Filling in a Big Blank Space, French Wheel of Fortune Fans Elect a Vanna of Their Own

updated 08/03/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/03/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The show had a huge, glittering wheel, a handsome host with a nice tan and a cleft chin, and revolving platforms filled with stereo equipment, washing machines and dinette sets. With eight million viewers, it was at the pinnacle of the TV game-show ratings, and thousands of would-be contestants were begging for a chance to share in the bounty. Still, France's La Roue de la Fortune, a Gallic version of the phenomenal Wheel of Fortune, fell short of full-clone commitment. It lacked a certain ye ne sais quoi—a certain heart, spiked heel and soul. "Alors!" cried its re-creators. "Où est la Vanna?"

In March, Channel TF1, which bought the show last December, set out a dragnet. "You are between 18 and 35," their ad began. "Your friends find you congenial, always feeling good, smiling. You've always dreamed of being in theater, cinema or TV." Fifteen hundred women saw themselves in these words, and after five regional auditions three candidates were chosen—all brunets. "At first we were looking for a blonde," says Marc Gurnaud, 31, La Roue's yuppie producer. "We were looking for Vanna. But you can't find her in France. So we forgot about hair color." The apprentice Vannas did guest spots on the show during the month of June, while 10,000 viewers voted by mail or phone-computer linkup. The hands-down winner was model and dance instructor Anne Pujol, 25.

Lively and outgoing, of Catalan descent ("I can't speak Catalan, but I can swear in it"), Pujol is as happy to tell you her salary, $333 a day, as she is to disclose her vital statistics: 5'9", 127 lbs., 34-24-35. "I'm very muscular," she adds. "I have nothing to hide. Except my love life. He's a Sagittarius like me, and I'm in love."

Annie, as she is known, was born in Perpignan, a small French city not far from Spain's Costa Brava. She grew up riding and skiing and spent summers helping her parents, Guy and Renée, serve up local fare in the family restaurant. She earned a diploma in physical education, but dancing was her passion. Two years ago she bade her parents adieu and went to Paris to make her living. While teaching modern dance and tap classes, she modeled for the Cosa Nostra agency, working shows for Chanel and Dior. Then she saw the ad.

After two mini-lessons, watching tapes of her heretofore inimitable American counterpart, Annie has fallen neatly into her role. Emcee Michel Robbe, a cheerful Pat Sajak type, introduces her as "the sunshine of our show," and she proceeds to cheer the winners, console the losers and pliantly drape herself on a super cadeau (grand prize) red Peugeot. And, of course, she deftly fondles those vowels. Pujol doesn't have a favorite letter, but she is developing a testy relationship with the ones at the bottom of the game board. "I have to sort of squat down to turn them, and I don't think it looks very pretty," she says.

Annie admires her U.S. alter ego and hopes to do as well, but Vanna's fame and mystique leave Pujol mystified. "I don't think that can happen in France," she says adamantly. "The French are more individualistic. They don't go getting their hair done like Princess Di."

While ratings have risen since Annie's brief reign began, not everyone gives her efforts an A (pronounced "ah"). "I went to a party the other night," she reports, "and people were saying to me, 'Have you seen how stupid you look just standing there flipping those letters?' I defended myself and the show until I ran out of saliva! Finally I said, 'You're saying you watch it? Why are you watching it if it's so stupid?' "

Pujol's Catalan ire is also aroused on the set. She sees herself as more than a letter-turner, yet her enthusiasm to ad lib has not been encouraged by either the producers or Monsieur Robbe. "But I hope to have a bigger participation in the show," she says. "They hired me because I have a fun personality. I don't want to be just decoration. It can't just be 'Be beautiful and shut up.' Is that clear? Otherwise I'll go back to my dance classes." To borrow a phrase from her predecessor: Annie speaks.

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