Bright lights. Beads of sweat. A patient host. An in-studio audience of hundreds; a television audience of millions. A ticking clock and a small fortune on the line.
It is in this tense moment that game show winners are born.
The game show, like television itself, has its roots in America and for the most part remains a uniquely American experience—the drama, the pageantry, the average “everyman” getting a shot at the big time. Game shows can spend every afternoon with us like an old friend, or explode into our lives with the dramatic brevity of a shooting star.
But what is it like to win one of these modern day gladiator battles of nerves and intellect? How does it feel to be victorious and have your moment of glory beamed from coast to coast?
Well, there’s some smoke. Some mirrors. And real prize money.
When I won, time pretty much stopped.
You can pretty much pinpoint the moment that Kevin Olmstead realized he was just about to win $2.18 million on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—becoming the biggest winner in American television history.
It was as soon as Regis Philbin was about halfway through reading the final question and Kevin had a chance to see it on his screen. His eyebrows pop up and he gasps in what was likely a physical manifestation of the flurry of synapses going on in his head. “I know this!” Kevin said aloud, and within seconds of announcing his Final Answer the confetti fell, the crowd roared, and Regis introduced America to the latest, and biggest, winner of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
“My thoughts as Regis announced I won was NOT slipping on a Plexiglass floor now with confetti on it—so I moved gingerly,” Olmstead tells us of the immediate aftermath of that moment.
After a hearty handshake hug with Regis, Olmstead carefully ran over to his mother and wrapped her in an embrace as confetti continued to rain down and the Millionaire theme blared over the cheering studio audience.
As the cameras continued to roll, Kevin made his rounds accepting congratulatory hugs and high-fives from the production crew, reveling in a moment unlike any other.
It was a shock and a thrill.
Adam Holquist, an electronic musician from Pennsylvania, was trailing on his first ever Jeopardy! appearance when he pulled out a come-from-behind win in Final Jeopardy. But for Holquist there was not much opportunity to bask in the warm glow of victory on the Jeopardy! sound stage; "there's only about 10 minutes between each game, so there's not a lot of time to savor, unfortunately," he says.
Viewers at home likely don’t know that shows are taped in a row on one day rather than spaced out to every day of the week, like when they are broadcast.
It was calm and then crazy all at once.
Aurora De Lucia was face to face with “a brand new car!” on The Price is Right and could not help but be terrified—“My heart is beating at approximately 4 million beats per second. This is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying,” she wrote on her blog of the moments before her victory. De Lucia was one correct guess away from winning a car on the The Price is Right—a “childhood dream” she says now.
When she guessed the price correctly, instantly becoming the owner of a new car, she says “It was so weird. It felt like I was in shock almost. When I won, time pretty much stopped.” The minutes that followed were like a roller coaster for De Lucia, enjoying a rush a excitement punctuated by moments of surreal stillness. “It was calm and then crazy all at once.”
A Dream "Since Elementary School"
The origin story of becoming a game show winner is not too different from the kid in the backyard who imagines themselves hitting a World Series-winning home run some day.
Finally, I decided to go—like, in real life, go.
De Lucia recalls being interested in winning the The Price is Right since elementary school. With its mid-morning time slot, it is the game show that plays a role in memories of childhood, recalled from either lounging around on lazy summer mornings or recuperating in bed on a sick day—“Maybe it has secret healing powers?” she asks now.
Once De Lucia moved to Los Angeles, she knew it would be a matter of time before she finally went to see a taping and try to win some prizes: “Finally, I decided to go—like, in real life, go.”
Kevin Olmstead also possessed an interest in the world of trivia from a young age. He says that even as a little kid he was engrossed in “learning information, excelling in school, and the whole trivia bit, as well as math and logic puzzles.”
It’s no shock that Olmstead’s mother was his primary guest that evening: “Mom taught high school, and from birth until age 8 I was effectively a only child (sister is 8 years younger than me) so I was alone to read a lot and kept gathering factoids. I could thus be a bit of an irritating kid, I think. Let's just say the promos airing lately for Young Sheldon take me back a bit.”
It was this longstanding thirst for knowledge that made Olmstead a Jeopardy! winner in 1994 and paved the road for him to be in the hot seat for Millionaire in April 2001.
Winning and "The Deluge"
One commonality among nearly all game show winners is that they are sworn to secrecy about their victory, a necessity when the shows are taped in advance.
