Picture it! Sicily, 1912! By which I mean Melbourne, 2004!
I was but a wee 21 year old trying to put off reality and grown up decisions by doing an honours year writing about adapting Shakespeare into film. This is of course why I work as a travel agent now. I still have my thesis, and frankly I don’t understand any of it.
In 2004 I lived in what was essentially a block of flats owned by the university. It was one of the best years of my life – people were forever dropping by, I was close enough to roll out of bed and into class five minutes later, and there was far less unexpected nudity compared to living in the residential college. (Sidenote, all of this happened before social media and I AM SO GRATEFUL good grief).
On this particular evening towards the end of the year, I was sitting out on a picnic table having a beverage or twelve with a random assortment of housemates and hangers on when one of our neighbours wandered past. I’ve since forgotten his name, let’s call him Richard.
Richard had news. The day before, he’d been at a taping of Deal Or No Deal, had gotten picked, and won five thousand dollars. Bullshit! I declared. Ever one to prove a point, he wandered off and returned with a giant novelty cheque for $5,000.
If you’re not familiar with the show (it’s not on in Australia any more), one person chooses a suitcase they think has two hundred thousand dollars in it. That gets put to the side, and then you go through the remaining suitcases, eliminating each one while the ‘banker’ offers you money to stop playing. You know. How most people acquire money.
It is impossible not to be impressed by a giant novelty cheque for any amount of money and I drilled him for more information. He said he’d filled out a form online, gone in for a mini audition, and went to the taping the day before. His block had been picked, and back in those days you had to answer three questions correctly in order to be the person who picked the suitcases. He did it the fastest, and as a result came home with five thousand dollars.
Now at this particular juncture in proceedings I was a broke uni student, and the possibility of money appealed greatly to me, but the possibility that I could be issued a giant novelty cheque for fifty cents appealed even more, so I declared I was going to do it too, drank another 37 glasses of wine and promptly forgot about it. It was only after Richard’s episode aired on TV that I went online, filled out the form, and then promptly forgot about it all again.
Cut to March, 2005. I had moved into a falling down sharehouse with my friends Becky and Krystle, and an adopted cat named Ollie. I had gotten my first grown up job as a glorified debt collector in a call centre and my god did I hate it. One day, I spotted an email from Channel 7 asking to come in for an audition/screening. I actually don’t remember much about this as I was full of cold and flu tablets but I know I took my friend Becky and whatever the hell I said must have demonstrated I wasn’t a complete psycho and so we were invited to a taping on Friday, April 8. Since this meant taking a day off work, we decided to celebrate this by heading to the uni bar for uni night.
In hindsight, this was either a very wise move or a very dumb one. But I’ll get to that.
A whole lot of vodka and a late night later, Becky and I made our groggy way to the Channel 7 studios in South Melbourne. I was in questionable shape. As we waited to be let in the studio, Becky gave me a once over and managed to borrow some perfume from someone to mask the scent of vodka and cigarettes that I had excreting from my pores.
There were, I think, three episodes taped in the morning, and by the time we broke for lunch I was starting to feel slightly more human. There were two more episodes to be taped and then I could retreat back to my bed to think on my mistakes.
Right after lunch, our block got picked to go on the podium. Someone explained that one person would be picked to open suitcases via the medium of a quiz, and to press either a. b, or c as each question was read.
As blurry as I was on that day, I still remember the questions:
- What is the name of the street where The Simpsons live? (Evergreen Terrace, don’t come for me I LIVE The Simpsons)
- What does the e stand for in email? (Come on now)
- What is the closest city to Darwin? (It’s Dili, in Timor Leste. Don’t ask me how I knew this, I have no idea).
And then my name was called, and I was walking down to the main part of the stage and people were clapping and cheering. I picked suitcase 12, because that was the number of Richmond’s full forward and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
And then everything just sort of happened. Someone powdered my face. A very nice lady from wardrobe fussed over my top which I kept pulling down over my stomach, suddenly very worried about being fat on TV (I was six weeks away from turning 22). Suitcases were eliminated. Becky guessed she had $1 in her suitcase, but she had 50 cents, thwarting my comedic plans for a giant novelty cheque. At one point the host, Andrew O’Keefe, found out I was writing a thesis on Shakespeare and launched into a soliloquy when I confessed I was too hungover to remember my own name let along quote anything.
At one point the banker offered me $22,500 to stop playing and much to the audiences horror I was like “eh, no deal, this is fun!” Please note that if this happened today, or when I wasn’t sweating smirnoff black, I WOULD NOT HAVE DONE THIS.
And then it was down to my suitcase, and one suitcase left on the podium. There was a possibility that my suitcase had ten thousand in it, or it might have had fifty thousand dollars in it. The bank offered me thirty thousand dollars to stop playing and I finally realised what the hell was happening and said deal. I opened my suitcase, and discovered it had ten thousand dollars in it. I did the best I could do.
And that was that. I was handed a giant novelty cheque for thirty thousand dollars and the episode ended with Becky looking shocked and me looking like I’m about to throw up. As we were leaving, someone heard I was catching public transport home and thoughtfully gave me a garbage bag to hide the loot, which I promptly got stuck in the tram door as we went to catch our train.
The thing that I never knew about game shows, is that whatever you win is not guaranteed until your episode airs on the TV. Once that happens, you’ll get your prize about a month later. So I had four weeks to sit it out. I decided not to tell too many people, in case disaster struck. But of course, I had to tell my parents and my brother. My other housemate Krystle came home from work and refused to believe me despite the presence of my cheque and my hangover preventing any sort of elaborate prank.
The next night my friend Andrew had his twenty first birthday so by the end of the night everyone including the bar staff knew what I’d done. By the time the episode aired, the secret was well and truly out.
The night I made my TV debut, I was working. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it, so while my colleagues gathered in the break room to watch me say pfft to 22.5K, I sat on the phones and quietly freaked out. I had thirty thousand dollars? What in gods name was happening?
As promised, a month later a cheque arrived in the post to match the giant novelty cheque Ollie insisted on chewing on. It was official. I had thirty thousand dollars.
It never once occurred to me to use it as a house deposit or anything like that. I was 22 and all I had wanted to do since I was a little kid was go travelling. And now I had money. That was it, I was done. I was all set to get on the first plane out of Melbourne, but then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and I decided to wait. Then I graduated. Then I lost my job on Christmas Eve for missing too many days. Cannot say I was that upset, to be honest, I was rubbish at that job.
Finally, it was locked in. I left Australia the day after the closing ceremony of the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Ollie went to stay at my parents house. My Mum’s friend Carmel came down from the country to take me to the airport, and I was off. Nine months of backpacking shenanigans awaited. I was seated next to the mother of a silver medallist from the UK so the flight attendants gave us both champagne to celebrate. I was off!
Next week, I’ll tell you about my first stop – California.