by Natalie Gutiérrez
photography by Kayla Salas
Can you answer this clue: “Gaga helped Bradley Cooper rock as they re-re-remade this drama that last starred Streisand & Kristofferson.” Mary Ann Borer can. Not only did she answer the Lady Gaga category questions correctly, but she excelled in categories like children’s literature, U.S. governors, college football names and many other random categories.
This is the real “Jeopardy!” America’s favorite game show, hosted by the charming and charismatic teacher everyone wishes they had, Alex Trebek. Perhaps you are one of the many who have watched “Jeopardy!” tried answering the clues, then after missing a couple, gave up and headed to the kitchen for the last slice of carrot cake.
It is an extremely challenging game. Mary Ann Borer, an alumna from the University of La Verne Broadcasting Department, went far beyond being just a living room contestant. She decided to take the first step toward making her “Jeopardy!” dreams a reality. She decided to take the vetting online test, then, after passing, she gained access to mock games and contestant interviews. Finally, six months later, she found herself on “Jeopardy!” staring at Alex Trebek as he read the final “Jeopardy!” round clue: “Memories of refugees in British train stations before and after WWII helped inspire the creation of this character.” “Who is Paddington?” Mary Ann smiled as she answered correctly. She bet $19,000 for a super payday of $38,200 as she became the new “Jeopardy!” champ.
Mary Ann, who works as a marketing coordinator at Christian Community Credit Union, was one of the fortunate 0.4% to make it through the difficult audition process. She proceeded to win four rounds of “Jeopardy!” and take home $88,500. “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be on ‘Jeopardy!’ We used to watch it together as a family,” says Mary Ann. “We would pretend to be the contestants and answer the clues before the real contestants did.”
Mary Ann took the online test in January 2018 and was called in for an interview audition later that year in August. Out of 3,000 applicants interviewed each year, Mary Ann was one of the 40 who actually appeared on the show. “She had been talking a lot about wanting to try out for it. So, seeing that she actually qualified and was able to be on the show was very exciting for me but also for her because she wanted it for so long,” says daughter Sarah Borer, 16 years old.
“The audition was a lot of fun. I got to meet some of the contestant coordinators and play a couple of practice rounds of the game. The contestant coordinators interviewed us all by asking us about ourselves, and whether we had plans for our future winnings,” says Mary Ann. Mary Ann explains that unlike most people, she was very practical and decided to invest her winnings. “I work for a bank institution so it wouldn’t be right for me just to go crazy and spend it all. I tell people to save their money every day, so how am I going to go against my own advice?”
Hosted by Alex Trebek since 1984, this popular American television quiz show is known for its question and answer format. The three contestants are given clues about different categories to which they must respond in a question format. “Jeopardy!” contestants prepare for months before auditioning and even after being selected. They figuratively hit the books hard to cram for the game. They also practice buzzer speed. However, Mary Ann explains that this was not the case for her. “Unlike most contestants, I really didn’t do anything to prepare. Maybe I should have!” she laughs. Mary Ann explains that through her life’s library, being a member of her high school’s Latin team and her television production courses at the University of La Verne, she was prepped for her four-round streak. “I feel like my preparation was a lifetime of reading whatever I could get my hands on,” she says. “I never thought I would actually win; that’s why I didn’t prepare. I wanted to be in the show. I was going to be on the show. That was enough. I only auditioned once. I was pretty lucky; I understand that many people audition more than once. I was absolutely thrilled to be selected. I just wanted to try out for the experience, and I never dreamed I’d actually be on the show, let alone win.”
What drives someone to figuratively stop watching “Jeopardy!” from their living room couch and actually take the risk of being on TV? “What really gave me the edge here was my training at ULV. When you’re in a production class, you must get used to the cameras on you. If you can take that, you can take anything!”
For many contestants, their biggest obstacle is buzzer timing. Knowing the correct answer is only half the battle. The other half is hitting the buzzer at the right moment. Contestants can only hit the buzzer after Alex Trebek has finished giving the clue, and the small white lights on the playing board, out of view of the audience, flash on. If you “buzz” in before the buzzer is activated, you are locked out for a quarter of a second. Mary Ann says she was already a buzzer professional. As part of her high school’s Latin team, she was accustomed to knowing exactly when to hit the buzzer.
Austin Rogers, former “Jeopardy!” contestant, remembered for winning during his 12-game streak, was Mary Ann’s inspiration for her now famous “poses” she made at the end of each round. Mary Ann made her mark on “Jeopardy!” after winning her first round with an iconic peace sign pose modeled after the popular anime character Sailor Moon. Alex Trebek immediately copied her sign, asking, “Mary Ann, what is that about?” She answered, “It’s from Sailor Moon.” Alex responded, “Of course, I knew that,” to audience laughter. And with that exchange, her fame was born. “When I won the first day, I was thinking, Why don’t I do something memorable, because I know I won’t win the second game.”
