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Jasmine Manansala talks Jeopardy! experience

Photo courtesy Jasmine Manansala

By Nicole Lhuillier     2/22/22 11:22pm

​​When Brown College junior Jasmine Manansala was participating in the Jeopardy! National College Championship last November, one of the implications she was pondering was the potential for her future career. She said she has made many great connections and received a lot of attention for her stint on the gameshow, which started running Feb. 8.

“I’m hoping that that kind of reputation will help me in, say, a job search,” Manansala said. “I think that was something that I was thinking of the most when I was going through it. I hope I can get an internship from this or something.”

Getting on Jeopardy! meant much more to Manansala than its career benefits, though. According to Manansala, Jeopardy! has been a part of her life since she was a child. Her family would record the episodes over the week and watch them together on the weekends, trying to guess the answers. Her six-year-old self would be frustrated when she couldn’t get them right.

“I would always get excited when they would have pop culture categories, like something [about] Disney Channel, because that’s [when] I felt smart,” Manansala said. “The older contestants didn’t really get those [clues], but I could.”

Fifteen years later, on Nov. 20, she was filming promotional material and rehearsing on the podium on the Jeopardy! set in Culver City, California. The next day, she was competing against students from Princeton University and Louisiana State University in the quarterfinals of the National College Championship. Although the audition process was long, the filming itself went by very quickly, Manansala said. She flew out of California the following day.

“[Filming the episode] feels like it’s about a 20-minute session,” Manansala said. “When you’re out there it feels even quicker because the adrenaline’s pumping, so you really lose yourself in the moment.”

The timing of the opportunity meant Manansala had to balance the show with the commitments of a Rice student. She said she had a project due in the time period she would be filming Jeopardy!.

“I didn’t get a chance to really study and prepare for trivia since the [casting] call came in the middle of the semester, and I was kind of prioritizing what I was doing in school over preparing for the tournament … Unfortunately, we were pretty much going right into finals after filming, so that part was difficult,” Manansala said. “I just tried to get as much work done [on my project] as possible beforehand, especially because it was a partner project and I didn’t want to be like, ‘Sorry, I can’t work on it.’” 

Manansala had to keep her casting a secret until she received a specific notification from ABC about two weeks before the Jeopardy! National College Championship started airing. Even then, she couldn’t reveal her fate on the show. Manansala said she told other people that she would be out of town those days – doing an academic competition, to be specific. 

“With people wishing me luck – I assume they mean retroactive luck … it’s hard, especially if they’re like, ‘I hope you win it all,’ or … ‘Do your best’ … It’s kind of difficult hearing that and then knowing [that] you didn’t advance,” Manansala said. “Getting lots of supportive messages made me feel good, but at the same time, I didn’t want to disappoint people.”

However, at Rice, a select group knew about Manansala’s Jeopardy! casting: her professors. She asked them to keep the information confidential. She said she was able to make up for some of the days she missed and receive an assignment extension.

“[The production crew was] like, ‘Yeah, don’t lie to your professors,’” Manansala said. “We were allowed to tell them that we would be on Jeopardy!, but … we were not allowed to say that it was for the National College Championship. Some of [my professors] were congratulating me or wishing me luck saying that they were excited.”

Manansala said she was very sad that she couldn’t watch the episode, which aired on the first day of the show’s airing, with her parents, who are in San Antonio. However, her dad joined the watch party at Brown via Zoom. Her mom, a nurse who works the night shift, was able to watch the episode days later.

“Since my family was so influential in my experience … I wish that we could have been together to watch the episode, too,” Manansala said. “I was really touched when [my mom] was able to finally watch it … It was really meaningful to me that my mom works so hard and she was able to finally see, ‘Oh, this is what all your work is going into: your child getting into the Jeopardy! college tournament.’”

Manansala said she read that Jeopardy! was recruiting for the College Championship on the website and took the online Anytime Test in November 2020. She was then invited to take a general knowledge test on a group call via Zoom, which she passed.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m a college student. I might as well try it,’” Manansala said. “I kind of took the Anytime Test on a whim, like, ‘That sounds like fun.’ I didn’t expect it to go anywhere and I was just very lucky … I think this experience has taught me that if I want something, then the least I can do is just try and go for it. Because you never know what will happen.”

Over Zoom in January 2021, Manansala participated in an interview and mock Jeopardy! Round, where three people competed – “buzzing in” by clicking a pen. According to Manansala, in the summer she learned she was in the final pool being considered for the National College Championship, and in mid-October her selection was confirmed.

