So You Want to be a Millionaire?

Who Wants to be a Millionaire

Ever since I was a kid, I have always loved trivia. Interesting tidbits in the margins of my American Girl magazine, books like “5000 Awesome Facts About XYZ” – I inhaled everything because I just wanted to learn. To me, this was the most interesting form of knowledge. Did you know that the little plastic bit at the end of a shoelace is called an aglet? Or that every Emily Dickinson poem can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose Of Texas? It wasn’t until much later that I’d discover this was not nearly as interesting to the rest of the world, so I kept a lot of it to myself. It doesn’t come up that often.

Game shows, however, offered me refuge. Double Dare, Guts and Legends of the Hidden Temple – everyone in school wanted to be dodging temple guards, climbing up the Aggro Crag, or taking the physical challenge. While I loved them and have a fond nostalgia for them, my favorites were always a bit more…trivial. I have fond memories of watching Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune — played one after the other – while eating dinner with my family. For the entirety of fifth grade, I would call my grandmother at precisely 7:28pm and we would watch Wheel together over the phone. The summer we got Game Show Network, my world opened up. There were so many games! I wished so hard that I could be laughing with Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Somers on the Match Game, blushing after meeting Richard Dawson on the Family Feud, or decking Dick Clark for giving Pyramid the green light. I wanted so badly to be a part of that. These shows were all long gone, though. Game shows had fallen from fashion, replaced by daytime soap operas or talk shows, with the only holdouts being Jeopardy!, Wheel, and The Price Is Right. Then came the summer of 1999, and everything changed.

Sitting in a cramped motel room on Long Beach Island, I was practically glued to the television. “Welcome to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?,” Regis Philbin bellowed. Strobe lights flashed and scare chords played. A new challenger appeared, and it knocked me dead. This was the dawning of a new era of game shows, ones that TV Tropes would call “Who Wants To Be Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Higher stakes, more dramatic filming, a dark set — the works. Most of these came and went, but Millionaire, however, persevered despite the changing landscape of daytime television.


Fast-forward a few years. 2012 was kind of terrible for me. After graduating with my masters the year before, I struggled to find work. I had a temporary gig as an adjunct at my old university because my thesis advisor took pity on me, but the meager paycheck barely made a dent in my loan payments. My credit card bills stacked up and I spiraled further and further into debt. I lived with my parents and did housework to earn enough money to make a payment on my credit card. As a result, I spent a lot of time at home. My retiree father had a set television schedule that we all followed. At 11am he would watch The Price Is Right, meanwhile flicking through Consumer Reports for reference as to the prices of cars in the showcase. Then he switched the channel to Millionaire, followed by the local news.

Oftentimes, we watched Millionaire together, and he’d see me blaze through the questions. One day, as the show broke for commercial, they advertised that they were holding auditions in New York City and anyone was free to apply for the test. My dad took one look at me and said, “Hey, you should do that. You’re pretty good at that trivia stuff.”

I ran upstairs to my computer, filled out the form, and a week later I got a response: yes, we would like you to come in for the exam, please be at our studio at 5:45pm on May 29th. They wanted me to take the test! I had no idea what that meant, but it was certainly farther than I’d ever gotten before. My parents loaned me the $40 for train fare and I made it in to the city by the skin of my teeth.

That day was an adventure. Upon arriving at the studio, I waited in line with a gentleman who had flown in from Anchorage and chatted with a man from South Jersey, out of work on disability and hoping that he’d make it through to pay some medical bills. About a hundred people filed into the cafeteria of the building. We were assigned a number and seated at tables with a Scantron in front of us, like I was taking a middle school social studies test. They announced that it was a thirty question, multiple choice test and that we had ten minutes to complete it. If you passed the test – they would not tell us what a ‘passing’ score was – you would move onto a second round, an interview with a producer, and if they liked you enough, you’d move to a third “on camera” round. As they finished explaining this, they called the numbers of the “passing” tests. My number was there, and I yelped. The man from Anchorage’s and the man from South Jersey’s were not. They wished me luck and I moved on to first the producer interview, where I regaled them with silly anecdotes about my life pulled from the questionnaire. Something I said must have piqued their interest, because the next thing I knew I was filming some test questions with yet another producer. They asked me questions about California and sandwiches and scarabs, and if I could “make it personal” – that’s how you connect with the audience, with the little stories you tell when you answer questions. When that wrapped up, they thanked me for my time and said that I would get a postcard in a few weeks letting me know if I’d been accepted for the contestant pool or not. I daydreamed of what I would do with my potential winnings.

A few weeks later, the postcard arrived, and I was ecstatic.

Months passed, and I’d put the whole unlikely scenario out of my mind. I got a call in late August for a full-time job and I would start the first week of September. Work was different after being away from it for so long, but it was something, anything. Three weeks in, I saw I’d missed a call from a number I didn’t recognize – with a NYC area code. I ran outside to check my voicemail and was greeted with the sound of an angelic choir. “Hi Elyse! This is [redacted] from Millionaire with some very exciting news for you, please call me back by blahblah time or else you’ll have to go back in the selection pool!”  The rest of the details regarding those phone calls are fuzzy, because when you are told that you have the chance to live out your life’s dream, it kind of goes that way. I remember talking to my supervisor and asking for the day off, to which he replied “that’s fine, but you won’t get paid for it.”  I turned to him and said “Don’t worry, I will.”


