Barefoot in a wrap skirt and T-shirt, Carol Merrill is pureeing a potful of pumpkin soup. Behind her, tofu steaks sizzle on the stove. Merrill’s sunny kitchen on Hawaii’s Big Island is a long way from the Hollywood studio where she spent 13 years as the dazzling door opener on Let’s Make a Deal. But at 57 the former game show glamor gal can still strike a pose. Placing one hand on a slender hip, she motions toward her counter with a flourish. The fabulous prize? A nutcracker, which she puts to work on some homegrown macadamias. Merrill grins and gazes out at her and her husband’s five-acre farm. “I love it here,” she says.
Merrill—whom Wheel of Fortune‘s Vanna White calls her “role model”—seems to have chosen all the right doors since exiting show business in 1976, when Let’s Make a Deal‘s original run ended. “I never thought of myself as a star,” says Merrill, who initially made $77.50 a show (later about twice that much). “When I left the studio, I couldn’t wait to get to my garden in Malibu.”
Now, Merrill and husband Mark Burgess, 47, who wed in 1985 and moved to Hawaii’s Kohala coast in 1989, live amid groves of macadamia, lemon, kumquat and avocado trees. The greenery supplies their prosperous landscaping business, which caters to local hotels and wealthy homeowners. “Our life is very easy and blessed,” says avid surfer Burgess. “We have a lot of energy together.”
Merrill is also making a few deals of her own. In addition to working on an autobiography, the longtime natural-health aficionado (her two-bedroom home sports organic sheets and a water-filtering shower nozzle) says she is pursuing a plan to host health segments on television news or talk shows. “I can show people how to make nut milk or clean their oven with baking soda,” she says. “I wanted to do this for the past 15 years, but the subject wasn’t mainstream enough. Now it is.”
When Let’s Make a Deal—which became one of the 1960s’ top-rated game shows—made its debut in 1963, Merrill was a 22-year-old model with a bigger taste for sodas than sprouts. Born in Frederic, Wise, to a staunchly religious carpenter father and homemaker mother, Merrill was forbidden to dance, watch movies or wear makeup. At age 13 she ran away from home for two days, returning only when her father agreed to lighten up on the rules. “I was able to be a kid like everybody else,” says Merrill, who became one of seven finalists for Rose Parade Queen while a business student at California’s Pasadena City College.
At 19 she wed college beau Tom Merrill and began modeling in TV ads for Coca-Cola and other products. She says she was the last of hundreds of models to audition for Let’s Make a Deal. “She was so pretty and fresh-looking,” recalls host Monty Hall, now 77. “We knew immediately she was the one.”
Unfailingly announced as “the lovely Carol Merrill,” she loved the gig. “I was a working woman who got to wear glamorous clothes,” she says. “It was fun.” The animals used as gag gifts made for some memorable moments. Once, a baby elephant bolted from behind Door No. 3 and fled the studio. “They found that elephant somewhere in downtown Los Angeles,” says Hall. “The look on Carol’s face when the curtain opened and she was standing by herself was wonderful.”
Merrill, who was divorced from Tom after four years, wed hairdresser Bernie Safire in 1966. While pregnant with daughter Hillary the next year, “I was careful not to stand in profile” on the show, she says. Merrill became a health-food convert when, she says, a veggie-centric diet helped cure toddler Hillary of chronic bronchitis. “I’ve been eating organic food forever,” groans Hillary, now 31 and a model and hairstylist (Cher is a client) who took her own game-show spin on the 1987 revival of Truth or Consequences. “My friends would come over and my mom would go, ‘Hillary can’t go out and play until she drinks her carrot-apple-celery juice.’ ”
Merrill split with Safire in 1974 and, after Let’s Make a Deal folded in 1976, worked as an office manager for a Malibu holistic doctor. “I went from making $5 a minute to $5 an hour,” she jokes. Four years after marrying, she and landscaper Burgess decided to move someplace “remote,” she says, and picked Hawaii. A decade later, Merrill wouldn’t go back to her days of high heels and showy outfits even if she could. “I don’t have that 16-inch waist anymore,” she smiles. “When I look at old tapes of myself, I think, ‘How could anyone have a waist that small?’ ”
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Hawaii