Aurora De Lucia remembers awkwardly bubbling with excitement as she tried to move on with her day after becoming a winner. This included catching up with a friend over coffee while not revealing anything. She wrote on her blog, “I could feel my excitement coming out in my answers being spouted so fast you’d think I’d had 3 venti white mochas.” De Lucia’s excitement continued pretty much right up until her episode aired.
Kevin Olmstead had a $2.18 million secret to keep. Immediately after his victory, Olmsted met with a PR representative from ABC who briefed him on the “deluge” that would come once Olmstead’s episode was broadcast. That evening as it poured “cats and dogs” in New York, Olmstead quietly dined at the Empire Hotel with his mother, knowing the next time he returned to the Big Apple from his native Ann Arbor, Michigan, things would be not quite so peaceful.
In the three weeks between Olmstead’s episode taping and airing he had an opportunity to tell a few close friends and coworkers and also get his affairs in in order—preparing bank accounts, readying stock options, and buying some internet domain names of his own name so that others could not try to profit of his new fame.
By the time his Millionaire episode aired on April 10, 2001, Olmsted was already back in New York, dining at Virgil’s Real BBQ in Times Square (it was across from his hotel after a long day of pre-taping interviews). Says Olmstead: “I felt it appropriate that I got ribs from Virgil’s—in Dante's Divine Comedy, Virgil guided Dante through Hell—which I was about to enter.”
Olmstead’s Inferno would begin with a morning taping at Good Morning America, as well as an Entertainment Tonight piece about his doing GMA, which Olmsted dubbed a “metabit”: “it was a bit about a bit.
The whirlwind day continued from there: "We then high-tailed it by limo from about 45th to about 67th, wherein they [taped] not just Millionaire but Live with Regis and Kelly. That was important, as I got THE CHECK from Regis on Live—the real live check."
Olmstead says getting the check on live TV caused a “small quandary.” What does one do on a busy day while carrying around a check for $2.18 million? Olmsted, perhaps a bit anxiously, endorsed it and kept it on his person while continuing the smorgasbord of interviews: “Access Hollywood, E!, Inside Edition, etc., etc., etc.”
It was the next day, back in Michigan, when he deposited the winnings into the account he had set up in.
It was funny; the ATM receipt showing the official balance made the balance look like an account number.
Though Olmstead knew the big secret about his game show winnings: he was about to lose almost half the money in an instant.
The Truth About Game Show Prizes
Uncle Sam is a fine fellow. He keeps Americans safe, builds us dams and interstates, and is a blast in early July. But he sure sucks a lot of fun out of game shows victories.
All told, about $900,000 went to taxes.
The reality is that every penny won on a TV game show is seen as income in the eyes of the IRS, and that means that big cash windfalls are subject to big tax bills. Or, in the case of Aurora De Lucia, jettisoning the shiny new car she had won on The Price is Right.
Her car was not handed over right away. De Lucia was told that a dealership within 150 miles of her home would call within 90 days of her episode airing, though she was lucky and was able pick up her car the same day her episode aired. Even when she was in the exciting prize-winning zone on The Price is Right, she had already visualized the car as a pile of money that would help her pay off some debt.
The sales tax on the car came out to be just over $2,000, and that is before factoring in state and federal taxes, which take the value of the car—$20,000—as earned income. After De Lucia did the math, she came to realize that selling the car was really the best way to proceed, because after all the taxes, “you’re paying about $9,000 for your car. But that’s starting to get toward the price for which you could actually buy a car in the first place.”
By selling the car, she was still able to net a sizable amount of money that she was more than happy to use to pay off debt. And that can be just as good as a feeling as driving down the Pacific Coast Highway.
While selling a new car can be a relatively easy affair, dealing with other prizes on The Price is Right can be more of a headache. De Lucia was faced with this issue because she had also won a pair of HD camcorders. But, after reading online reviews of the items “and basically couldn’t find a positive one,” she decided to try to sell them. That proved more difficult than one might expect. De Lucia posted on social media, Craigslist, and eBay.
“No one wanted them—no one in the world wanted these cameras. I had a couple friends who said they wouldn’t even take them for free.” Finally she was able to donate them to a worthy cause through a friend.
Just as Kevin Olmstead became the biggest TV winner in American broadcast history, he may also have the distinction of handing the most game show money over to the IRS in history. As Olmstead recalls, “All told, about $900,000 went to taxes.”
The money was not withheld right away. As mentioned, Olmstead did get to see the full amount in his bank account before it was cruelly “1099ed” by the government. This is the great unavoidable truth about game show prize money, Olmstead says: “There is no way to shelter it or anything—as a tax attorney put it: ‘It's income. It's earned. Deal.’
