Another Lucky VHS Donation
In January, I wrote about my involvement in getting an autographed Lincoln movie poster for the collection of the Virginia Historical Society. A few months ago I was again part of the donation process for an exciting collection of materials related to Virginia history.
You might say I’m just that lucky.
Through public relations circles in Richmond, I met some of the communications folks at the Virginia Lottery. One of them mentioned that the Virginia Lottery was looking for a home for objects related to the organization. She didn’t want anything to get thrown away that might tell an interesting story from Virginia’s past.
After a few conversations between me, the lottery folks, and VHS Vice President for Collections Lee Shepard, we found out that Lady Luck, the Virginia Lottery “mascot” if you will, was retiring after twenty-three years of service.
While serving as the lottery’s ambassador, Lady Luck appeared in more than forty TV commercials, made hundreds of special appearances across Virginia, and made thousands of friends along the way. The Virginia Lottery called her “an icon in the lottery industry.”
I remember Lady Luck! I grew up with her. Although I was not the target audience at the time because I was too young to play the lottery, I did meet her in person at the Virginia State Fair and laughed at her entertaining TV commercials. I was extremely excited about the possibility of getting Lady Luck items for the VHS collection, because I know that there are Virginians out there who have fond memories of, and a personal connection to, Lady Luck just like I do.
Because the Virginia Lottery is a state agency, the paper-based items related to Lady Luck needed to go to the Library of Virginia’s archives. But they don’t have as much storage for larger, three-dimensional objects as the VHS does, so the lottery said we would be getting objects like a costume (complete with jewelry, shoes, and cape), a life-size cardboard cutout, and her throne!
In late January, the Lady Luck goodies arrived at the VHS. They were as fun and awesome in person as I remembered and imagined. We didn’t want to tell anyone then that we had received the objects because we wanted it to be part of the Lady Luck retirement surprise.
On May 7, 2013, Melanie MacQueen, the California-based actress hired to play Lady Luck almost a quarter of a century ago, visited the VHS to talk with me about her experience as the lotto fairy and to get a special behind-the-scenes tour to see the recently donated materials in VHS storage areas.
During the presentation ceremony that day, Virginia Lottery Executive Director Paula Otto said: “It was late 1989 and Virginia was ready to introduce its first really big jackpot game lotto. The ad agency at the time was tasked with coming up with that big idea of how do we let Virginians know that the big jackpot game from the lottery is finally here. And so they came up with the idea of Lady Luck. Interestingly, it was not supposed to be a continuing campaign. But Virginians absolutely fell in love with Lady Luck. Lady Luck helped the Virginia Lottery raise nearly $9 billion for important causes, including more than $5 billion for education in Virginia.”
Lee Shepard accepted the donation, saying: “As Lady Luck moves into retirement, it seems most fitting that her legacy will be preserved at the VHS. There’s no doubt that Lady Luck is a part of Virginia’s story. We are so pleased that Lady Luck and some of her goodies will be a permanent part of the collection. These items are going to be on some of the same shelves as objects related to George Washington and Dolley Madison. You’ve got some good company, Lady Luck! And these items will also receive the same care of those precious objects.”
Here’s my conversation with the humorous, gregarious, and gracious-in-retirement Melaine MacQueen as she made her last appearance in Virginia as Lady Luck.
Q: Tell me about the audition and how it all started.
A: The audition was very unprepossessing because it was just another audition of many commercial auditions that I had. I did many commercials before I did Lady Luck and many commercials after I did Lady Luck. They were looking for sort of an upscale homeless person, so I went in there and I wore a handkerchief-hemmed bridesmaid dress that I had. I tied a sweater around my waist and wore tennis shoes. They asked questions and I improvised answers. I sat with my legs slung over the side of the chair. The next thing I knew the costume lady was coming out—on my first audition, which is very unusual because there are usually multiple auditions—and is trying to get my sizes. I said, “I think you are being a little previous, aren’t you?” and she said, “No, I have a feeling about you.”
Q: Did they give you the Lady Luck character description?
A: I had the vague description, but I took it from there. I wanted to make her a working-class gal—just spreading the luck—not like a fairy princess who lives in an ivory tower. People who play the lottery are working-class folks. I think people relate to Lady Luck because she is a person who’s just trying to do her job.
Q: What appealed to you about this character?
A: I liked that I got to bring my own feelings about Lady Luck to the character. The people who created her were very creative, but I was able to bring things to the table and make suggestions. Anything that would work for them they would incorporate.
Q: When you got the job, what was your understanding of what that meant?
