Catching up with the (almost) indomitable 20-time Jeopardy! champ Julia Collins | Bleader

Catching up with the (almost) indomitable 20-time Jeopardy! champ Julia Collins

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Our hero, Julia Collins
  • Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
  • Our hero, Julia Collins
Last week was a demoralizing week in television.

The Blackhawks lost to the Kings in the Stanley Cup playoffs, something very horrible happened to someone very handsome and likable on Game of Thrones, and then on Monday night, following a thrilling, inspiring 20-game win streak, Julia Collins lost on Jeopardy!. I was crushed—much like a certain someone's skull on a certain HBO program.

A little about Julia . . .

The 31-year-old native of Kenilworth—who currently resides in Wilmette—is an out-of-work-at-the-moment supply-chain specialist (I'll explain later) who double majored in art history and history at Wellesley before going on to get a masters in supply-chain-management engineering from MIT. So a real slouch. Oh, and, yes, she went to New Trier, but only for her first two years. (She finished at the Madeira School, a private school for girls in Virginia, where she was trained in a supersecret government program to know lots about lots of things and be really fast with a buzzer.)*

As for her Jeopardy! run, she's second only to Ken Jennings in number of consecutive wins; Jennings won an obscene 74 games back in '04. Her take, $428,100, makes her the third-winningest contestant of all time. And there aren't any statistics I can quote, but it's my unscientific opinion that she's also the number one least smug multigame winner in Jeopardy! history. I mean, we regular viewers recently witnessed Ken Jennings, Roger Craig, and Brad Rutter share the stage during the Battle of the Decades, so we know from smug. She was like the anti-Arthur Chu. In her 21st game, Collins went into the Final Jeopardy round in second place, which had become extremely rare—her wins were very often runaways—and then botched a question about John Irving winning an Oscar for adapting his own book (The Cider House Rules), and that was that.

"This sounds a little bit like splitting hairs," Collins told me over the phone late last week, "but I was sadder about leaving than about having lost." I feel like I totally get the distinction. Here are some more highlights from our conversation.

Keeping your wins a secret isn't as agonizing as one would imagine.
A good month elapsed between the weeks when her episodes were taped and the weeks when her episodes aired (they were taped in January and February and began airing in April), during which she had to keep her lips sealed about her victories, not to mention the 400 grand. For me, keeping secrets is like keeping down a bad piece of shellfish—it just has to come out. But Collins said that "'agonizing' is not the word I'd use. It was such an exciting secret to be keeping. There's so much anticipation, but I had people who came to the shows and knew the outcomes, like my mom and my brother, so it's not like I had nobody to talk about it with. My immediate family knew." And it's easier to keep secrets from friends when you're in France . . .

She took a trip to France after her winning streak.
After the final taping, knowing she had a rather large sum of money coming her way, Collins asked herself, "What would be the most extravagant thing I could do?" She has a car, her student loans are paid off, so she rented an apartment in Paris for a month. "It was really wonderful, the weather was nice, it's a really easy city to be in, the transportation is really good, and there's no chance of getting bored. It was really ideal. That was really my big splurge." It's a pretty modest "splurge," but she says she figures she'll save most of the rest of her winnings. Further evidence that she's really smart.

She's holding off on looking for a job.
During one of her 20 getting-to-know-ya interviews with Alex Trebek, the host mentioned that Collins was out of work and, hey, wouldn't it be neat if her newfound visibility helped her find a job. While she has, in fact, had people reach out to her on LinkedIn and whatnot, she's no longer in a rush to find work right away. In fact, the timing of all this has been pretty great, since she's been free to do things like make appearances on Good Morning America (and take phone calls from Reader writers). "I'm happy to go back to my totally anonymous life," she says, "but [the publicity's] been fun for me the small amount of time it lasts."

I kinda get what a "supply chain specialist" is now.
It has to do with the making of things, the buying of things, and getting things where they need to go, which I suppose I could've deduced.

They film five shows a day and when you keep winning, yeah, it's sort of tiring.
"It's not as tiring as manual labor, but it is tiring."

Should you ever make it to the in-person audition stage to get on Jeopardy!, remember the questions you get wrong.
Not unlike Rosie Perez's character in White Men Can't Jump, being on Jeopardy! is a dream of mine, so I'd be a real fool if I hadn't tried to milk Collins for some inside info. My first question was whether she got every question right when she took the online test (I do not come close to getting every question right—but I bet other people do), and she wasn't sure because they never tell you your score or what their qualifying threshold is. She does know that she got a question wrong when she was tested in person. She looked up the answer afterward, which was smart because the same exact question actually ended up being on the board during one of her televised games. She got it right that time.

She's not a fan of the Terminator franchise. Or Law & Order.
The key to Collins's success on the show: she knows a lot about a lot of things. Of course, when she missed a question, she had to deal with people saying, "How did you not get that? It's so eeeeeasy." "It's only easy if that's what you're interested in," Collins says. "There was a Final Jeopardy question about The Terminator—I've never seen those movies and I have no interest in seeing those movies." (She missed that question, but if I recall correctly, so did everyone else.)

"I look back on it and there were so many things I didn't know. Every day there were a lot of questions I didn't know, whole categories, things I'm not interested in, like gambling. And TV crime dramas. CSI and Law & Order are so ubiquitous, but I don't enjoy procedurals. I guess that puts me in a minority, so lots of people will say those were such easy questions."

Her experience of Alex is basically our experience of Alex.
I thought I was in for some real dirt when I asked Julia what Alex was like and she replied, "Alex. He's, um—how can I say this . . . " Really, she didn't have much to say, because the amount of interaction between the host and contestants that we see on camera—the post-first-commercial-break interviews, the handshakes after the game, the during-the-credits conversation—is really the extent of their interaction. "I think he's very good at his job. You don't get personal with him, he's very professional, and he's really good at putting the contestant at ease. I have nothing but good things to say about him." I really wanted dirt.

She definitely did not lose on purpose because she was ready to go home.
"I didn't want to go home! I was really sad to be leaving, I loved being there, I loved playing. Someone said in their Battle of the Decades interview: 'I would be here every day if I could,' and I feel that same way. It's so much fun to be there, it's so much fun to play."

* I might've made up everything after the word "Virginia."

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