Three-time Jeopardy! winner Adam Holquist also had to cough up some of his winnings to the tax man: “California collects state income tax on any money that you make there, whether you're a resident or not, so the show withholds that, but not the federal.” Holquist also ended up having to file California income taxes despite living in Pennsylvania.
Besides the taxes, there aren’t many downsides to wining a game show, though the nature of Olmstead’s high-profile Millionaire win did lead to more than a few unsolicited propositions: people coming out of the woodwork asking for money or various brokers offering services that Olmstead had already set up.
The oddest occurrence was when supermarket tabloid The Star learned of Olmstead’s single status and asked ladies to send letters in for Olmstead’s review. He says now: “Had they asked, I would have said no—but they did not ask (also, as my now HUSBAND can attest, I, uh, ‘bat for the other team’, but I was not ‘out’ at that time.)”
Even years later he will still receive a random message, like the one from a Florida woman in prison for having her boyfriend kill her husband, who wrote Olmstead because she thought he needed a “real friend.”
Returning to Normalcy After Victory
When the confetti is swept away, the forms filed, the prizes delivered, the taxes paid, and the television broadcast stored on some HD CAM tape in Burbank and in various corners of the internet…what is left for these quiz show conquerers?
... it's something that people are always really excited to talk about.
Aurora De Lucia’s family had all gathered (and taken off work) to watch her Price is Right appearance, but her episode ended up getting bumped to the very next day. The scheduling hiccup and complicated tax and car-selling aftermath did nothing to dampen De Lucia’s electric enthusiasm for the show or her experience on it. As she said a year after her appearance: winning “has just sort of become a fact about me, like, ‘Yeah, I won a car on The Price is Right.’ I will never forget how amazing that day was.”
Jeopardy! winner Adam Holquist has similarly fond memories of his game show experience. Considering his experience now he says, “It's pretty cool that even four or five years later it's something that people are always really excited to talk about.”
But what about Kevin Olmstead and his historic prize money total? Well, to start, Olmstead is no longer the biggest game show prize winner in broadcast history (though he is still in the top ten). Sixteen years later, the last traces of his winnings have all but been blown away by the winds of life and time: “I invested to start with, but that money gradually frittered away so that it is now gone. I bought a luxury minivan and a condo at the time, but I have also moved on from those.”
Olmstead did fund scholarships at the University of Michigan, University of Detroit Mercy, and Case Western Reserve University, which are “still bubbling along.”
The true value of Olmstead’s Millionaire victory came from the unexpected doors of new experiences that were opened for him. The necessity of sharing his remarkable story led to a whole new life pursuit for Omlstead: “One of the most significant thing that came of the Millionaire experience was that I joined Toastmasters International, which helps people with communication and leadership skills. I was asked to tell my story—so I had to get smooth at speaking.” Olmstead moved up the leadership ranks in the Toastmasters organization; his unique television adventure made for great speech material.
In fact, this new avenue led to an unexpected prize in Olmstead’s life, one more important than some cold hard cash: “The skills and confidence that came with Toastmasters ultimately led to me meeting my husband, and getting on with other experiences in engineering.”11%This world also broadened Olmstead’s professional network, as he met people in the television and TV game show business, and appeared on some new shows like Grand Slam and 1 vs. 100. Overall, says Olmstead, “I am happy with my memories and friends."
People like to show off knowledge.
Just as the fond remembrances of these game show experiences have far greater staying power than the prizes earned, the same could be said for the game show as part of American culture.
“It’s an American institution,” says De Lucia of The Price is Right. As a superfan of the show still, she has a quick bit of advice for anyone who is considering stepping through those studio doors one day in hopes of walking out a winner: “Watch the show a few times. It’s all fun and games because it is all fun and games, but there is real money on the line.”
The quiz show, and thus opportunities for the “irritating” (his adjective) know-it-alls like Kevin Olmstead to win big, don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. As Olmstead says “Trivia games in general are as popular as ever—evidenced by the prevalence of pub quizzes, online trivia games, quiz bowl, and various board games. People still like to show off knowledge as opposed to video game or athletic prowess, as doing something with the brain still seems like a ‘good thing’.”
It was the efforts of their own matchless minds, with a bit of luck and TV savvy, that allowed winners like Olmstead, Holquist, and De Lucia to win big when their moment came, thus allowing them to experience a particularly fun and enduring version of the American Dream.