A: We were going to do two commercials. I thought “Well, that will be it.” The next thing I knew it was taking off. I was coming to Virginia to do more commercials and more commercials and then personal appearances. Here we are twenty-three years later.
Q: Did you ever think it would last this long?
A: No, oh no. I just kept thinking “Huh?! What’s going on here?!” But it connected with people. The thing I liked about Lady Luck is that if you go around, most lottery’s don’t have a face—an actual person that you can relate to the lottery. I thought it was cool that Virginia had a person that could walk into a room and people would say “Hey, lotto fairy!”
Q: Tell me about people relating to you as Lady Luck.
A: In certain areas, people really thought I was Lady Luck. I mean really thought I was Lady Luck, and it kind of scared me a little bit. I had to tell myself “Be careful, you have immense power here. Don’t mess with their minds.” Of course most people didn’t think that.
Q: What do you like most about Virginia and Virginians?
A: I have probably been over more of Virginia than most Virginians have. Big cities to small towns. I have seen a lot of Virginia and met a lot of Virginians. They are very friendly and hospitable. I would see people at the state fair. That was one of the main events I would go to. I would see the same people each year and they would get pictures with me.
Q: I have a coworker who told me she dressed up like Lady Luck for Halloween.
A: Oh yeah. That happened all the time. Adults and children. I would get letters all the time from little Lady Lucks, big Lady Lucks. They would call the lottery office all the time asking questions about what and how I wear things. They would do their research on the Lady Luck costume. There were people who even cross-dressed as Lady Luck. Everyone for a while seemed to want to dress up as Lady Luck. It was cool. I enjoyed it.
Q: Let’s talk about the costume. Do you have a favorite tiara?
A: The ones that don’t hurt my head! Actually, the one that is on right now is quite comfortable. The first one that they put on for the first commercial that I did, they almost glued it to my hair. They were hot gluing things for it and got some on my hair. They had to peel it off my head when we were done. It was not pleasant for me. I may have a permanent bald spot. I’m not sure. I suffered for my art, as you’re supposed to do if you’re a creative artist of any kind.
A: Lots of necklaces. As many as I can wear so that I can barely stand up straight! Lots of bracelets. Fingerless gloves. The dress was designed based on the dress I wore to the audition: a pink and white floral dress with lots of layers. The first costume we had—which I believe has since disintegrated—was like a wedding gown. A white lace concoction. They had no idea it would have to last for any length of time.
Q: And the shoes?
A: The shoes! In the audition I wore tennis shoes. I still did at the festivals—the Strawberry Festival, the Pork Festival, the Oyster Festival. I’ve gone to so many festivals in every part of Virginia. But sometimes I would have to wear the spangly high heels. I would do that when I had to.
Q: With all the festivals, fairs, parades, what was your favorite event?
A: I really very much enjoyed the Strawberry Festival because I got to judge the strawberry pie-eating contest. It was great fun to watch people smash their faces into lovely strawberry pies. The state fair I enjoyed because it was an annual event and I got to see all my friends at the lottery. I made a lot of friends at the lottery. And I got to see the same people. I got to watch kids grow up and hear updates about the family. I became friends with the people who ran the pig races. I ran the pig races! It helped me keep my figure so I could fit into the Lady Luck dress! I wore my tennis shoes for that event. One time I did take a spill. It had been raining. Lady Luck went flying into the mud. I got up, and everyone cheered and laughed and applauded and I thought, “I’m going to finish the pig race!”
Q: Do you remember where the Strawberry Festival was?
A: Not really. I got driven everywhere. I was like a dog looking out the window going, “Oh look . . . trees!”
Q: You currently live in California. What do Californians think of Lady Luck?
A: My friends think it’s cool, but a little weird. My actor friends think it’s amazing that I have had a job this long because the nature of show business is very ephemeral.
Q: What changes have you seen in Virginia and in the Virginia Lottery in your twenty-three years?
A: I think there is a very old newspaper picture of a businessman encountering me on the street, and he was going [crumpled, skeptical facial expression], “Who is this woman? What is going on? Do I need to run?” Then over the years, it was like “Hi, Lady Luck! How ya doing?” People would stop and wave when we were filming commercials. It was like everyone knew me. It was like I was a member of the family, especially since I represented luck and what they hoped would happen to them. They were especially friendly. I would get lots of hugs. Luckily I have very few personal boundaries. I would constantly get smushed into peoples embrace and handed babies. People felt very comfortable around me, obviously!
Q: Did you always feel like you were “on” as Lady Luck?
