June 8, 2014

‘Jeopardy’s’ top female player reveals secrets of her success

Julia Collins says : art history degree helped her 20-game “Jeopardy” winning streak. She finished with $428,100 in prize money, making her the top female player in the game show’s 50-year history.

Julia Collins’s 20-game “Jeopardy” winning streak ended last week and she finished with $428,100 in prize money, making her the top female player in the game show’s 50-year history and second overall to Ken Jennings, who won 74 straight games in 2004 and pocketed $2.5 million. Here’s what Collins had to say about gender, her time on “Jeopardy” and the value of a liberal arts degree.

Q: You were an art history major, and then you got a master’s in engineering?

A: I went to a liberal arts college and took that liberal arts message to heart – “Follow your passion, and you’ll be prepared for anything.”

I got a job with Crate and Barrel at their corporate offices. I have good attention to detail, which really helped. I spent the last four years as an art history major looking at things that look the same and explaining how they’re not the same, so that should be pretty useful.

After a few years I went back and got a master’s in engineering – in logistics and supply chain management.

Q: Engineering degree vs. art history degree – which was more useful on “Jeopardy”?

A: The art history degree, for sure.

Q: The taping happened in January and February, but your episodes didn’t air until the end of April. So you go home, and you’re like, “I just had a record-breaking run on ‘Jeopardy,’ but I can’t tell anyone.” What did you say to friends and family?

A: Well, you can tell some people. After my first five games I thought it would be nice if my mom could come to the next taping. So she came back and went to the next eight shows.

Q: It must have been weird watching your episodes air several months after you taped them?

A: It was kind of strange. It was jarring to see myself on television at first. But, like anything else, you get used to it.

I’d watch with my mom and my grandma. My mom would get so nervous. And I was like not only does she know how the game ends, but she was there!

Q: Watching, did you have any moments like, “What was I thinking?”

A: I had that one Daily Double about which donkeys Sancho Panza and Don Quixote were riding. And all I could think of at the time was “The Simpsons” episode where Chief Wiggum was staging “Man of La Mancha” as a prison musical. And yeah, I got that one wrong.

Q: What kind of feedback did you get from viewers or people on social media?

A: It’s been really touching how many people have gone out of their way to contact me to tell me they’re rooting for me, or that they’re sorry to see me go on the show.

There was some negative feedback. Interestingly, and mostly from older women, I saw comments on social media along the lines of, “You should step aside, stop stealing the limelight, let someone else win.” That seems like such a retro-gendered thing to say. The other strain I got was the idea that I wasn’t a very good player. That the producers were rigging the games with weaker players, or particularly weaker men. This seemed to come mostly from men.

But overall over 95 percent – no, 99 percent – of the things I’ve heard from people have been nice.

Q. So, when news outlets first started writing about you, the stories were about how Julia Collins is one of the best female players of all time, but now it’s about how Julia Collins is one of the best players, period. Which would you rather be known for?

a. The second one for sure. I’m very into women being celebrated for their achievements, but the tenor of a lot of the stuff was a little bit – a lot of it had the tone of “She’s pretty good for a girl.” The fact that I had won 10 games at that point really got short shrift, and there was a subtext of “women are just not able to play with the big boys.” I don’t now that it was intentional, but the larger context of having won that many games was overlooked. I would love it if we were at a place where gender wasn’t even part of the story.

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