When I got the $20,000 question wrong

I was too embarrassed to tell people, so only my closest friends and family knew I was going to be on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. I wasn’t sure I really wanted them to watch. I didn’t want them to know that literally, I was asked a $20,000 question.

And I got it wrong.

After work, I come home to our small apartment to find my husband, Joe, sitting on our couch on his computer. Not an unfamiliar sight, but pretty soon I hear that telltale “Doo-doo-loo-doo-doo-loo-doo-doo-loo-doo-doo-loo-doooooo”: the suspenseful theme music of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

He barely looks up at me as I enter, totally engrossed in his computer screen. Walking over to sit beside him, I see a basic version of the game show on the screen, and my husband answering multiple-choice questions as they pop up.

The online quiz is the first step in an audition process to be a contestant on the show, and only results above a certain number make it through to the next stage.

He isn’t actually trying out for the classic version of Millionaire. It’s a spin-off version, Millionaire Hot Seat, where six contestants compete one after the other, passing or answering incorrectly until the final question. Whoever is in the “Hot Seat” for this question is the only person eligible to win money. That person either answers the question right, and wins the top prize (which goes down in value the more times people answer their questions incorrectly), or answer wrong and win $1000.

Soon enough, my husband is finished with online quiz, and he finally turns to greet me, unsure of whether his score will qualify him for the next round.

“Hi, love.” He thrusts the computer at me. “Here, you try.”

I figure I have nothing to lose, so I enter in my information and go through the questions. I do surprisingly well, and within a few days I have an email inviting me to the in-person audition. My husband does not.

The audition is held in the large conference room of a suburban RSL club. The cheap chairs and familiar vomit-disguising carpet are my first clues that the magic of television may, in fact, be an illusion.

All of the attendees sit on these cheap chairs, a large group facing a single raised stage. We are to undergo a multiple-choice trivia quiz in the style of the show, each individually writing down our answers to the questions asked on a sheet of paper numbered 1-100. Once the questions are answered, we hand the sheet to our neighbour for marking, with only those above a certain score admitted through to the next level.

Let’s weed out the fakers from the real trivia buffs.

As each question is asked, I know immediately whether I know the answer or not. Most of the time, the answer comes to me freely. Sometimes, I have to think a little harder, to associate words until it pops into my head. But I am never in any doubt about whether I know the answer or not.

To my surprise, I make it through this round as well.

The next step, for those of us with high enough scores, is a lengthy questionnaire and a camera test. We take turns sitting in front of the camera and answering a series of questions. The show’s producers want to know things like how we would spend the prize money, what our favourite things to do were, and something about where we worked.

After the screen test, we are sent home with the promise of a phone call if we are successful.

Several months later, the audition process a distant memory, the call came. I made it onto the show! The producers make arrangements to fly me and my husband to Melbourne for the taping.

We play the Who Wants to be a Millionaire game on the iPad the whole way.

Once we get to Melbourne, we find out more specifics about how the show would be run. Five episodes would be taped on the one day, so there were quite a few contestants in the green room. We would rehearse, then we would watch each other’s shows from a monitor in the green room.

The producers show us old episodes and give us some coaching in how to answer the questions, but there wasn’t much they could say. The common refrain was “You either know the answer, or you don’t.” That might be true, but it was hardly helpful when thousands of dollars were on the line!

And, here’s the kicker – our episode would be one of a special series of “heart rate” ones, where contestants are hooked up to a heart rate monitor and the results are broadcast on the screen. Eeek!

Finally, my turn in the spotlight.

I am the first contestant in the line-up, and therefore the one who will be asked the most questions about my life. I try to be light and entertaining, all the while thinking about what questions I will be asked, and how far I will make it.

At last, the questions begin.

Of course, the first few are easy, and I breeze through them. Who is the big trucking magnate? (Lindsay Fox.) What is Charlie Brown’s catchphrase? (“Good grief!”)

After awhile, I decide that I need to tactically “throw” one and pass, so that I will hopefully come back around into the Hot Seat to answer the final question. So I pass on a question that I know, and take my spot at the end of the queue.

One by one, my fellow contestants get their questions right, and wrong, some pass and some have to say goodbye. With each question, my stomach tightens as I hope my gamble pays off, and that I make it back to the seat by the final question.

And then, what do you know. The contestant before me gets the answer wrong, and I end up in the Hot Seat for the final question!

There is an inevitable ad break, and I turn around to Joe in the audience to give him the “I’m freaking out but this could be a lot of money!” face.

I’m a nervous wreck, delirious. He nervously gives me a thumbs-up.

I stare at the question screen, willing it to appear. I’m impatient. I want to know. I’ll either know it or I won’t.

If I get it right, I win $20,000. Wrong, and a paltry (but more than nothing) $1000.

The question is in my favourite category: film.

“Who was the female star of the 1982 film, The Man From Snowy River? A: Judy Davis. B: Sigrid Thornton. C: Helen Morse. D: Rachel Ward.”

Oh, no. I don’t know the answer! I squint my eyes, trying to squeeze my brain to bring back some kind of memory.

Like trying to remember a dream, the more I try to visualise it, the more elusive it becomes.

I was born in 1981. I was only one year old when this film came out. I have seen it, but that was many years ago, when I was a young girl.

I know, I know, it’s a seminal work in the canon on Australian film. I know, this is something I should know!

And yet.. I don’t. As I desperately try to picture the face of the actress, my mind is drawing a blank.

Some things are coming through. I remember that she’s a brunette. A down-to-earth character. Of the land.

I’m able to narrow it down to two of the four options, but my brain is jumping back and forth between the two. Was it Sigrid Thornton? I know that she was a very popular actor a few years ago, but I didn’t think that she was famous that far back. Or was it Judy Davis? She’s been in loads of things, and has a long, varied, and international body of work.

Well. I’m going to have to make a guess. And if I wasn’t strong enough with my answer, Eddie (the host) would try to change my mind.

I had to be definite. Time was running out.

“Lock in A. Judy Davis.” I sat.

“Are you sure?” Eddie asks

“No, but I haven’t seen the film in a long time. Lock it in.”


“I’m sorry, the answer was B: Sigrid Thornton”

My vision goes blurry. The room spins around me. I had my chance at $20,000 and I couldn’t make it convert! I feel devastated, humiliated. I’m sure I blurt out something like “Oh, well” and paste a smile on my face for Eddie’s wrap up of the show.

I don’t even remember the next moments, but I must have gone back to the green room, collected my things, and been shuttled to the airport. My entire existence was enveloped by my failure.

I keep saying “sorry” to my husband. He assures me that he doesn’t care, that it is amazing that I even got that far, that he is proud of me. I try to tell myself that it is an experience, something to tell the grandkids.

But in reality, my disappointment of myself takes over. I wallow in the shame and loathing for several days. I dream about that final question, I wake up in the night thinking about it, and I cant’t help but wonder “what if I had chosen the other answer?”

But I just didn’t know it. I didn’t know the answer, and nothing in that moment could have made me remember it.

Several weeks later, and feeling marginally better about the loss, my episode finally aired.

I didn’t want to tell people it was on, because I was a bit embarrassed, but instead I swallowed my pride and decided to embrace it.

Most people wouldn’t even apply for the show, let alone get onto it, right? And surely, I couldn’t beat myself up over that.

So what’s the lesson here? If you don’t know, then you don’t know. Don’t waste time wallowing and dwelling on the embarrassment of not knowing. Try to move on, and focus on the things that you do know. Surround yourself with supportive people who will reassure you of your worth.

But also, allow yourself to feel that disappointment. Really feel it. Because one day, it might make a good story.

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