As Jeopardy! contestant Amy Schneider took to the soundstage, she had no clue that she would end up being one of America’s favorite people of the year, making history as the show’s all-time most successful female contestant. She was just trying to get through her first episode. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I had done extensive mental preparation to get ready for that emotion. For one thing, in the week or so leading up to the taping, I really focused on the fact that I might lose in my first episode, and that it would be ok if I did. I realized that my fear of losing was getting strong enough that it risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. My mantra throughout was “stay in the moment,” and I think I managed to do that well.
She had been waiting for that moment since eighth grade when she was nominated “Most Likely to Appear on Jeopardy!” Hers has been a lifelong journey into the world of knowledge.
I think it is fair to say I was always a smarty pants. Learning has always come naturally to me, at least in part because I was raised in a family that valued it. I learned from my parents that knowing stuff is fun! It helps you engage with the world more fully, because the more you know, the more associations you have with whatever you are doing or reading or watching, and that can help you see the unstated assumptions and associations behind things
I have always been a heavy reader, and I doubt that will ever change. I tend to lean towards history because a knowledge of history inevitably gives insight into just about everything else: literature, philosophy, politics, technology’s place in society, etc. I have also had a habit for years, when I had some downtime, I would go to Wikipedia and just click around until I found something new or interesting.
Even with her eighth-grade nomination and years of knowledge in her pocket, the road to appearing on the show was a long one. Hard to believe that a history-making champion almost never made it to the show. What was the process?
The first stage is an online test, 50 questions, 15 seconds each. During the years I was auditioning, you could only take it once a year at designated times. I did that step about ten times over the 15 or so years I was auditioning. After that, they take all the scores over a certain cutoff, and randomly select people from that group for an in-person audition. That consists of another 50-question test – I suspect to make sure you weren’t cheating on the online test. Then you chat with the Jeopardy! people a bit and they run you through a mock game. The purpose there is to determine whether you seem engaging and interesting to watch on TV, and to see if you can move fast. Jeopardy! runs at a really fast pace, and contestants who paused before picking every clue would kill the momentum. At that point, you would be told that you were in the active pool, and sometime in the next 18 months, you might get a call to be on the show. And if you didn’t, then it was back to square one. I believe the time I got on the show was the third or fourth time I had made it to that last stage.
How does one even prepare for an appearance on Jeopardy!?
Well, I always say you cannot really study for Jeopardy!, but to the extent you can, the best way is to go through actual Jeopardy clues. The site j-archive.com has every clue ever in it. I would just go through game after game and watch for patterns in things I consistently did not know e.g., getting the Bronte sisters confused, remembering the different layers of the atmosphere. I would try to think of mnemonics so I would remember them if needed. Apart from that, there was the mental preparation described above, which also included the decision I made at the last minute to not worry about appearing “feminine,” but just to be myself and trust that it would be ok. And it was!
As her run on the show continued episode after episode, month to month, the media and fan attention exploded. She was a hit, an American hero. One day she went from engineering manager to pop culture icon. When did she know she was becoming a sensation?
I knew I’d be getting a decent amount of media attention. I just didn’t know how much. There are a couple of things that stand out. One was when I started seeing clickbait headlines about me such as “Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider reveals <some banal fact I mentioned on Twitter>.” And the other was when my run ended. I assumed that the demands on my time would drop off noticeably once I wasn’t on TV, but that didn’t turn out to be the case, which really threw off my planning.
Her presence in pop culture was even further ignited by the fact that she was also making history for LGBTQ representation as the first openly transgender contestant to qualify for the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions on one of America’s most beloved shows, a staple in the nation’s homes since 1964. The show has casually featured contestants who have openly talked about their same-sex spouse, but it wasn’t until the year prior to Amy’s appearance that Kate Freeman, who won, would become the first openly trans contestant in the program’s history. Amy’s appearance on the show as a trans woman was not introduced with pomp and circumstance, but rather with a nonchalant nod to inclusivity. Amy was there on her own terms with her own trepidation.
Nobody on Jeopardy! mentioned the fact that I was trans until I brought it up myself by choosing to wear a trans flag pin during one of my episodes. It was clear to me that, had I not brought it up, they would have been perfectly fine with never mentioning or alluding to it, and I really appreciated that.
I know what can happen to people who are trans and in the public eye. I also struggled with the dysphoria that being on TV brought to the surface, particularly around my hair and voice. But I got much less negativity online than expected, A national TV appearance was a stress test for that dysphoria, so it was challenging but worthwhile. I’ve come out the other side with a much better relationship to my body and my appearance than I started out with.
According to Amy, being trans is one part of who she is. She wanted to represent that part of her identity as important, but relatively minor. Other contestants’ private lives were not often headline material, why should hers? Does she think the media, and even the LGBTQ community, affix labels for headline buzz?
