Though the winners receive an initial jolt of publicity after their show airs, they usually fade into obscurity. Oftentimes their lives change surprisingly little. Many don't quit their jobs as they splurge on themselves with a nice car or a bigger house. The reason is simple: A million dollars may seem like a lot of money, but it is not enough for someone to join the idle rich. And taxes take a huge chunk out of the windfall, as much as 50%.
Being a game show celebrity does have its perks. Fans recognize them from time to time. Some make friends with other champions who they meet at conventions and quiz competitions held in pubs. And a few, including Jeopardy smart guy Ken Jennings, are able to cash in on their celebrity by writing books, making speeches and appearing on other game shows.
The stories don't always have a happy ending, though. Winner Kathy Cox only recently settled the legal battle over her plans to donate the $1 million prize she won on Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? to three schools for special needs children.
Here are some stories of game show heroes and heroines, and what they did after the check arrived and the bright lights faded.
- Claim to Fame: Won $3.2 million between 2000 and 2003 on Jeopardy!
- After the Show: Pursuing a career in show business; performs with the Second City comedy group; pitching ideas for game shows and goes on auditions; participates in pub quizzes with fellow game show champs.
- The Money: His winnings enabled him to pursue his show business dreams without having to wait on table like most struggling actors. "It's really nice not to have to do that," he said in an interview. As for the money, that's taken care of by his father, a financial advisor, who has pursued a conservative strategy. "I bought a Porsche (which was totaled a few months ago) and invested the rest. We joke that I am the only 32-year-old with an 82-year-old's portfolio."
- Claim to Fame: In 2004, won 74 games and $2.52 million on Jeopardy!, becoming a media sensation.
- After the Show: Appeared in TV commercials; other game shows including "1 vs. 100" and Who Wants to be a Millionaire; won $500,000 on Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? (his website points out that he "refused to risk it all on the final question, thereby proving not to be smarter than a 5th grader"); author of Brainiac and Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac.
- The Money: On his website, Jennings says: "Most of that is invested in your usual boring places: stocks, bonds, real estate, etc. I don't want to be one of these lottery winners you see bankrupt on TV a few years later, having already lost it all. Some has already gone to charity, and I plan to do a lot more of that. I don't really have a pet cause, but I can see quite a bit going to educational causes-scholarships and the like. This is not an invitation to e-mail me about paying off your student loans."
- Claim to Fame: Won $2.18 million on Who Wants to be a Millionaire in 2001 and $27,000 on Jeopardy! in the early 1990s.
- After the Show: Still works at the same environmental engineering job he had before the show ; joined Toastmasters because he was inundated with speaking requests; a regular at game show conventions.
- The Money: In an email, Olmstead writes: "With the winnings, I got into a luxury condo with renovations and many new furnishings (don't have to mow the lawn, etc.), and I bought the vehicle of my dreams -- a fully loaded...MINIVAN. (Chrysler Town & Country). Yeah, I didn't get a 'Vette or Porsche or the like (again surprising many), because such are frankly impractical in the Midwest (lousy roads, snow, road salt, etc.). Also, at the time I was hauling people and things a lot, or had the potential to -- now not so much, but it's still a comfortable vehicle."
- Claim To Fame: In 2001, won $1.86 million on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and $11,401 on Jeopardy! in 1989.
- After the Show: Retired from his job at IBM four years after his appearance on Millionaire. He prides himself on not letting his status as a celebrity get to his head. Toutant also helped launch the Game Show Congress, which promotes the future of the genre, and travels regularly to quiz competitions to compete against past winners.
- The Money: Donated some to charity; helped support his friend's projects, including producing CDs for a Western swing band; is producing musical theater performances and buying a small interest in a new brewpub. He bought a modest house but still drives the same pick-up truck he had before the show. In an email, he writes: "...I tried not to let my windfall change my life very much. I was already happy with who I was before I won and I didn't want people to think that the money had changed me."
- Claim to Fame: In 2000, won $1.76 million on Twenty One while pursuing an MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. which he later earned.
- After the Show: Left the U.S. Navy in December 2000 after 12 years service; started his finance career at General Electric (GE); participates in game show tournaments and conventions.
- The Money: In an email interview, Legler said: "Shortly after winning, we did splurge a little. My wife and I spent a month in Europe, spending a good portion of that time touring Scandinavia which was wonderful. A bit was used to help out the family -- got my parents a new car and help them pay some debt, helped my sister fund her college education, etc. But most of the money was invested -- oops! April of 2000 wasn't the best time to be entering the market. It's certainly helped to have a little nest egg, making it easier to weather the 2001 recession when I was unable to find work post-MBA."
- Claim to Fame: Was the Wheel of Fortune's first $1 million winner in 2008. She first tried to get on the show when she was 13.
- After the Show: Moore, then known by her married name Loewenstein, says she "kind of flew under the radar" because most people were focused on the presidential election; she kept her job as a floral designer. Of her triumph, Moore says: "I lucked out. I got a lot of big spins."
- The Money : "I am saving it for a rainy day ...Don't get me wrong I did go on a few shopping trips. ... The taxes were awful."
- Claim to Fame: Became the first person in the history to win the $1 million first prize on Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? in 2008. She was Georgia's Superintendent of Schools.
- After the Show: Cox had always planned to donate her winnings to charity. As the economy went sour, business at her husband John's construction company plunged, forcing the couple to declare bankruptcy. Creditors wanted the prize money, which lead to a legal showdown. The matter has only recently been resolved. "We incurred a lot of extra legal fees," Cox says, adding that the bills totaled $40,000, instead of the $8,000 they expected. "It's kind of a sore point." Nonetheless, she doesn't regret going on the show.
- The Money: The three schools for deaf and blind children got $500,000 of the prize money with the remainder going to the bankruptcy trustee.