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Next-door neighbors Marion Dessert, left, and Katie Hoody formed a close friendship over the years, one that led to Katie’s upcoming appearance on the popular “Wheel of Fortune” game show. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Wishing ‘Wheel’: Woman competes on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ as gift for longtime neighbor

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Bethany Wesley

BEMIDJI — As she prepared to appear on TV, Katie Hoody had to first buy a TV.

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A Bemidji native now living in Texas, Katie didn’t have a television when she auditioned for “Wheel of Fortune,” but after qualifying as a contestant, she went out and purchased one: a little 7-incher.

Her “Wheel” appearance — airing Jan. 30 — is out of character for the 37-year-old Bemidji High School graduate. She’s a little introverted, anxious in front of too many people at once. Going in front of the studio audience, the cameras, it’s very unlike her.

“I would never do anything this,” Katie said in late December, during a trip home for the holidays. “I don’t want to be on TV; I would never put myself out there like this.”

Then why do it?

For friendship.

“This was a great gift I could give Marion,” Katie said.

Watching ‘Wheel’

Marion Dessert, 94, is a dear family friend, a longtime next-door neighbor to the Hoody family.

She and Katie are close and have remained so, even after Marion moved this past fall into GoldPine Home. After Katie left Bemidji, the two exchanged birthday cards and other correspondence through the years, and Katie visited her whenever she returned home for visits.

“She’s really important to my whole family,” Katie said.

Their friendship deepened when Katie’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Katie returned home for a time as her mother battled her illness and recovered from surgery.

“Somehow, I just got in the habit of going to Marion’s every night to watch ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” Katie said.

Katie would walk next door and they’d spend time together, watching ‘Wheel’ and guessing puzzles.

The more they watched, the more Marion became convinced that Katie should be a contestant.

“She’d get five out of five every time practically,” Marion said.

“Marion thought I was good at the show, that I could solve a lot of the puzzles before (the contestants) would solve them,” Katie said.

While it wasn’t exactly her dream, Katie recognized that Marion liked visiting casinos and winning money. She never expected to actually get on the show, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to fill out an application.

“All the questions, they didn’t really apply to me,” Katie said. “It was clear they were looking for a hook, (such as) military people, spouses, newlyweds.”

Not expecting a response, she filled out the application and moved on with her life.

“I just thought they wouldn’t have a way to distinguish me from anyone else,” she said. “I thought it would go absolutely nowhere.”

Making the cut

A couple of months later, she got an email. “Wheel of Fortune” was going to be in Dallas holding auditions. Katie was invited to submit a video for consideration.

She knew she couldn’t say “I’ve been watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’ all my life and this would be a dream come true” in the video — “That would have be dishonest,” Katie said — so she created a short clip recapping her friendship with Marion and how her appearing on the show would fulfill a wish for Marion.

Hoody sent the video in September 2012 and, to her surprise, she was invited to be one of 60 to audition in Dallas.

“Then I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is actually, maybe going to be possible.”

Katie began practicing in earnest, playing online games and challenging herself to improve.

At the auditions, she made the first cut as potential contestants narrowed from 60 to 20.

“They told us we would receive a letter within two weeks if they want us on the show,” Katie said.

Exactly two weeks later, she got a letter stating that she had been entered into the contestants pool.

Knowing they would only provide a two-week notice before taping, Katie began practicing even more, even purchasing her first television to watch the show at home.

She got the call in November. On Nov. 22, she went to Los Angeles for the taping.

Prohibited from saying or even hinting at whether she won any money, Katie simply said she enjoyed the whole experience.

“I had a ton of fun,” she said. “I had kind of positioned myself to the attitude of going out and just having fun. There’s a lot of luck involved in the game, so I just wanted to go out and have a great time.”

A gift between friends

For Christmas, Katie presented Marion with a digital photo book.

Documenting the entire ‘Wheel’ experience, it includes screen images of Katie’s initial application and funnier images, such as mock practices at home on a large white board and Katie pretending to lift weights in hopes of bulking up in order to spin the wheel.

“The wheel is very, very heavy!” Katie insisted. “Much heavier than you’d expect it to be.”

On the last page of the book, the last entry is blank. Katie left a space in which Marion can fill in exactly how much — if anything — she won during her appearance.

Katie herself will be sitting right alongside Marion when her episode of “Wheel” airs later this month. Katie, back in Texas now, plans to return home to be with Marion as they, together, watch her compete on the show.

“This was all about Marion,” Katie said. “I would never have done this on my own.”

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