A: Yes, to a certain extent, but largely I was very comfortable with that. I was very seldom unhappy about being drawn into whatever was going on. I thought it was great fun to be involved with Virginian’s lives. When you have a job where peoples faces light up when they see you, that is the greatest job in the world.
Q: How do you feel about Lady Luck’s items coming to the VHS and her legacy living on for future generations?
A: I’m very happy to be in a museum . . . I guess.” I have mixed emotions, but it is really such a wonderful tribute. I think it’s cool. One of my goals is to be on the Antiques Roadshow (laughing). I mean, who would not want to be in a museum? That is some sort of ultimate columniation of a career.
Q: Of all the commercials you starred in, do you have a favorite?
A: Yes, well of course, it’s the chicken one. Lady Luck takes her wand in to be cleaned, and the repairman says it’s not quite ready. And I say, “Why? What’s the big deal?” and he says, “Oh, you know . . . ,” and says something about cleaning the star points. I say, “You’re not playing with it, are you? You can get into big trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing.” He’s like, “Oh, no. No no,” and I go out the door. The camera pans down and we see that the man’s lower half has been turned into a chicken and the foot is scratching. On the table in front of him are fresh eggs. So apparently my wand not only turned him halfway into a chicken but it also changed his gender because he was laying eggs! (laughing) It was truly horrifying. It was so humorous. Also, Virginians related to it so much. I would occasionally get chicken-themed gifts from people.
Q: Talk a little about actually filming the commercials.
A: They loved to do things to me. There was one where I was suspended from a beam like the super glue guy. There was a wind machine in one. They covered me with kudzu for one. I don’t recall what the exact point of that was. They dropped me down a chimney once for a Christmas commercial. A stunt woman did do the last part of the fall for me on that one. I crowd surfed. A beach scene meant they were constantly throwing cold water on me. They put me on a piano once in a pink boa. We never used that one. But the piano was suspended over a street in Richmond. People were walking by and I was like, “ Hi!” But it was generally fun.
Q: You really got to know the Virginia lottery folks.
A: Yeah, primarily the special events team. When you are on a tour bus together for a couple of weeks, you are going to bond. The personal connection those folks make with the lottery players—I think is very important, however they manage to do it. They would know all the people! They would tell me about the areas we were going. I learned a lot touring with them. Of course Paula Otto—she went on tour with me when I was first touring. We bonded right away. She washed my Lady Luck dress at night in the bathtub in the hotel!
Q: Did Virginians think you were a Virginian?
A: They did. I think a lot of Virginians thought I was someone the lottery found in the mail room, like they said “Let’s see if she will fit the dress!”
Q: Talk about your impact on Virginia history.
A: I think it’s a very cool thing to be in a museum because I’ve always loved museums all my life. I’m one of those people that if I go to a city, I want to go to the museums. There’s always the little emotional side that makes you think “I’m in a museum!?” It makes you feel about 1,200 years old! It’s really amazing to think you’ve made that much of an impact on a place that they might want to remember you with even a little part of a museum. It’s very humbling, quite frankly. It makes you feel like your life has been validated in a way that you don’t normally get.
Q: Most of our 8.5 million items are available for research even if they aren’t on display in the museum. If someone comes in twenty-five years from now to research using the VHS Lady Luck collection, what do you hope they’ll get out of it?
A: I think it would be interesting for them to learn about commercials because the commercials for the Virginia Lottery were carefully crafted to not be a hard sell. That was not my job. I was never told to sell. I was told to go relate to Virginians and make them feel comfortable and let them have fun.
Q: What is the most common question you were asked?
A: “Why haven’t I won the lottery?” and “Why hasn’t anyone won in my town?” I was asked if it was rigged. For a while we did live drawings to dissuade people. I know it wasn’t rigged but when people get an idea in their head . . .
Q: If you had to pick three words to describe Lady Luck, what would they be?
A: Fun, snarky, hard working
Q: If you had to pick three words to describe Melanie MacQueen, what would they be?
A: Probably much the same: fun, snarky, hardworking. I think the two have actually merged over time (laughing). I think that anybody who does a character for a long time, eventually much of who you are will come into the character—for good and for ill. I hope mostly it’s been for good.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say about your Lady Luck experience?
A: The lottery hasn’t just been a job for me, it’s been a family—an extended family. The people I worked with on the road and back in the offices shared part of their lives. I hope I imparted a little bit of luck to them because they gave a big chunk of luck to me over the years.
I would like to thank Virginia Historical Society volunteer Rachel Johnson for her assistance transcribing the Lady Luck interview.
Jennifer Guild is Senior Officer for Public Relations and Marketing at the Virginia Historical Society.