I think that’s true to a certain extent. I know to many people I am “the trans Jeopardy! contestant,” and I don’t love that it’s the case. But on the other hand, labels are important. It took me decades to understand my identity because, when I was growing up, I didn’t have any label for the feelings I had. Had I known that a thing called “trans” existed, maybe I would have realized a lot sooner that it matched who I was, and that would have spared me years of suffering in the closet.
Even as a child, diversity and inclusivity were parts of Amy’s life.
I think the most important things I learned came from growing up specifically in the Five Oaks neighborhood of Dayton. Dayton’s an extremely segregated city, but Five Oaks was one of the few diverse neighborhoods. It was a very conscious decision by my parents that I not be raised in an all-white environment, and I’m really grateful for that decision. As I got older, I could see how irrational my friends from the suburbs were about “sketchy” or “dangerous” areas. Obviously, I am still tainted by our nation’s culture of white supremacy, but that inoculated me from the worst of it.
In a circle of events, her coming out was inspired by the entertainment industry, an industry in which she would later make history.
Ten years ago, I was in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing Francis Flute. He’s a comic character, who performs in a play-within-a-play at the end but is forced to play a female role in it. The text plays up his dismay, but I decided to have him be into it. And then playing a character who was into performing as a woman, I suddenly had the thought “What if I just did that, in my daily life? What if I introduced myself to people with a female name?” And I was shocked at how right that felt. It took me years from that point to really accept that I was trans, and most of another year to come out. But from the moment I first had that thought, my coming out was inevitable.
Amy recently made headlines once again as it was announced that she would marry her long-time girlfriend, this time headlines not focusing on her trans identity, but rather what the ring looked like.
I knew she was going to propose in February, but I thought it might be on Valentine’s, or our anniversary. Instead, she invited some friends over on a random Tuesday, implying to me that she’d just invited one, but then other people had wanted to come over. I was so busy with everything going on that I didn’t notice anything strange even when she got dressed up just to hang out with friends at home. At some point, I stepped out for a bit, and when I came back in, she was on one knee. She completely surprised me! Our friends had brought balloons, one of them recorded the proposal for us and, all in all, it was exactly how I dreamed it.
How did they meet?
Her brother was dating my friend, and through some set of circumstances wound up picking up my friend at my place, to drive her to meet her brother. She came up and chatted for a bit, I gave her a tarot reading, and we hit it off. Before we knew it, she was coming over to my place every night, and staying over on weekends. We were still officially “just friends,” for a long time, even as it became obvious to everyone except us that we were actually a couple until we finally gave in to the inevitable and started dating.
The continued success of Amy’s run extended her stay month after month. She was now a celebrity, acclimating to an entertainer’s way of life, bumps and all.
On the taping day there isn’t really time between episodes. You pretty much go change outfits, get your makeup touched up, and head back onstage. During the time between taping days, I just tried to rest. Maintaining that level of focus was exhausting and I needed to recharge as much as possible when I could.
The first taping was the first time I’d spent the night apart from Genevieve since she’d moved in. And it was tough! We’d have long video chats every night, but at some point, I had to sleep in my lonely hotel bed – not to mention how much I missed our cat Meep!
It was a final Jeopardy! answer of “Bangladesh” that would send Amy home after 41 episodes, $1,300,000, and a new career in pop culture. Saying goodbye wasn’t easy.
In the immediate aftermath, the main feeling was one of loss. Taping those episodes was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and I was sorry to see it go. But after a day or two, I felt relieved. I’d known that my run would end at some point, and it had gone better than I ever dreamed, so I was glad to tie a bow on that part of my life and get back to my usual routine.
Well, it hasn’t exactly been a usual routine for Amy. She left her job, signed with CAA, and continues to make media headlines. With a wedding on the way, the future is bright. What’s next?
Well, I’m hoping to write a book. I’ve finished the proposal and now it’s just a matter of finding out whether there’s interest from publishers. Beyond that, I’ve been taking a lot of meetings about ideas for podcasts, TV shows, documentaries, etc. All of that is still in the exploratory stages, and who knows if any of it will pan out, but I’m excited to see what happens!
Has she stayed grounded in the face of her newfound fame?
I think so. I mean, you’d probably need to ask the people around me to be sure. But one thing I learned quickly is that there’s a public Amy, and a private Amy. While they have a lot of overlap, they’re not the same. So, I don’t need to let my public image affect how I am in my personal life.
I try to put my best face forward, of course, but at times I worry about showing an idealized version of myself. I do dumb things, I get angry, I drink too much sometimes, I’m secretly arrogant. I strive to be as authentic as possible in my public image, but I’m not showing all of myself by any means.
She has left her mark in TV history, become part of the Jeopardy! legacy, represented our community in millions of American households, and warmed our hearts. She is a delight. Her message to Jeopardy! fans?
Keep watching the show! I had a bunch of people tell me that it was boring without me, but stick with it! It is a great show. And you know the beauty of it? I guarantee there will be another champion coming along that you can enjoy rooting for – or against. They might not win 40 games, but your next favorite Jeopardy! champion will be here sooner than you think.
You can follow Amy on IG: @JeopardAmy
Last modified: April 5, 2022