“To think that, ‘Oh, wow, ABC thought I would be a good fit for [something for] a bunch of viewers to see,” Manansala said. “It lifted me up a lot.”

Manansala said she attributes her success in getting on the show to Doug Miller, Rice’s director of news and media relations who appeared on four Jeopardy! episodes in March 1985. Manansala reached out to Miller after she passed the Anytime Test and asked for advice for the auditioning process.

“He really guided me through the mock game and interview portion,” Manansala said. “He critiqued my background, told me to get a makeup ring light and told me, ‘Oh, if they ask you about what you want to do with the money, don’t say travel or school. Make yourself sound interesting.’”

According to Miller, he wishes he could say he gave Manansala brilliant advice about game strategy, but they discussed only how to approach the audition.

“She’s got a charming presence that comes across well on camera, so mostly I told her to just be herself,” Miller wrote in an email. “She’s a natural, and when she stood behind that podium her personality and intelligence really popped off the screen.”

Manansala said she would have loved to prepare for the show with other people. Instead, she practiced on websites, like sporcle.com, with quizzes on knowledge and the kind of thinking Jeopardy! clue writers tend to utilize. Manansala said she likes the word play and rhyme categories because they require her to think in a different way.

“The hardest part about preparing for Jeopardy! once you know that you're going to be on it is that you’re not allowed to tell anyone,” Manansala said. “I had to accumulate the different pieces of trivia knowledge that I had, just as someone who really [has been] into trivia over the past couple of years.” 

On television, the clues are zoomed in to occupy the screen, but on set they remain in their small cells on the board. According to Manansala, reading the clue while watching out for the blue lights on the side of the board that indicate the window of time to buzz is tricky. She said pressing the spacebar on time on a trivia website was the only way she could practice buzzing.

“Really the hardest part isn’t necessarily knowing the trivia … The game is all about the buzzer,” Manansala said. “You have to time it perfectly.”

Manansala said she felt intimidated when she heard people talking about trivia when she arrived; she felt that they were much more prepared than she was. But realizing that a lot of the participants were there not to aggressively compete, but to enjoy themselves and represent themselves well in front of around four million viewers helped her warm up to them.

“Overall, I think I really got over that fear because we talked together and we became friends,” Manansala said. “I got to learn more about what the other competitors are like, and they’re not really competitors, more so just people – people who want to have a good time at the college tournament.”

Manansala was very nervous on the day of filming – so noticeably nervous that the other contestants tried to reassure her. She said she was so tense because the contestants didn’t know the order of filming or whom they would be competing against.

“I didn’t know I was going to be going last, and so I was like, ‘Okay, they’re calling out the next group. Is it gonna be me? Is it gonna be me?’ … I wanted to release how nervous I was,” Manansala said. “When they were putting on my mic, I was really trying to hype myself up. But then once you actually get there and get behind the podium, I think it all just goes away, because you’re in it now and you can’t help but be in it.”

Manansala said it was exciting to experience a film set for the first time and to watch the other students compete. The live audience was made up of students filming that day: due to COVID-19, there were no guest spectators. Manansala was glad that pandemic protocols were enforced during the filming process. She said students had to get tested for COVID-19 48 hours or less before travel and then again when they arrived at the hotel in Culver City.

“[An employee] spoke with us at length about the COVID protocols that would be taking place, like, ‘Oh, when you’re snacking during filming, there will be dots set up on the road. Stand on those dots. Do not get off your dot,’” Manansala said.

At one point during filming, one of the clue boards was out for 30 or 45 minutes, and host Mayim Bialik went up to the audience and talked to the students, according to Manansala.

“We [competitors] were all sitting in the audience,” Manansala said. “We got to ask [Bialik] questions about her life and her experiences as a scientist and as an actress.”

Manansala said that although she was sad about losing – she finished in second place and did not continue to the next round – she deeply appreciated the opportunity to participate in Jeopardy! and meet fellow college-aged fans. (As a contestant in the College Championship, Manansala is barred from appearing on the show again.)

“I’m really happy that I got to do it. And I got to be part of a group of 36 students who are really committed to just being themselves and promoting trivia. We’re still friends to this day. We’re very active in our group chat,” Manansala said. “I wish I could have done a little better … Now I can never say that I’ve won a Jeopardy! episode. But at least I can say that I’ve been on it.”

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