You rarely find out much about the real lives of the contestants you see on TV game shows. Apart from a first name, or a hometown, or a canned 30-second anecdote, these contestants are essentially avatars for the viewers at home. When an episode ends, it's easy to forget that the contestants are real people, taking whatever they win back into their real, complicated lives.
So what really happens when you get the unexpected windfall of a giant game show prize? To get the inside story, I spoke with Susan Campagnone, who recently won $1 million on the syndicated game show Monopoly Millionaires' Club.
"You think, oh gosh, if this ever happened to me," Campagnone said. "But certainly, to have it become an actual reality is beyond any words."
Until this week, Campagnone's win was a closely guarded secret. She taped her prize-winning episode on January 13, 2015, but it didn't air until Saturday, May 9, which means she had to keep the windfall a secret from pretty much everybody for almost five months. "I think that's been the hardest part, through all of this — keeping it amongst ourselves, and not being able to share," she said. (The only person Campagnone was permitted to tell was her fiancé, who came as her guest to the actual taping in Las Vegas.)
Monopoly Millionaires' Club is based on the board game Monopoly. In the final round, a contestant stands on an enormous Monopoly game board, awaiting the outcome of dice rolls. But the prize for making it around the board and landing on Go isn't 200 Monopoly bucks — it's 1 million actual American dollars. Campagnone's win was essentially a lucky break; after rolling a pair of fours and landing on a Chance Card, she chose the card that sent her directly to Go.
By design, game shows take place in an insanely heightened environment: cheering audiences, flashing lights, dramatic music. The goal is to maximize the drama and excitement for viewers at home. But when the taping is over, producers need to bring the often shell-shocked contestants back to the real world. "They were able to calm me down," said Campagnone. "We really had to take a few seconds to let my adrenaline come down a little bit, and realize that what happened really happened."
The strangeness of Campagnone's win was compounded by the fact that her prize-winning episode was just the first of several taped that day — a time-and-cost-saving tactic commonly employed by game shows. For home audiences, who see each episode on a different day, the accelerated production schedule is supposed to be invisible. Between games, the host changes his tie, returning contestants change their shirts, and everyone plays along with the illusion that 24 hours have passed instead of 15 minutes.
For Campagnone, that meant returning to the audience after winning $1 million and acting like nothing had happened. "I talked a little bit, composed myself, and went back out to the audience," she explained, watching from the crowd as two more episodes were taped.
But brief as the experience may be, the shock and excitement lasts for weeks after, as the reality of a $1 million windfall sinks in. "I didn't sleep really well the whole time I was [in Las Vegas]," she said. "And then, of course, when we came back… I don't think I slept for two weeks at night. I was just thinking, and reliving that moment, over and over in my mind."
Campagnone spoke with an accountant and a financial advisor as she wrapped her head around her prize. Of course, $1 million is just the starting point; after taxes, the number shrinks considerably. "You really have to start with the fact that you really get half of [the money]," she said. "It's not like one of the jackpots — a MegaMillions, or even a Powerball, where people win $350 million." Obviously, $1 million is a ton of dough, even after taxes, but it's also not "quit your job and move to the Bahamas" money. As such, Campagnone doesn't have any particularly extravagant plans for her future.
Winning a game show also comes with a bit of a quid pro quo in the form of promotional obligations — including this interview. But now that she can talk about her experience freely, Campagnone is looking forward to celebrating her win on a vacation with her family. "I think we'll definitely be able to pick up our glasses next week and toast a little bit," she said. "Just enjoy some family time alone and away. And I'm really excited about that."
And even months later, having six zeroes suddenly show up in your bank account is an experience that's difficult to wrap your head around. When I asked Campagnone about the strangest part of the experience, she paused for a while before answering. "Honestly, when I received the money in my account, I just… I had to keep looking at it," she said. "Saying, 'This is real.' I've never had this amount of money in my life."