Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Tragic True Life Story Of Vanna White

For almost half a century, "Wheel of Fortune" has been running continuously on television screens across the United States. It has been responsible for some bizarre game show moments that caught us off guard, still attracts audiences of millions, and shows no sign of stopping yet. Part of its appeal is the fact that it is a lighthearted game that is easy to follow and play along at home. But the presenting duo of Pat Sajak and Vanna White also plays a big part in its success.

Despite appearing in more than 8,000 episodes and becoming a household name in America, things haven't always been easy for White. The female presenter on the game show has had more than her fair share of tragedies and dark times throughout her life, many of which happened while she was appearing on "Wheel of Fortune." Here, we are going to look at the tragic true story of the TV host and see how it affected her and her career.

Vanna White's parents divorced at a young age

A common but still often tragic event that can occur in any young child's life is the divorce or separation of their parents. It can be a difficult time for kids who may blame themselves or are unsure what is happening. Yet that was the situation that Vanna White found herself in during her childhood.

Born in 1957 to Joan Marie and Miguel Angel Rosich in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, White's parents divorced while she was still young, with some sources suggesting she wasn't even a year old at the time of the separation. Being so young possibly meant that White had little to no memory of the events and that it didn't affect her significantly.

After her mother remarried, White formed a close bond with her stepfather, Herbert Stackley White Jr. She eventually adopted his surname as her own, dropping the family name of her biological father — which has Spanish and Puerto Rican origins – and continuing to live in North Myrtle Beach with her mother and stepfather. It isn't clear if White had any contact with Rosich after the divorce or if he was involved in her life, as she has not spoken about him publicly.

She lost her mother at the age of 24

Vanna White moved out of the family home almost immediately after graduating from high school. Having enrolled in the Atlanta School of Fashion and Design, she lived in Atlanta, Georgia for a while. She next ended up in Los Angeles, where she tried her hand at modeling and also pursued a career in acting. However, her first stint in Los Angeles was cut short when she returned home to South Carolina in 1980 to spend time with her mother, Joan Marie White, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Understanding the seriousness of her mother's condition, Vanna was there for her final days, with Joan dying from the disease on July 10, 1980. At the time of Joan's death, Vanna was just 23 years old. Joan was cremated, with her ashes scattered at sea. After the funeral, Vanna went back to Hollywood in an attempt to kickstart her acting career.

Vanna White struggled to find work as an actor

Despite now being one of the most recognizable faces on television, Vanna White struggled during the early parts of her career to make it in the world of entertainment. Having moved to Los Angeles to try and become an actor after a brief stint as a model, she was only able to land minor roles. Her earliest television credit came in the 1981 TV movie "Midnight Offerings," with a couple of other parts in the same year in "Graduation Day" and "Looker."

Throughout the early 1980s, White gave small performances in a number of television series, such as "Star of the Family" and "The A-Team," and she was also part of the main cast of the film "Gypsy Angels" with Tige Andrews and Richard Roundtree, although this film wouldn't be released until 1990. Things got so bad during the early stages of her career that she didn't even own a bed. ″I was living ... in an apartment with no bed, sleeping on the floor,″ she recalled to the Associated Press. ″I got a job down the street waiting tables and tending bar at Luigi's. I worked there for a year and was able to buy a bed.″

1980 also saw White make an appearance on the popular game show "The Price Is Right" as a contestant, just two years before she went on to audition for her now famous role on "Wheel of Fortune" alongside host Pat Sajak.

Her fiance John Gibson died in a plane crash

Around the same time that she first began working on "Wheel of Fortune," Vanna White also began dating and eventually became engaged to John Gibson. Having moved to Los Angeles like White to find work as an actor, Gibson first rose to fame after appearing as a centerfold in Playgirl magazine. He later went on to become one of the most popular dancers at the Chippendales male striptease club in Los Angeles, acting as a spokesperson for the brand. Gibson also had a number of television and film roles and went on to have a regular part in the daytime soap "The Young and the Restless," where he portrayed strip club owner Jerry Cashman.

In May 1986, Gibson was piloting a rented Trinidad TB20 airplane with no passengers on board when the aircraft crashed during its landing procedure at the Van Nuys airport. Gibson, 37 years old at the time, was killed on May 17 when his aircraft hit a curb and exploded. Gibson's body was burned so badly that dental records were required to identify him. 

The publicity around the death led to White speaking out against tabloids that she felt were invading her privacy. "I was at the pinnacle of Vanna-mania when this tragically happened," she told Closer Weekly. "The support I got from my fans was so tremendous that it made me feel like I wasn't alone."

White had a miscarriage shortly after announcing her pregnancy

The death of fiancé John Gibson was devastating for Vanna White. But she was eventually able to return to work and restart her life thanks to the outpouring of support from fans. "The second I heard about it, I fell to my knees," she told People. "I heard from so many people who had shared the same experience of losing someone instantly in an accident, and that really helped me. I didn't feel like I was alone."

By 1990, four years after Gibson's death, White had married restaurateur and film producer George Santo Pietro. The pair became pregnant in 1992 and White announced the pregnancy via a puzzle on "Wheel of Fortune." Just a week later, however, she suffered another traumatic event when she miscarried. Fortunately, White did not suffer from any other complications and remained in good health, although the loss was incredibly hard to take.

