Since she first stepped onto the set of “Wheel of Fortune” in 1982, young and clad in a purple gown, Vanna White was an American institution.
Five years into White’s career, though, America gasped when the game show sweetheart, wearing only a long-sleeved shirt that exposed her bare behind, appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine. Inside was a spread showing a seminude White in various suggestive poses. On Wednesday, about a month after White turned 60, she discussed the moment with Fox News.
“I did something I shouldn’t have done,” she told the station.
She remembered “going on ‘Johnny Carson’ and saying, ‘I’m so sorry … I made a mistake, I’m sorry and I just hope I don’t lose my job over it.’”
Of course she didn’t lose her job, but the photos caused quite an uproar — and a few legal battles, too.
[Watch: Wheel of Fortune’ contestant guesses ‘Streetcar Naked Desire’]
To understand the cultural impact of her Playboy spread, one must first realize how ubiquitous White’s image was at the time. She “gained first-name-only recognition in 1987,” reported The Washington Post. She also inspired vitriol.
Early that year, the Miami Herald published an almost 1,000-word commentary titled “How much Vanna can we Stanna?” that opened, “What if Barbie came to life, changed her name to Vanna White and found a job turning letters on the most successful game show in television history?” And that was one of the column’s lighter insults.
People name their daughters after her. They tender marriage proposals at an average of two a week. She gets 300 fan letters a day. People magazine included her in its list of the 25 most intriguing people of 1986.
Thus when her issue of Playboy hit newsstands in May 1987, reactions were swift.
As one blogger, self-described as an “intimately familiar” reader, err, viewer, of the magazine, wrote, White was the “one celebrity who appeared on Playboy that absolutely blew my mind, both then and now, because she’s the last person I would ever expected on Playboy.”
White didn’t seem to expect it either. The photographs were taken in 1982 by David Gurian, who wasn’t associated with the magazine.
“When I first moved to Hollywood, I was too embarrassed to ask my dad for rent money,” White told Fox. “I was young and I wanted to do it on my own. So, I did these lingerie shots and from the moment I said I would do them, I thought, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m not going to ask my dad for money, so I’m just going to do it!’”
Later that year, Merv Griffin hired White to be the letter-turner on “Wheel of Fortune,” where she ascended from a struggling actress to “one of the hottest celebrities in the country,” as the Chicago Tribune wrote in 1987.
“Hugh Hefner then bought those pictures,” she told Fox. “He’s the one who put me on the cover of the magazine. I didn’t do it for Playboy. I did not want them on there, but it happened.”
When the issue was announced, White filed a $5.2 million lawsuit against the magazine, hoping to halt the publication of her image. She claimed the photos would “tarnish her image as a modest, wholesome, attractive and innocent all-American girl,” according to a 1987 Associated Press story. She then sued Hugh Hefner in federal court.
Bruce Binkow, former director of communications for Playboy, countered that White had knowledge of the magazine’s plans and had in fact requested the issue be postponed to coincide with the release of her autobiography, “Vanna Speaks.”
In the book, White recounted an entirely different memory. She wrote of a meeting in which Hefner allegedly promised not to run the photographs. After the conversation, she wrote, “He then gave me a big hug, and as I left, he stood up and, crying, he said, ‘It’s only money.’ He wiped away his tears and went downstairs. I felt so relieved.”
Eventually, White dropped both lawsuits, claiming in a statement that “Playboy’s promotion efforts … have led the public to believe the photographs are more revealing and provocative than they actually are,” The Post reported in 1987. “Non-publication of the photographs under these circumstances may very well be more damaging to me and my career than the injury which I will undoubtedly suffer from publication.”
Instead, she took her case to the public. After the issue hit newsstands, “She went on Johnny Carson, apologized for her lacy wrongdoing and begged the public for forgiveness,” The Post reported.
The public acquiesced, and the magazine cover slipped into the cultural subconscious as other celebrities appeared on its covers in far more revealing photos.
Still, its tendrils sometimes reach into popular culture today. Curious collectors sell copies of the famous issue on Amazon.com. Last month, Simon & Schuster published “The Impossible Fortress,” Jason Rekulak’s debut novel. Set in 1987, it follows three teenage boys as they design a plot to steal the White issue of Playboy. As its description reads, “For three teenage boys — Billy, Alf, and Clark — who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain.”
White told Fox she walked away from the ordeal having learned an important lesson.
“Never do anything that you don’t want to do,” White said. “Listen to your instincts and follow it.”