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I see my name before I hear it called, written across a Bristol board in thick, black marker, but the preview does nothing to ease my panic.
I am 18 and visiting Los Angeles with my boyfriend Stephen’s family. He, his three older siblings and their significant others want to attend a taping of The Price is Right and because I don’t yet know how to voice a contrary opinion, I find myself sitting in CBS studios with a yellow name tag slapped across my chest, losing my shit.
I never thought this could actually happen. I signed dozens of papers, was appraised by sunglassed production assistants, and interviewed by a producer who noted my answers on an upright clipboard as part of a lengthy pre-selection process. (Contestants are not, in fact, chosen at random). Still, I never allowed for the possibility that out of a group of eight, seven of whom were desperate to play Plinko, I would be the one called.
And yet: “Weeeeeenddddy Liiiiiiiitner come on down, you're the next contestant on The Price is Right.”
In the time it takes Rod Roddy (R.I.P) to say my name, I become acutely aware that the platform running shoes I’m wearing are not, nor have they ever been, cool. I am due up on a sound stage in front of a live studio audience.
I’m horrified. I can’t get out of my seat.
I hear again Roddy’s iconic voice. He squints from under his sequined, shamrock suit.
The entire studio looks around.
“Here,” I squeak.
I’m pushed into the aisle.
A spotlight opens above me, a camera zooms in on my terrified face, everyone around me is clapping and cheering and there is really only one thing I can do. I go on down.
I tumble forward in a half skip, shoulders rounded, overwhelmed by the conspicuousness of it all. I don’t like to be noticed. I don’t like to take up space, much preferring to blend into a crowd. In a year’s time, I will appreciate the anonymity of overstuffed college lecture halls and when Stephen and I get married, I will ask if the bride must walk down the aisle or if she can’t just wait at the front like the groom.
As I vibrate with discomfort under the bright studio lights, the other three contestants are freaking the fuck out in the opposite way, the way they’re supposed to.
Denise runs down the aisle screaming and flings herself on me like we’re besties. Next come Germaine, then Amber, both equally excited, bouncing around the room like heated kernels in an air popper. I fear their heads might explode.
Just as I’m contemplating crawling under the stage, Bob Barker saunters out to more applause. No one else seems to be bothered by his thick lining of orange makeup.
The moment keeps propelling into the next despite my willing it to stop.
“The first item up for bid,” says Bob, “is an………illuminated globe!”
I have no idea what a globe, of any kind, goes for these days.
Amber bids $600.
Germaine bids $500.
Denise bids $475
I look back at Stephen who is holding up one finger, apparently indicating I should bid one dollar. This is obvious to everyone but me, and I bid $100 to a chorus of confused boos. It doesn’t matter. The actual retail price is $899. "For a globe?" Amber jumps and squeals.
Amber is replaced by a large, jolly-looking man named Pink who is named after his Uncle Pink, the only other Pink in the world. Obviously.
“Okay,” says Bob, “let’s bid on a neeeeeeew paddleboat.”
A model peddles away in a stationary paddleboat.
“Enjoy a relaxing day on the water with this three-seater paddleboat.”
The model peddles backward.
“The winner of the paddleboat also wins a supply of breath mints.”
I have never shopped for a paddleboat and neither has Stephen but I turn to him again.
Pink bids $550.
Denise bids $700.
Germaine bids $1,000.
Stephen is signing a thesis. I have no idea what he's saying. Bob has no patience for our miscommunication. “Wendy,” he yells. “Weeennndddy!!!”
When the episode airs, my mother will yell at me for “not paying attention to the nice man,” which somehow feels worse than being scolded on national television.
“$1,001,” I say. The crowd boos again.
I’m relieved to lose.
I soon welcome the commercial break but as I sit back in my chair on Contestant’s Row, I catch a glimpse of a girl in the monitor overhead, this lost little girl who I can’t quite believe is me. She can’t possibly be me. The crooked nose, tilted glasses and brushed out curls -- these can’t possibly be my features, can they? I can’t really be walking around looking like this, can I?
The camera starts to roll and I am summoned back to the microphone as another model comes out with her wrist extended wearing a tacky gold watch. I look down at my own watch, wondering if I’ve been here my entire life.
I crush Denise’s dreams by outbidding her by a dollar.
To my horror, my bid flashes.
“Wendy is our winner!”
While I would love the sound of this in any other context, I am overcome with a dizzying nausea but am quickly ushered on stage alongside Bob who puckers up. I refuse to kiss him because even though I have recently decided I am the fugliest girl alive I still have standards.
“Look over here, Wendy, and check out your prize.”
A door swings to reveal a heinous-looking sofa. A model is lounging on the cushions and I think it’s rude of her to have her shoes up on what may be my ugly sofa. A tic-tac-toe board is rolled out with three question marks down the middle. I’m given one X and need to guess whether jumper cables and a picture frame are over or under a given price to earn more. Except I don’t want anymore X’s. I don’t want the sofa. Or the cables or the picture frame. I just want to go home.
People scream numbers at me. I relay them to Bob. I’m right on the picture frame, wrong on the jumper cables. The crowd yells out where to put my last X, as if this isn’t entirely a game of chance. Bob takes my hand and strokes it.
“Is Wendy a winneeeeeerrrrrrr?” he calls.
The question marks swivel to reveal I’m not. I’m a loser. I scrunch my nose in faux disappointment, just as the reel clicks and every monitor in the studio beams a freeze frame of my face where I look deranged. The audience jumps back. I look up in horror to see all my worst features frozen in pixelated time. I feel my stomach turn, thinking of this unflattering image being broadcast through television screens across the country and beyond, my ugliness exposed, hanging there in people’s living rooms for all to see.
In this moment, I hate myself. I hate everything about myself. I hate the boy who broke my nose playing basketball last year, I hate the woman who cut my hair, I hate the clothes I’m wearing and all the ones folded in my closet at home. I hate it all. I wish, desperately, I could be anyone but me.
Hours later, after I'm reprimanded by the producer for not kissing Bob, after I've spun the wheel and signed more papers relinquishing my watch because I can’t afford the gaming tax, I’m finally spat out of the studio.
After the episode airs, I’m ready to forget this embarrassing ordeal. And I do forget, until my first week of college where I'm unpacking my belongings, contemplating how I am going to reinvent myself. I’ve decided I’m going to change my preppy clothes, get different glasses, grow my hair and re-launch myself as Wendy 2.0, a newer better, version of myself. I’m picturing this new me, thinking how wonderful it will feel to be a whole different person, when my roommate calls out: “Hey, were you ever on The Price is Right?”
The entire floor of my dorm is huddled around our TV. Fucking reruns.
I’m ashamed, at first, but my game show appearance turns out to be the perfect ice-breaker. We begin to introduce ourselves, talking and laughing. I stiffen, as the freeze frame flashes across the screen, but this time I don’t look away.
I stare at it, studying my face. I don’t see an ugly girl anymore. I see a quirky girl, a fun-loving girl, a girl who can laugh at herself. I look closely, leaning in. I see a girl who accepts herself, crooked nose and all.