With nothing out of place, Julian turned toward the door and glanced one more time at the resident. This time the phone was angled with the camera pointing straight at Julian. He watched as the resident smirked and took a picture.
Julian was silent. He left the room and turned to a fellow resident assistant once he was a few steps down the hallway.
“Wow,” Julian said. “That was pretty obvious.”
On any given week, Julian notices students attempting to sneak pictures of him.
“The Worst Wheel of Fortune Contestant of All Time,” as Julian was dubbed in a YouTube video with over 800,000 views, encounters college paparazzi once or twice a week — whether it’s walking to class or working rounds as an RA in Spruce Hall.
Sometimes they’ll even come up to him and ask him questions, take pictures and leave.
“It’s weird,” Julian said. “But to each their own.”
* * *
On Valentine’s Day in 2014, Julian, then an IU freshman, stood on the set of CBS’ Wheel of Fortune.
At 18, he was the youngest contestant competing during the show’s college week.
Mere feet away were Pat Sajak and Vanna White.
It was a dream come true for the Carmel, Indiana, native. But, center stage on the Wheel’s 6,000th episode, Julian had no idea the errors he would make would be national news.
Midway through the first puzzle, Julian said he was enjoying himself. He’d guessed some letters, amassed $2,250, and then it was his turn again.
“Let’s spin, Pat,” Julian said. The first puzzle’s category was “character,” and 16 of the 24 spaces were filled, including the word hero.
The wheel landed on $1 million.
“L,” Julian guessed.
“Yeah, four Ls! Pick that up,” Sajak said.
Julian beamed and flashed the $1 million wedge to the crowd, his mother and brother among all the people.
Now he had a chance at $1 million. He filled in the rest of the puzzle, which read “Mythological Hero Achilles.”
“Can I solve?” Julian asked.
“That’d be a good idea, yeah,” Sajak responded.
Julian read the three words off the board. “Mythological ... Hero ... Ay-chill-is.”
The set was silent.
Julian knew right away he made a mistake. Still, even if he thought he was wrong, it wouldn’t hurt to play it off like he was right. He kept smiling.
There was a hollow silence before the buzzer sounded. Sajak said his answer wouldn’t be accepted. Julian butchered the pronunciation.
He’d never seen Achilles written out and had no clue how to pronounce the puzzle’s final word. His best guess didn’t cut it.
It took two seconds for him to lose a shot at $1 million.
* * *
Now a junior, Julian talks to residents in his floor’s kitchen as he bakes chocolate chip cookies. A relatively quiet bunch, they’re livened up by Julian’ treat.
On their way to the kitchen the residents walked by Wheel of Fortune themed door decorations and a picture of Julian ready to spin the wheel on the RA board. Julian has been completely transparent about his experiences since the first floor meeting, and his residents respect him for it. Still, a year and a half after the episode, Julian finds himself talking about it nearly every day. He doesn’t hide from it.
Friends of residents will ask if that’s really him, and he’ll sit down and take them through the ordeal. He’ll explain it to recruiters at career fairs, who see it listed in the accomplishments section of his resume. Occasionally, as a joke, he’ll bring it up himself among friends.
He’s proud of what he accomplished.
Others remember him solely because of his mess of mistakes. He mispronounced Achilles, guessed the letter “C” instead of solving the third puzzle by saying “world’s fastest man” and said “on the spot dicespin” instead of “on the spot decision” for the game’s final puzzle.
Sajak congratulated Julian on a good game, but was seemingly surprised by how Julian got there.
“I don’t think anyone has ever taken a more circuitous route to victory,” Sajak said during the show, wrapping his arm around Julian’s shoulders.
Julian said the audience and producers couldn’t believe it, but the fact that he won eliminated any lingering nervousness.
He doesn’t think about the lost trip to Jamaica.
Or the lost trip to London.
Or the car.
Or the million dollars in cash.
He didn’t solve the bonus round puzzle, missing out on another $30,000, but he still walked away as the episode’s victor with $11,700 in cash.
* * *
Julian is no stranger to pressure and public scrutiny. His brother Jonathan, 18, and a senior at Carmel High School, remembers when Julian ran for senior class president in high school.
During his campaign, an opponent attempted to figure out his strategies by drafting a student to call and pretend to have no knowledge of the campaign and feign interest in Julian’s goals.
Julian found out, and both the opponent’s plot and bid for election subsequently failed. Julian won.
If there was a time that showed Jonathan his brother would be able to withstand the stress and aftermath of the Wheel of Fortune episode, it was this election.
“He’s someone who doesn’t think of the negatives,” Jonathan said. “He just pushes forward and only looks at the positives.”
Of course Jonathan was surprised when Julian mispronounced Achilles, as he was when the other mistakes occurred. Jonathan said he knows Julian is a smart guy, and so does their father Steve.
But through the surprise and disappointment, they found something deeper.
Steve always considered his son level-headed and mature for his age, but the level of pressure Julian was under and the composure he exhibited in response surprised his father.
“You never truly know about someone until you see how they act under pressure,” Steve said. “Julian knew he had his family’s support and stayed calm, cool and collected. That told us a lot about his perseverance, composure and how he functions under pressure.”
Sure Steve was happy his son won, but in the long run it was how Julian acted after the game that made him proud.
* * *
Julian kept mum on the events of the show for two months between its taping and airing, and he’s thankful for that time.
It gave him a chance to take a step back and put it all in perspective. When he finally had to face the barrage of questions from the media, friends and those he didn’t know, he didn’t think it was tiring.
He thought if his story could help whoever was asking, it was worth taking the time to answer them.
He’s never cringed when he’s heard the word Achilles pop up in conversation.
He knows the correct pronunciation, “uh-keel-eez,” and says it with gusto, as if he’s trying to prove to himself that he really does know it.
He still finds it odd his small mistakes which took up just seconds of screen time mean he’ll be associated with specific words, or phrases, forever.
His friend Elizabeth Pekar, who has known him since high school and who also attends IU, doesn’t get it either. Outside of himself, Julian points to her as someone who has been affected the most, but doesn’t feel too bad about it. He laughs every time he thinks of Pekar running into the subject.
Pekar said just the other day Julian pulled up a video of himself on Facebook from the Wheel of Fortune episode and showed her how many shares the video had.
“All I could think is there has to be nothing better on the news right now,” Pekar said. “How are we still talking about this? It’s been so long and people are still freaking out about it. It’s not even worth talking about anymore.”
The negative comments online have never sat well with her, and even though she knows Julian is right when he says what they say is irrelevant, she’s disappointed in the internet commenters who have such an incorrect picture of her friend. Pekar has sat in honors classes with Julian and is currently in I-Core with him. She said she knows he isn’t an idiot.
Julian majors in marketing in the Kelley School of Business and minors in Spanish. He has interned with Finish Line as a talent acquisition corporate intern, assisting in recruiting and interviewing possible employees for corporate-level positions, and has been named a Hudson & Holland Scholar and Herbert Presidential Scholar, and been given the Presidential Incentive Award by IU.
He also helped his team win the IU vs. DePauw Brand Challenge Case Competition with Proctor & Gamble and was named a Center for Leadership Development Scholar by the Center for Leadership Development in Indianapolis.
Looking past all of the attention, Pekar said she sees Julian as the same guy she befriended in high school, but nearly $12,000 richer. His family is as supportive as ever, and by talking to them she knows they’re all a level-headed group.
“If there was anyone this was going to happen to it was good it was him,” Pekar said. “He’s got the mentality, the thick skin and the charm to just get past it. If that had happened to me I would probably still be buried in my room under the covers and would never leave my house.”