A Tale of Two Stars

December 2014
Written By: 
Ashley Daniels
Hollywood may have embraced them, but Nancy O’Dell and Vanna White will always call the Myrtle Beach area home—it’s where their hearts are

Life is a highway. And the sand-dusted one that bumps along our stretch of the Carolina coast can have a way of sweeping you off your bare feet and romancing you for a lifetime. But for two blonde beauty queens raised in Myrtle Beach and her sister town of North Myrtle Beach, our Highway 17 was wide open, catapulting them into bigger, mind-blowing opportunities on the West Coast, off the 405 and amidst the stars. We talked with celebs Nancy O’Dell and Vanna White—household names from here to Hollywood—who were once hometown girls who walked the same beaches we all do, slid quarters into the same arcade games we do, and who played a Putt-Putt golf game or two like all us locals. And we found that although these two women—born only a decade apart—are thousands of miles from home, Myrtle Beach (and their Southern charm and character) is never far from their hearts.

Positive Nancy

“I’m still a country bumpkin out here in L.A., and I’m doggone proud of that,” says Nancy O’Dell—with the slight hint of a Southern drawl, mind you—during a phone interview before she’s called back up to sit in her co-anchor chair in the Entertainment Tonight studio.

“My dad would say I haven’t changed, and that makes me proud. I always try to remain a good person and not lose those Southern girl values that I had growing up, even after coming out to Hollywood.”

O’Dell, born Nancy Humphries in 1966, graduated from the former Coastal Academy High School in Myrtle Beach. She was not only active, but she excelled in every activity that she participated in: valedictorian of her class, MVP of her basketball and volleyball teams, all-state tennis player and first baseman in softball. The overachiever continued to conquer at Clemson University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a major in marketing. In May 2013 Clemson awarded O’Dell with an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree.

Beautiful, poised, smart and talented (she also plays the piano), it’s clear to see why Nancy competed in the Miss America Pageant. She represented South Carolina in 1988 and took home the swimsuit award in the prelims. Two years later, she stood on stage for Miss South Carolina USA. She was 1st runner-up.

O’Dell didn’t always interview the stars who wear Versace on the red carpet. Her journalism career began right here in Myrtle Beach as a reporter and anchor for WPDE-TV. Her next assignment was in Charleston, where she dug deeper as a crime reporter at WCBD-TV, investigating the lenient police treatment of DUI cases. O’Dell’s work led to a statewide investigation and a Best Report of the Year Award from the Associated Press.

The national nod set in motion O’Dell’s whirlwind career, starting with co-anchoring in Miami in 1993 and continuing with a move to Las Vegas with her first husband, Dr. Richard O’Dell, to work on the tabloid show A Current Affair. After this show ended in 1996, she began her job at Access Hollywood as lead anchor with Billy Bush.

But it was time to move on—first in 2005 when she married Keith Zubchevich, a business executive (the two met in an airport terminal), and second in 2011 when she officially came on-board Entertainment Tonight as the legendary Mary Hart’s replacement in the co-anchor chair.

In between, she’s done just about everything, well, in between. From hosting about every awards pre-show red carpet arrival event—Golden Globes, Oscars, Emmys—to the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants to the Tournament of Roses Parade, the Kentucky Derby—even WWE Raw. She picked up an Emmy and was nominated for seven more. But the accomplishment that’s dearest to her heart is becoming a mother to her daughter, Ashby Grace, in 2007 at age 41, in addition to her stepsons, Tyler and Carson (now 18 and 14, respectively).

“Can you believe Ashby is 7 now?” she asks. “Wow, time flies by so fast! She’s loving school—like a little social butterfly—she’s the light of my life.”

Now the challenge for O’Dell isn’t just a tight schedule of interviews and travel, it’s juggling family time in between.

“I think you for sure can do it all—be a mother and work—but you must make family a first priority and be willing to give to make that happen,” she says. “My most important job is being a good mom and a good wife, way beyond all the Hollywood stuff that I do. I love that I can drop off my daughter and pick her up at school and that I have someone I work for that understands the importance of family, too.

“I remember Mom and Dad were at everything for me—every tennis match, softball game, basketball game—and I’m not going to miss that for my daughter,” she adds. “I still feel a little guilty telling my boss, ‘Hey, I’m going to go to this thing for my kid,’ but he understands. You have to be forgiving of yourself to be able to do it all. You can’t really do everything. You make a choice, then live in the moment. Give up an assignment and then live in the moment.”