Little did Mary Ann know she would make it through four rounds. On the second telecast, she flashed her peace sign. She continued the famous poses with the three-finger salute from “The Hunger Games” during the third round. On the fourth round, she saluted Alex with the Vulcan salutation from “Star Trek,” which is usually used alongside the saying, “Live long and prosper.” On her last round, Mary Ann formed a heart using both hands. “The only thing I really planned out was the Sailor Moon pose because of the crazy chance I got to come back for a second round,” Mary Ann says. With each hand pose, Alex mimicked them back.
Sworn to secrecy about the games’ outcomes, Mary Ann had to keep her winning ways to herself for about a month before the episodes aired. The nondisclosure statement she signed said that she would jeopardize her winnings if she talked.
The first game aired on Nov. 5, 2018, and was watched by her children Sarah and Hunter with her former husband Eric Borer in the Arts and Communications Building journalism newsroom. In the moment, Sarah was rooting for her mother as if the game were live. “I knew she really wanted to do this for a long time, and I knew she would do very well,” she says. “I had no doubt she knew the answers,” says Eric Borer, manager of journalism operations, and adjunct professor in the ULV Communications Department. When Mary Ann finally watched the episodes with her children, she remarked, “Man, I can’t believe I missed that question. I should’ve done better. My son Hunter then said, ‘Mom, you said you would be happy just to be on!’”
One of the questions Mary Ann struggled with was about the number of vertebrae in a specific region. It was the final “Jeopardy!” question in her second game. “I used to work in medical records. So, there is no reason I should’ve gotten that wrong, but I blanked on it! Any other day of the week, I would’ve been able to answer that question, but right there and then I was like, I don’t got it.”
A full week’s worth of shows are taped in one day. Three shows are taped before lunch and the rest after lunch. “People talk about the buzzer being what gets people, but I think that after being there for a while or after the first two games, you start getting tired, and that’s what gets you,” Mary Ann says.
A bad night’s sleep or bad news can truly affect a contestant’s performance, especially while filming a week’s worth of shows. “You don’t tape one show and then go home. People say, ‘Get some rest before tomorrow!’ but that’s not how it works,” Mary Ann laughs.
March 6, 2019, the show’s host Alex Trebek announced he suffered from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Fans and contestants were shocked. “It’s been tough even though none of us know Alex very well. In fact, he’s not allowed to interact with the contestants a lot because they don’t want people thinking we’re cheating,” Mary Ann says. “But you know, I grew up with him, and it was like he’s a member of the family. He was in my house all the time on television. So, it’s been very tough for me and also for the other contestants.” Mary Ann says that a past contestant, who is a rabbi, held a healing service for Alex, and other former contestants made him artwork to let him know they are thinking about him. “He’s been very important to all of our lives.”
After years of playing from home, Mary Ann summoned the courage to get up and be part of the show that played a big part of her life. Her advice to those who want to follow: “I would say just try your best to find out how stuff works, pay attention to current events, learn anything you can and just be curious about stuff.” Mary Ann says the best thing you can do is simply sign up for the test and let “Jeopardy!” decide. “Honestly, I never expected to win. I thought I was just going to go and get my $1,000 coming in third and just have a story to tell everybody,” Mary Ann says with a winning smile on her face.
Could You Win at Jeopardy?
Are you a Jeopardy! champion? These are questions Mary Ann Borer answered correctly. Could you do the same?
1. Broadway.com said it best about this show: “Tina Fey’s fetch movie is, like, now on Broadway.”
2. As a noun, it started up in a 1980 computer handbook.
3. His “Power of Positive Thinking” & “Positive Living” helped this minister and author live to the age of 95.
4. Someone angry about a past event might be balancing a “chip” here.
5. A word for a type of rope gives us the name of these rope-soled sandals.
6. Syria’s Biggest Neighbor.
7. Queen Victoria’s Scottish castle is the source of the name of this laced shoe.
8. Born Stefani Germanotta, Lady Gaga is a huge fan of this band and got her stage name from their song “Radio Ga Ga.”
9. A.P. journalist Terry Anderson was freed in 1991 after 2,454 days as a hostage of Hezbollah of this country.
10. Your face falls as it’s Seven-Card Stud, and your straight just lost to a hand with three queens and two jacks, called this.
1. Mean Girls
3. (Norman Vincent) Peale
4. Their shoulder
10. A full house