Having watched “Wheel of Fortune” since she was a child, Kayla James felt like her life had come full circle — full wheel? — when she appeared on the hit syndicated show on Oct. 17.
Using her extensive knowledge of the game, James defeated two opponents in an episode that was taped last month. Years of watching the show, her training for that moment, propelled her to the bonus round. Although she couldn’t complete the phrase “I am poised for victory,” and so didn’t win the bonus prize of a new Nissan, she left the studio in Culver City, California, with $24,250 in winnings and a trip to Costa Rica as well.
To prepare for her appearance, James said, she played a lot of Wordle, did New York Times crossword puzzles and played the “Wheel of Fortune” mobile game. James, 27, a criminal justice policy worker, said she practiced for the show during her free time and when she went grocery shopping.
“One random day a few years ago, I was watching the show, and I decided to go online to see the application for auditions,” she recalled. “And then I randomly got an email this past summer, and I was like, is this a scam? And it said, we’d love for you to audition for the show.”
After thoroughly investigating to make sure the email was legitimate, James went through the audition process, and was eventually invited to California to appear on the show.
“It was kind of surreal,” she recounted. “I didn’t realize it was happening until I was in California, on the lot of the studio.”
As a contestant, there were challenges she had never been aware of as a viewer. There’s a certain motion to spinning the well-known wheel — which weighs 2,400 pounds — that James had to learn. She and the other contestants were invited to take a number of practice spins before the episode was filmed.
“I didn’t realize there was that much technique to spinning the wheel,” James said. “The wheel was super heavy, and spinning it is so strange, because it feels like it’s not supposed to move.”
For the bonus round, Kayla’s sister, Octavia, was brought up on stage, a regular feature of the show. For Kayla, appearing with her sister on a legendary show that they had watched together all their lives was what she described as a “core memory.”
She said she was so glad that her sister was able to be part of this experience.
“I won the episode out of the three folks, so I went to the bonus round,” James said. “I didn’t get the bonus round phrase correct, so I didn’t get a bonus prize, but I did walk away as kind of the big winner of the night, with all the cash and prizes that I won throughout the game.”
James said that her family is a “big game-show family.” She grew up in that competitive environment, which prepared her to be put on the spot by “Wheel’s” legendary host, Pat Sajak. Many of her childhood memories included spending time with her family watching the show.
“Wheel of Fortune is an equal opportunist among my family and I,” James said. “Kids can watch it, adults can watch it, and so it’s always been a big part of my upbringing.”
As a child, she lived in several communities, but went to primary school in Baldwin, and has lived there for the past 11 years. She works with colleges and universities to help people who are incarcerated receive degrees.
“I help folks that are incarcerated get a job and receive an education,” she explained.
“This is so that they can help sustain their families and have a good life post-incarceration.”
James said that she would continue the tradition of watching the show with her family.