And her moment-to-moments are packed, starting with conference calls at 5:30 a.m.—sometimes before that, at 4:30, she’s running on the treadmill—then it’s off to help write the show, check sources, give input, do interviews and travel.

“The time factor is hard, but I enjoy what I do,” says O’Dell. “I’ve always loved reporting ever since Myrtle Beach. You’re constantly learning, and it’s a different story every time, in a different location. A day is never the same day for me.”

She also feels blessed to be able to use the platform she has in her position to do some good in a big way. Most recently, she challenged Oprah and Garth Brooks to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. O’Dell’s mother, Betty, a retired schoolteacher, was diagnosed with ALS in 2007 and passed away in 2008. Today O’Dell is a National Vice President of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the ALS National Ambassador. Her family formed a foundation in her mother’s name called Betty’s Battle: Fighting ALS (bettysbattle.org).

Nancy’s dad, Lester, who still resides in Myrtle Beach, flies out to visit his daughter and grandchildren in L.A. quite often, visiting for two weeks at a time. Last time O’Dell took her family back to her East Coast roots in Myrtle Beach was several years ago.

“Of course we went to the Grand Prix and the big Ferris Wheel, played four rounds of putt putt, hung out on the beach, walked on the Boardwalk and Barefoot Landing,” says O’Dell. “And we still didn’t get it all accomplished in one weekend!”

Over the holidays, the family will usually gather in L.A. or Charlotte, where her sister lives. “I can still picture my mom making all of that food!” says O’Dell. “I’ll still make Betty’s Biscuits, her mac and cheese, her brown rice and mashed potatoes. I have all of her recipes written down in her handwriting. … I’m so glad I had her do that.”

O’Dell has also done some writing of her own. In early motherhood, she published her best-selling debut Full of Life: Mom-to-Mom Tips I Wish Someone Told Me When I was Pregnant in 2009, followed by Full of Love: Mom-to-Mom Advice for Enriching Families with Simple Photo Albums and Scrapbooking, Secret Ingredients: Step-by-Step “Recipes” for Creating Meaningful Gifts, released in 2011, and Here’s to Fabulous You!

She’s also producing, with a series on REELZ to air sometime in 2015. “I’ll be interviewing celebrities, but it’s more on the documentary side,” she says. “Producing is more creative, which I love.”

Also quite creative is an educational series of children’s apps she developed, available on iTunes. One is named after her daughter—“Little Ashby: Star Reporter”—and there’s one especially for the holidays—“Santa’s Big Premiere.” It was named as an Honorable Mention for the Cynopsis: Kids Imagination Awards.

“I asked Ashby what I should name the app and of course that’s what she came back with!” says O’Dell. “It’s based on what I get to do as a reporter that I’m lucky enough to be able to do. This is a way for kids to have a chance to do it virtually.”

A journalist and reporter she’s always aspired to be is Oprah, also one of her favorite interviews in an endless who’s who list of celebs she’s sat down with, including President Obama and the First Lady, Angelina Jolie, Second Lady Jill Biden, Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson and many more.

“I love and adore Oprah,” says O’Dell. “She’s so positive and motivating and she makes sense. And she is like we all see her off-camera as well: so nice and giving.”

O’Dell highly recommends Oprah’s latest book, What I Know For Sure, a collection of her magazine columns. “It’s life lessons and experiences and really makes you think on learning from both the good and bad things that happen,” she says.

She’s dealt with both the good and the bad in her life, too, with many of those good memories tucked under the blanket of the South Carolina sun.

“I forget how friendly everyone is in South Carolina,” she says. “Everything is too fast-paced out here; no one has time. And it’s just so beautiful—it’s my home. Some day I will retire there. My husband approves, he’s been there!”

Vanna’s Fortune

Fame and fortune is a puzzle Vanna White solved since her first smile, twirl and turn of a letter on Wheel of Fortune in 1982.

Chosen out of 200 eager applicants, White landed the job of her career at age 25 alongside weatherman Pat Sajak after former hostess Susan Stafford left the show.