"I so wanted to be pregnant and have a baby, so then when I finally got pregnant, I wanted to tell the world immediately," she told People. "Obviously I lost the baby, which was devastating after announcing it. The good news is I was able to get pregnant again and had two beautiful, healthy children. But losing a child — there's nothing good about that."

She was embarrassed and angry about her Playboy appearance

In 1987, Vanna White appeared in Playboy magazine. While she wasn't fully nude, the images did show her wearing lingerie and posing suggestively. White — who was afraid that she might lose her job on "Wheel of Forture" over the pics — went on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" to apologize to the public. The Playboy photographs shocked much of the country, but things were not quite as they initially seemed and it was later revealed that White hadn't actually posed for Playboy.

Explaining the situation to Fox News, White said: "When I first moved to Hollywood, I was too embarrassed to ask my dad for rent money. 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!'"

Hugh Hefner later purchased the pictures and printed them in Playboy, taking advantage of White's fame after she became a pop culture fixture on "Wheel of Fortune." White tried to sue Playboy and Hefner to stop publication of the photographs, but dropped the case out of a belief that the public would believe the images were more intimate than they actually were.

White divorced her husband George Santo Pietro in 2002

After her miscarriage in 1992, Vanna White went on to have two children with husband George Santo Pietro. The first was a son named Nicholas in 1994, followed by daughter Giovanna in 1997. However, the relationship with Pietro was not to last. Having married in Aspen, Colorado, on New Year's Eve 1990, it was revealed that they had filed divorce papers in 2002 and had been separated since November of the previous year.

The announcement came after reports in 1999 that Pietro had cheated on White with a series of mistresses, including model Tanya Abayan. These rumors were never proven and the court documents indicated that the split was due to irreconcilable differences. White and Pietro's separation was seemingly amicable and the two shared custody of their children. Since the divorce, Pietro has largely stayed out of the limelight, which is not that surprising considering the fact that he and White rarely made public appearances together.

She proposed to Michael Kaye but they never married

After her divorce from George Santo Pietro, Vanna White began a relationship with Michael Kaye. They were together from 2004 until 2006 and were even engaged to be married at one point. In fact, in a similar fashion to how she announced her pregnancy on "Wheel of Fortune," White also used the show to inform viewers that she was going to marry Kaye — although this time it was through the release of a publicity shot rather than in a recorded episode. Kaye, a businessman who owned security firm Westec InterActive, never married White and no reason was given for why the relationship ultimately ended.

She has since been in a long-term relationship with boyfriend John Donaldson, who works as a real estate developer. The pair met at a barbecue after a friend brought him as a guest and introduced him to White. "I remember looking at him and thinking, 'He's really cute,'" she told People. "We ended up talking for a long time that night." They've been together ever since. "It just works," she said of their breezy relationship. "He lets me be me, I let him be him. There is no drama."

She sued Samsung Electronics

The lawsuit against Playboy was not the only time that Vanna White has attempted to sue a major company. Samsung Electronics released an advertisement in 1993 that featured a robot with a resemblance to White turning over letters on a fictional game show. The closeness in appearance and the fact that the robot character was carrying out a similar role was enough to prompt White to file litigation against Samsung for violating her right to control her own image.

Although an initial court hearing found in favor of Samsung, this was later reversed in part when the case was taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. White claimed that Samsung had violated laws in relation to Section 3344, the Right of Publicity, and the Lanham Act. The decision of the appeal court meant that the case could move to the jury stage to determine damages. The jury went on to award White $403,000 in damages, after they found that the robot did constitute a likeness to her and was used without permission.

Vanna White's stepfather died in 2022

Vanna White always had a close relationship with her stepfather Herbert White Jr., the man that she considered to be her dad. The pair remained close even following the death of her mother decades earlier. She frequently spoke about Herbert on "Wheel of Fortune," revealing how much she cared for him, that they remained in constant contact, and that she called him every morning. She also posted touching tributes to him on her social media accounts

On April 1, 2022, White announced on X (formerly known as Twitter) that Herbert had died at the age of 96. "It is with great sadness that I tell you my 96 year old dad passed away peacefully this morning," she wrote. "He lived a full and happy life and will be remembered as one of the kindest and most wonderful human beings of North Myrtle Beach. I love you so much dad."

As was the case with other tragedies in White's life, fans and "Wheel of Fortune" viewers were quick to show their support. Many posted messages of sympathy online and expressed their love for White.

Her co-star Pat Sajak left Wheel of Fortune in 2024

Pat Sajak retired from "Wheel of Fortune" in 2024, with his final episode airing on June 7. It proved to be an emotional farewell, with White speaking about their time together in a specially recorded clip for the show. "I can't believe that tomorrow is our last show together," she said. "Eight thousand episodes went by like that. When I first started, I was so green. You made me so comfortable and made me so confident, Pat. You made me who I am, you really did."

Sajak and White had worked together on the series for more than four decades and shared a close bond. White often spoke about her love for her co-host and the time they spent together. "He's my TV husband," she said in an interview with People. "You know, we've been together ... 40 years is a lot to be with somebody. We've been through a lot together." White added that they share a sibling-like bond and would continue to see each other in their personal lives.

"I think when [series creator] Merv Griffin chose both of us, 40 and 41 years ago, he saw something between us — a brother/sister-type relationship," White told People. "He saw that we would be able to get along, I think. And we do. We are like a brother and sister team."