope was opened and the girls learned they had won the two cars.

And then the celebrations started.

"I was shaking," Tuso said.

"I was numb and my face hurt from smiling," Cha said.

"My mom's reaction was the funniest," Cha added. "She got so excited she ran onto the stage."

The girls were able to choose the colors of their cars. Cha selected pearl white and Tuso chose silver. With the value of the cars added in, their total winnings were $59,450.

Now it was time to keep the secret.

The party
The girls were about to pop with the good news, but they had to keep it a secret.

"I was flabbergasted. It happened so quickly. It seemed too good to be true," Cha said.

"It was really hard, keeping it a secret. The first night it was hard to sleep," Tuso said.

But they successfully held out, and none of their friends knew how well they had done on the show. A big party was planned at the Cha home for the early evening of Jan. 28, when the show would air and the surprise would be revealed.

There were clues as to which puzzles the girls had solved, if the party guests paid attention. Relating to "Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus," there were "Hannah Montana" napkins. There were Princess Barbie plates, relating to "Fairy Tale Princess." And Red Brick Pizza was on hand, relating to "Brick Oven Pizza."

But, at the last minute, everything almost came crashing down.

You see, there's some fine print on the show agreement. "If the show doesn't air, they don't get the prizes," Sung Cha said.

And President Bush almost blew it for them.

"The scary part was the State of the Union Address," said Sherri Tuso, Jill's mother.

When they found out the "Wheel of Fortune" episode would be bumped by the President's address that evening, hopes fell and, at one point, the party was canceled.

But it turned out the episode would air after all - just later in the evening than originally planned - and the party was back on.

The girls explained that, as the TV episode progressed and they advanced closer to the final round, their party guests got more and more excited. And when they won on television, the celebration at the party was incredible.

"Everyone assumed we only got the $1,000. When we got to the final, people were screaming," Cha said.

The future
The exciting ride continues for Cha and Tuso, but it's all highs now.

They are thoroughly enjoying their cars (Cha's already has 500 miles on it) and they both look forward to graduation soon and college next year.

Cha has been accepted at the University of California San Diego, UC Santa Barbara (honors program) and Pepperdine University. She plans to study business and economics and, later, attend law school.

Tuso will be attending UCLA next fall and also looks forward to law school afterward. She noted that she will be living on campus and won't need to drive, so her car can stay safely at home - that is, if her mother isn't driving it.

Looking back on their "Wheel" experience, both girls naturally felt it was a wonderful thing. They thought Pat Sajak and Vanna White were very nice and noted that the show staff was very helpful and supportive throughout the entire experience.

"I'm glad it all worked out. It was fun for us, for our families and for everyone at school," Cha said.

The girls said they would be glad to go on the show again, but aren't allowed to do so.

Tuso said she'd like to be on "Beauty and the Geek" next - and be the geek.


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