If she can make it there, she’ll make it anywhere

Hanna Miller

Sacre bleu!: Hanna Miller got to meet Alex Trebek.

Hanna Miller has always wanted to appear on Jeopardy! She is the sort of person who gathers trivia — factoids, minutiae, gems of knowledge — with the same zeal others turn on ring tones or those inspirational rubber bracelets. And while it may be a stretch to say that she was raised on the show, it seems to have held a profound formative influence over her, one that was just begging for a means of expression.

“I’ve watched the show for ever and ever,” says Miller from her Asheville home. “When you have a lot of trivial knowledge, there really aren’t many outlets for it.”

Miller is a diminutive woman with alert blue-green eyes and a rapid-fire voice. She forms a thought faster than most people can wiggle their fingers. There is a breathless quality about her, the outward sense of a life fully lived. She teaches Pilates. She writes and edits for Mountain Xpress. She delivers history lectures at the Thomas Wolfe home. She is a reigning queen of Southern food culture. She is a corporate-travel coordinator. She waits tables at the Lobster Trap. She gets stories published in prominent places like, oh, say, American Heritage. So it’s tempting to imagine her as a terror with the answer button, all fast-twitch muscles and restless brainpower. In short, she is a person who could give old Alex Trebek a run for his money, take his practiced Canadian cool down a notch or two.

So what else was there for Miller but to make it to Jeopardy? Not win, necessarily, but join the throng of trivialites who have passed through the gameshow’s hallowed halls.

Miller’s first attempt to get on the show came in college, when she and a roommate skulked around a Connecticut casino for show tryouts. They wore costumes and packed fake IDs (Miller was 17 at the time). It didn’t go so well, and maybe that was a good thing. “Even if we’d managed to get on the show, we still would have been too young to play,” she points out.

Two years ago, fate more or less handed Miller Jeopardy! on a plate. She saw an advertisement for tryouts in the pages of Xpress, and drove to Biltmore Square Mall on the appointed day. Instead of the echoey desolation one usually encounters at that terminally underpopulated venue, the place was enlivened by the crush of hundreds of warm bodies.

“People were snaking all the way through the place,” she says. “I’m sure they’ve never had crowds like that before.”

She burned through a few rounds of questions (“they never told you how many you needed to get right to [the] Advance[d category]”) and managed to get a callback to the next round, held at the local Renaissance Hotel. Through will and determination she advanced, round by round, to a final video audition.

When it was all over, the Jeopardy! scouts told Miller she’d receive a call within the year. A year-and-a-half went by. Her phone was silent.

“It turns out they had some scheduling fall through,” she explains. “When I finally got the call, I assumed they were trying to sell me a T-shirt or something. You know, I’m hungry for anything that has the word ‘Jeopardy!’ on it.”

In April, she flew to Culver City, Calif., for the show’s taping. It turns out old Alex Trebek is a bit of a cheapskate: Miller had to pay for the flight herself.

She felt good going into things. Her strengths? “Definitely sports,” she says. But the demographics on the studio shuttle bus erased any notion of an easy victory in the sports rounds. “I was the only girl on the bus. That shot that idea.”

Her fiance, Ken Raskin, traveled with her and sat in the audience during the taping, but there were no loving looks (to say nothing of clues) exchanged between them. “The rules say you can’t even make eye contact,” Miller reveals. It seems Trebek is a stickler for details.

And then it was over. Miller sat down to watch the rest of the show, a maddening experience. “There were boards where I knew the answer to every question. But what I learned is that it all comes down to luck: who you go up against, and who gets the Daily Double. I’d say it’s 99-percent luck.” (“I,” she adds, “must have left mine back in North Carolina.”)

That’s all we can tell you. Contestant rules forbid Miller disclosing anything relating to her standings or winnings prior to the show’s airing.

Hanna Miller is a doer, and her Jeopardy! appearance boils down to this: “I can cross it off my list.”

But, she adds, with a note of Thomas Wolfe-esque poignancy in her voice, “I can’t ever go back.”

Whatever the outcome, we love Hanna Miller. She has made us proud, and we applaud her. An upcoming screening at Asheville Brewing Company (see box) will let you do the same. As usual, the game gets going at 7:30 p.m. sharp. Alex Trebek won’t wait (he has denture cream to sell), so get there early.

Asheville Brewing Company downtown (77 Coxe Ave.) will host a screening party of Hanna’s Jeopardy! episode at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, July 10. 255-4077.


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