The Price Ain’t Right

The seductive—and scary—sides of winning big on a game show

I won nearly $40,000 on the Price is Right in 2018. Unexpectedly, the experience was almost tantric in its sensuality. The hours-long, anticipatory wait in line, furtive glances at strangers nearby, and sweat (so, so much sweat) as we stood in handmade shirts waiting for the chance to caress Drew Carey in a public forum… it was almost too much.

Interestingly, we weren’t all there for the same reason. Not all of us planned to actually ‘come on down.’ Sure, the vast majority of the hundreds of us who gathered for one of two tapings per day at CBS Studios committed to an afternoon of entertainment. There were California regulars who considered it completely normal to wait to see a live game show once or twice a year, but had low expectations for anything other than maybe seeing someone embarrass themselves on their way up to the stage. There were also the folks you’re probably thinking of, who were at various stages of desperation, trying for the umpteenth time to be selected. This elderly man at my taping nearly brought me to tears. He hobbled up to a producer with a sparkly cane and shirt that said, “This is my 27th show! Pick me!” If anyone deserved a shot, it was him.

As for my mother and I (and two family friends we were visiting in Los Angeles), we sought only to stretch our vocal cords and act a bit more unhinged than usual to attract a producer’s eye. I planned on trying to sit in an obvious place in the studio audience and wave frantically so I could point myself out during my five seconds of fame as the show aired. I mean, I flew all the way from North Carolina but my husband was spending the day in Malibu because he thought my endeavor was a complete waste of time. That quick screen capture of my screaming would show him.

They took our phones shortly after check-in and ushered us into a brightly lit, super loud studio with cameras the size of smart cars. I promptly had to pee, and this is where I partially blacked out from utter adrenaline. The clips are on YouTube, so both you and I can eternally witness the most public parts of my humiliation. But if nothing else, here are the takeaways you came for.

There is no rhyme or reason why I won on that show.

Let’s be clear. I can hardly do basic arithmetic, don’t know how much anything costs, and don’t do well under pressure unless it’s minute 70 of a rugby game midseason. I could have gotten any number of games to play, and I got the ‘Range-o-meter’, which is essentially a pole with a button you smack when you think you’ve identified the price you think a prize is. It requires three brain cells and a gut feeling to participate in. That was the game that won me a trip to Jamaica.

2. Bring a cool-headed squad, not your biggest cheerleaders.

My mom screamed the. whole. time. She offered no price guesses, no knowing wink or smile, not a single fist pump of encouragement. She was just stoked to be there, thrilled I had somehow gotten on stage, and hell, she was going to enjoy herself. I, on the other hand, was profusely sweating and jumping around in my Birkenstocks, hoping nothing was on my face or in my hair. Sometimes you’ve just got to roll with it, but it helps if you have a game show connoisseur like this dude who can give you some direction along the way.

3. No one knows what the hell is going on, at any point.

Oh, the producers know, don’t get me wrong. They all look slightly bored because they do this every day. They tell you where to stand and how not to get hit by the massive dollies and machinery that move to accommodate the Ford Mustang that’s on deck. It’s we contestants that are simply lost, tripping up the aisles, squirming in our seats, trying our hardest to spin that damn wheel (that is remarkably heavy, by the way), and not embarrass our loved ones when we get to say a message to those back home. Our job is to basically scream non-stop, smile even when we lose, and give back the wads of cash they hand us on stage (because that cash is taxed).

4. Speaking. Of. Taxes.

As soon as the lights go down and the music stops, you’re ushered off-stage into this poorly lit room of basic cubicles and mildly amused employees who hand you a stack of papers thicker than the Bible. They ask you to sign a whole bunch of stuff you only have about 10 minutes to review and then swear you to secrecy (if you tell anyone what or how much you won, they can rescind your winnings). I do remember feebly asking if I needed an accountant at this point. A woman with a clipboard didn’t even look up as she answered, “Oh, yeah, you can tell an accountant what just happened. You’ll need one of those if you don’t have one already.”

She wasn’t lying. You can’t actually claim any winnings until you pay 6% California state tax on them. That essentially meant we needed to have $2229 laying around to actually get what I won. That’s not including the federal taxes you’ll owe, which we had to prepay to avoid penalties come tax season. Federal taxes would have counted everything as additional income, which would have meant shelling out additional thousands. Um, what?

You’re dying to know what I decided when the smoke cleared, I’m sure. Here goes.

I won $500 in cash, four kitchen appliances, a jet ski, and trips to New Hampshire, Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Sydney, Australia (plus a whole bunch of trip extras like bridge repelling adventures and waterfall tours, and we just took the cash equivalency of those since I’m not into heights). Quick math on paying taxes on a jet ski I’d never use (dad's still salty about that one) and we wiped that off the table. We didn’t even have enough vacation time to take all the trips (they need to be taken within 12 months of your show’s air date, you can only take one guest along, and you can’t gift a trip to, say, your parents who are sassing you about not getting a jet ski—trust me, I tried). So one had to go, and we could probably go to New Hampshire anytime! We already had a toaster oven, blender, and air fryer, so those seemed frivolous. We forfeited those, too.

Are you tracking with me? When all was said and done, Cody and I took the trips to Jamaica and Australia—that’s it. We flew coach and got back from both trips just in time to have Covid-19 ravage the globe. Lucky us.

We wound up spending around $4,000 upfront for our trips in taxes before we even took them. We got some refunds back, but it’s 2021 and I’m still getting mail from the state of California.

5. Bottom line: you can’t be broke to win big.

I used to be so enthralled with the folks who won thousands on game shows, or the people who seemed down on their luck who got to sit in the Ford Mustang convertible they’d soon be driving around in. But I know better now; if you don’t have some savings to take those wheels home, they’ll stay parked. (Plus, the one you see on stage isn’t even necessarily the one you’ll get; if they only have forest green Mustangs at the Ford dealership near your home, that’s the one that you’ll be picking up as long as the price is comparable.) I wonder how much of anything folks are able to take home, or if they go into debt to claim the prizes they won.

Those scintillating prizes and smiling hosts don’t say a damn thing about the fine print. You’re welcome.

At my episode watch party before our first federal tax bill came due… I still haven’t washed that shirt.

Jersey roots, Durham fruit. Committed to justice, enthralled by stories, and inspired by an equitable future for us all.

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