My Friend is a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ Contestant That Became an Internet Sensation – A Q&A With Emil De Leon

It's not every day you see a game show contestant let alone someone you see on a regular basis solving puzzles with Ellen DeGeneres and Jason Bateman. (photo credit: Michael Rozman/Warner Bros)
It’s not every day you see a game show contestant let alone someone you see on a regular basis solving puzzles with Ellen DeGeneres and Jason Bateman. (photo credit: Michael Rozman/Warner Bros)

Being a contestant on a game show is a feat of its own, but once in a while, a truly extraordinary moment gives the most outstanding contestants an elite status and a place in game show history. With the invention and evolution of the World Wide Web, these moments and contestants can now become memorialized through real-time social media, Web stories, GIFs, and memes. Sometimes contestants will even make the media rounds, appearing on local and national news and talk shows and enjoy even more fame.

That’s exactly what happened with my good friend Emilbert [Emil] De Leon. Emil and I have been friends since our second or third year at San Francisco State and knew each other through a mutual friend. I used to share his obsession for reality shows (He and I along with one of our other friends hit up an American Idol audition in 2008) and we still share a love of Giants baseball and social media, and it was through social media that I found out he was a big Wheel of Fortune fan. (He also has a love for couponing and online deals, which led to me writing my immensely popular Groupon for Your Sexy Time Needs post last year.) I was really excited when I saw that he was going to audition for the show last year and followed his updates, so I was beyond thrilled when I found out that he would be taping an episode for the world to see this year! But little did the world (And I!) know what they would witness.

Emil invited me to the viewing party at his house the evening his episode was set to air, over two weeks ago on March 19. Just earlier, I saw that Deadspin had posted something about him on my Facebook news feed (Dammit, East Coast), but I had to scroll by really fast and not read it. I freaked out and told him but he was very well aware—and it wasn’t just Deadspin, as I would find out all throughout the night.

It wasn’t because Emil solved puzzles all throughout the half-hour quickly and efficiently (Although he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did without beasting it for the majority of the show!), but when he reached the Bonus Round, he solved it in a way that no one has seen before.

Yup, with just two letters on the board, Emil had guessed “New Baby Buggy” on the first try and got it right. Everyone at the De Leon household broke into wild applause while host Pat Sajak looked miffed. While we celebrated, the Internet was buzzing about this latest Wheel of Fortune solve. Twitter went balls wild, BuzzFeed made some GIFs of Emil and Pat’s reactions, and people started making memes of what Emil’s next big accomplishment would be. His solve became news on all my favorite websites: Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, POPSUGAR, The Hollywood Reporter, and many more. He made appearances on local news and the biggest talk shows in America. Emil became an overnight Internet and media sensation.

One of the memes the Internet made of Emil (photo credit: @WheelOfFortune on Twitter).
One of the memes the Internet made of Emil (photo credit: @WheelOfFortune on Twitter).

Following Emil’s Wheel of Fortune journey has been nothing short of exciting, uplifting, and inspiring, and I wanted to feature his story told through his own words. The recent nursing school graduate kindly answered some questions for me through email earlier this week about the audition process, what went through his mind during that seemingly tough Bonus Round solve, the media blitz, his favorite meme of himself, and what it’s like to be in Ellen DeGeneres‘ presence.

How did you start getting into Wheel of Fortune and what made you decide to audition?
I’ve been watching Wheel of Fortune as long as I could remember. As a matter in fact, Wheel of Fortune was a great learning tool growing up for me, with RSTLNE being the first letters that I learned. From there, I just grew to love watching the show, making one of my lifelong dreams to be a contestant. About eight years ago, the Wheelmobile (a bus that travels from place to place to audition contestants) came to Serramonte Shopping Center [in Daly City, CA] to audition hopeful contestants, but at that time, I was too young to audition, so my dream was so close, yet so far away at that point. Fast-forward to August 2013, I found out that the Wheelmobile was going to Jackson Rancheria Casino in Jackson, CA, so my family and I decided to make a casino trip for this occasion since that location was within good driving distance for me to try out.

What was the audition process like? Some people have to audition for these shows multiple times – were you able to get through on your first try?
The audition process was a long five-month process for me starting with the trip to Jackson Rancheria Casino. This process included a lot of clapping, shouting, enthusiasm and a whole lot of waiting in between. It all started in August 2013 where my first audition took place at the Wheelmobile. In the first audition, I knew from countless threads and boards (particularly Buy a Vowel Boards) that enthusiasm, personality and first impression are the prominent things that the Wheelmobile looks for that day. I didn’t solve any puzzles that day, but I knew that my personality was showcased, especially after showing off my karaoke skills as shown here. As for the call-back, which I received about two months after, this was when I could show off my puzzle skills. I showed off my personality, my skills as a Wheel of Fortune watcher, and eventually dominating the written test with a very rare 16/16. This whole audition process was the first time I have auditioned for Wheel of Fortune, but preparing myself for what was to come definitely helped me get through on my first try.

How did you prepare for your taping, and what were your expectations going into it?
I prepared myself mostly by purchasing everything Wheel of Fortune – the app, the video game, the home game. I also practiced by playing the Twitter Toss-up game that @WheelofFortune hosts every weekday, which you can find me dominating most of the time. I’ve been preparing since I could remember really, so everything just came naturally to me. As for my expectations, I pretty much expected nothing more than what the app, the video game, the home game offers, but boy, was I in for more than that.