More than 6,000 shows later, White has become a game show icon—a parodied symbol that’s sometimes attached to the “America’s Sweetheart”/Barbie stereotype. (Imitation is the best form of flattery, after all.)

White doesn’t mind it at all, as she laughs it off all the way to the bank with her multi-million-dollar annual salary, plus her investments in Learjets and her own line of yarn, Vanna’s Choice, from which she donates half of the proceeds to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

For many who know her, it couldn’t happen to a nicer girl.

She was born Vanna Marie Rosich in 1957 in Conway, the daughter of Joan and Miguel Rosich, a native of Puerto Rico. After Miguel abandoned the family, Joan got remarried to Herbert White Jr., whose name Vanna took. Herbert was a real estate agent in North Myrtle Beach and, at age 89, still is today.

“Growing up in a small town like North Myrtle Beach was awesome and to my benefit,” says White during a phone interview from her Beverly Hills home. “I’ve taken that small-town girl and same morals to Hollywood and still I feel I’m not that different. I don’t think it’s different than any other career!”

Tell that to those of us who don’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame like she does.

She first knew she wanted to be on TV at age 12, after she saw her uncle, Christopher George, playing the lead in the 1960s war drama, Rat Patrol.

White graduated from North Myrtle Beach High School.

“We were always close,” says younger brother Chip White. “She’s always been very protective of me and would drive me to school. I was always Vanna’s little brother. … There was always a bar that she set that I couldn’t quite reach.”

Chip describes those childhood days in the 1970s as blissfully simple—not the tourism monstrosity North Myrtle Beach is today. “We’d surf at the beach all summer and work dinners at Tony’s Italian Restaurant at night,” he remembers. “We’d push Italian ice carts on the sand and, after Labor Day, you could practically lie down in the middle of street—there was no traffic.”

The Miss Sun Fun pageant contestant moved to Atlanta, Ga., where she attended the Atlanta School of Fashion to work as a model.

But she went West to explore more, jumping in a U-Haul with a girlfriend and a roadmap leading to metro Los Angeles in 1979 to pursue an acting career, just as many other twentysomething pursue in L.A. In the summer of 1980, she returned home to see her mother, who was dying of ovarian cancer.

She didn’t give up on her dream, however. She returned to L.A. to waitress in between auditions and appeared as a contestant on a June 20, 1980, episode of The Price is Right before her big break in 1982.

Yes, Vanna appeared in Playboy in 1987 in photos taken by her boyfriend pre-Wheel, but she publically apologized on The Tonight Show, which only increased her girl-next-door allure.

It was during this time that Vanna-mania was at its peak. By 1986, a syndicated evening show attracted 30 million viewers, twice as many as the No. 2 syndicated M*A*S*H, and grossed $100 million a year. It was also in 1987 that she released her best-selling autobiography, Vanna Speaks.

In 1992, White made the record in The Guinness Book of World Records as TV’s most frequent clapper, with an average of 720 claps per show and more than 28,000 per season. One of the few times she stopped clapping was for a week, after her Playgirl centerfold/Chippendales dancer/actor fiancé John Gibson was killed in a plane crash in 1986.

“I had been out there in L.A., and returned to the East Coast, but moved out there for Vanna when he died to support her,” says Chip. “But somehow, she’s always the most thoughtful to make sure everyone’s taken care of. Even though you feel like you’re supporting her, she’s really supporting you.”

She also missed two weeks of episodes for her wedding and honeymoon to George San Pietro in 1990. They divorced in 2002, but have two children together: Nicholas, 20, and Giovanna (Gigi), 17.

“My son is actually interested in organic farming and my daughter is a senior in high school and really big into photography,” she says.

Vanna—known on a first-name basis—is smart and savvy. Her latest investment is as executive producer for brother’s Charlotte-based production company, White Ideas, which recently produced the small film, A Chess Player, and stars three generations of Whites: Herbert, Chip and Chip’s son.

That was the reason for the Whites’ latest visit to Myrtle Beach—for the film’s premiere here in August. “We have a condo and I stay there and talk and reminisce with old friends every year,” says Vanna. “We’ve been friends for 50 years and it seems like no time has passed.”

But time has passed, to which Vanna has no regrets—although the single mom is not looking forward to being an empty nester next year. “I’ve accomplished what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to be a role model and I get to do that because I play myself on TV.”