There was a lot of contact between the day they first called and the day of the taping: making sure that they had the correct background for me, what outfit I was wearing, who (if anyone) was coming with me. I was allowed to inform people what was happening, so I blew up all of my social media. I got my tattoo artist to sign a waiver so that my tattoos could be shown on television (just to be safe.)  September 27th was my tape date, and my then-boyfriend and I woke up at 4:00am to be able to catch the train and be in the city by 7:00am. It was real! It was happening! I was there!

A small group of contestants assembled in front of the studio.  There was a friendly parochial student a few years older than me, a nurse from the city with the most interesting stories, a couple of comedians who were apparently professional game show contestants (!), a quiet college student wearing a shirt that said “Is That Your Final Answer?,” a wonderfully sweet schoolteacher from my area – others, surely, but I can’t remember at this point. In the green room, we had no contact with the outside world. Our cell phones were taken and locked up so we couldn’t access them. No laptops, tablets, books, gaming devices – all verboten. We had each other, a seemingly endless supply of Millionaire reruns, and a DIY-ed game of Pictionary. I got very lucky — everyone in the green room was super nice and we managed to get along really well. The wait was excruciating. Aside from the half hour they’d taken us out on the stage to do a practice question, hair and makeup, I sat in the green room from 9:00am until 4:00pm. I was the absolute last person to be called to tape that day, and as they strung the microphone through my dress the nerves finally hit me. This was the moment I’d waited my whole life for, no matter how clichéd and silly that sounds.


When I walked out on stage, I immediately calmed. The audience was seated around me in a big horseshoe. The stage floor was clear plexiglass over broken mirrors.  There were flashing lights and cheering and the most heinous warm-up comedian. A minute or two before taping was about to start, Meredith Viera was brought out. She was cheery, warm and approachable, and though she pronounced my name wrong in rehearsal, I was able to quickly correct her and she remembered instantly. Any fears I might have had left were completely assuaged. She asked me questions about my life, what I did, and wished me luck. The producer came over, took my glass of water, and with the wave of a hand we were filming. It was go time.

Filming itself went quickly. I had heard stories that they would maybe make me re-film a question if it didn’t go the way they wanted it to, but apparently I was “naturally energetic” so that was no issue. At the first commercial break, my producer came up to me and said that the executive producer loved me and to keep up the great work — I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, though. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll say yeah, she really is that enthusiastic. The questions felt really easy. A question about The Notorious B.I.G. would net me $25,000 within the first three questions. Watching the show, you wonder if people have to rack their brains to come up with an anecdote to give them time to think. Somehow, every question they asked I could tie back to some event in my life, someone that I had known or something I had experienced with little hesitation. A question about geology put me in stitches — I’d majored in and had my master’s in geoscience and I answered with ease. The audience seemed to like me, and cheered raucously with each correct answer and disappointed “awws” when I would jump a question.

Millionaire now is a bit different from what it was when it first aired. There are no more “fastest finger” questions – if they call you, you will be on the show. The game itself is split into two rounds.  If you miss a question in the first round, you leave with a $1,000 consolation prize. If you walk away, you leave with half the money you’ve earned.  You can keep what you get in full once you reach round two, or “Classic Millionaire.” There are definitely still lifelines, though. The trick to using your lifelines is to use them when you have absolutely no clue whatsoever. The 50/50 and the Phone-A-Friend are long gone, both replaced with the ability to Jump The Question – allowing you to skip the question with no penalty, but forfeiting the cash behind it. Those are easy enough. You can still Ask the Audience, though, but you need to do so strategically. The audience does best with media and pop culture related questions. Ask them about celebrities. Don’t ask them about history. The audience pulled through for me, and upon answering that question, it knocked me into round two. I could keep all the money I’d earned up to that point – a substantial amount! – if I walked away, but would earn $100,000 if I answered the next one correctly. I had no lifelines left and I had to face it on my own.

“With 32,256 jigsaw pieces, “Double Retrospect” depicts a montage of 32 works by what artist?”

I blanked. I wished the Phone-A-Friend was still available, because my sister’s the art historian in the family, not me. I didn’t want to guess, because if I guessed and was wrong, I’d lose all I’d worked for. So I did what I felt was right — I walked away.

The answer, which will forever be burned in to my brain, was Keith Haring. I told my sister the question on the train home and she knew immediately.


At the end of the day, I left with $63,500 more than when I started. When I walked over to sign my tax forms, people from the audience kept high-fiving me and congratulating me. As we left the studio and walked toward the subway, an older couple came up to me and said that they lived in the next town over and were so proud of me. I was floating. Dad was right. I guess I am pretty good at trivia.

I could not tell anyone how much money I’d won until after the show had aired, but my family are really good guessers. Two months later, they aired my episode during sweeps month, and 3/4 of my office swarmed in the break room to watch me play. People apparently took bets on how well I’d done, but nobody had anticipated I’d done that well.

After taxes, I had enough money to pay off my student loans in full, to pay down those credit cards, to pay for my best friend to visit me from Scotland, and much later, pay for my own trip to Australia. I’ve put my name in the hat for other shows – taken the Jeopardy! test and filled out the form for Wheel, but so far no luck. Two years later, the Millionaire money is long gone, but much like the answer to the $100,000 question, I’ll never forget.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire - Elyse Peterson