What went through your mind during the Bonus Round and after you solved the puzzle?
When the RSTLNE went up on the board with only the ‘NE’ showing up, I knew that I needed more help, but when I saw no additional help even with my go-to called letters ‘HMDO’, I knew that I needed to work that much harder to solve the puzzle. My strategy with my go-to letters ‘HMDO’ is that I will always know what letters will not be used.

As the viewers saw at the end of my episode, the contestants are given a used letter board to refer to what letters have not been used yet. While Pat was talking to me, I calmly looked at the used letter board, back at the puzzle, back at the used letter board, back at the puzzle, trying to find words that would fit. The first letter on the used letter board was ‘B’, so I worked off of that and eventually came up with ‘BABY’ as my second word. It just sounded right – ‘NEW BABY.’ As for ‘BUGGY’, I did the same and used the letter ‘B’ and thought of words pertaining to a ‘BABY’ that used the letters in the used letter board, and ‘BUGGY’ just popped out in my head. It also helped that my nursing class was studying pediatrics at the time, so I thought about that setting, having ‘baby on the brain’ the whole time. So I yelled out ‘NEW BABY BUGGY’ as my first plausible solution, while thinking of other solutions that could fit, but luckily I didn’t need to! After I solved the puzzle, everything was just a blur to me. I received a ‘Pat-down’ and Pat showed to me the $45,000 that I won in that bonus round and the rest was history, walking away with $63,099 in cash and prizes!

How hard was it to stay quiet about the results of the show?
VERY hard. My episode taped January 17, 2014 and it aired March 19, 2014. Those two months were brutal, but if anything, since my family went with me, they were the ones I was most worried about spilling the beans, but luckily they behaved.

At what point did you realize that your Bonus Round Solve was owning the Internet?
I actually realized that it would go viral the morning of the episode. Pat Sajak tweeted that “Tonight’s ‘Wheel of Fortune’ features [the] most amazing solve in [his] 30+ years on the show. No kidding.” I kept track of that tweet, generating a huge amount of replies, retweets and favorites. I had to keep quiet that that tweet was about me, but the rest of the day, I couldn’t function properly, knowing that he said that about me.

Describe the night your episode aired, and the 48 hours following it.
The night of my episode, I had a lot of family and friends come over to watch it with me. I’m not going to lie — it was nerve-racking, mostly because of the unexpected result in the end with my bonus round. During the 30 minutes of my show, I kept getting numerous calls, considering that the show already aired everywhere east of the Pacific time zone. Overall though, my guests were surely surprised by the outcome of the show as well as my puzzle skills during the show, which I consider a viewing party success.

Emil and I with our friends Emilia and Kelly (And Kelly's doggie Meeko!) at his 'Wheel of Fortune' viewing party. Check out that cake! I also got the most answers right on that pretest. (photo credit: My Instagram)
Emil and I with our friends Emilia and Kelly (And Kelly’s doggie Meeko!) at his ‘Wheel of Fortune’ viewing party. Check out that cake! I also got the most answers right on that pretest. (photo credit: My Instagram)

Little did I know though, that the next 48 hours would be the most memorable 48 hours of my life. I had class the next day after my episode aired, so I went to class and during the whole day, my phone was ringing non-stop with people wanting to interview me. I made an effort after school to make it down to LA to get started with all of my interviews. I did numerous live interviews within my 24 hours in LA, starting with ABC7, The Ellen Show, Good Morning America, The Today Show, and Inside Edition along with many over-the-phone interviews. I had no idea that the media buzz would reach to this proportion, so I was overwhelmed, but overall grateful for this opportunity. Later on in the week I had more interviews, including the fun Jimmy Kimmel skit and my appearance on The Filipino Channel’s Balitang America. My 30 minutes of fame extended to a week of fame, and I wasn’t complaining.

If you could pick the craziest single thing that has come out of your Bonus Round Solve, what would it be?
I have to pick just one? This whole experience has been crazy. I think the craziest experience would have to be appearing on The Ellen Show. You know you’ve made it if you’re featured on The Ellen Show, let alone having Jason Bateman as a co-host! I never dreamed that my solve would get me so much media buzz, but I’m just so glad that I was given this experience.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live, you told everyone what Pat Sajak smells like, but what does Ellen DeGeneres smell like?
There is no scent on earth to describe Ellen. Definitely one-of-a-kind.

What was the funniest thing (Good or bad) you’ve read about yourself on the Internet so far?
Not really read, but I’m loving all of the meme attention I’m getting, my favorite being this GIF meme created by the Wheel of Fortune Twitter page:

image credit: @WheelOfFortune on Twitter
image credit: @WheelOfFortune on Twitter

What did being a contestant on Wheel of Fortune mean to you?
Being a contestant on Wheel of Fortune meant the world to me. I’ve been watching as a kid as well as growing up, so this experience is something that will stick with me for life. Who else can say that they were on a game show with the host saying that they are the most amazing contestant they’ve seen thus far? Not many.

Will you have an opportunity to appear on any special episodes in the future?
Being on Wheel of Fortune is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that appearance is my once-in-a-lifetime. If they ever do have a Tournament of Champions though, they have my number!

What do you plan to spend your cash prize on?
I have a bunch of nursing school loans to pay off, so a chunk will definitely be going to that. I also won a Cabo trip on Wheel of Fortune, so I’ll probably spend a few there. Otherwise though, expect the unexpected!

Talk to me!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s