University of Miami student Gina Panarese was in Starbucks at the Shalala Student Center (SSC) on Thursday night, expecting a phone call from a staff member on the Ellen DeGeneres show. She had entered a contest by writing an essay about why she was the TV host’s biggest fan.
“My best friend even sent me a cardboard cutout of your face so that I can ‘physically’ turn to you when things get too rocky or even when things are going well and I just want to see your smile,” Panarese wrote in the essay. “Everyone has their bad days but you manage to make them a little easier.”
The student’s admiration for Degeneres was even apparent on her LinkedIn page, where Panarese described herself as a “philanthropist, number enthusiast and admirer of Ellen DeGeneres.”
Now, she was waiting for a followup interview. Instead, she saw Jeannie Klisiewicz, a familiar face on Ellen who surprises fans, running over to her in a blue ball gown and a wig.
Panarese, a junior from Long Island majoring in accounting and business law, “lost my mind” upon seeing Klisiewicz. Both ran to the back of the SSC, where Panarese received a video chat from Degeneres herself, telling her she had to compete in a challenge and put on as many items of clothing as possible in 30 seconds.
“I saw Ellen on the screen, and that literally made my day, just to see Ellen. That was amazing,” Panarese said. “I have been a fan for so long and usually I talk to her but she doesn’t respond, and now here she finally said my name and I was like, ‘No way.’”
Then the big thing happened: she won $20,000 and a brand new red Chevrolet Equinox.
“You are an amazing young lady and I will tell you something else, I know you have a whole lot of student debt,” Degeneres said over video chat. “We’re going to give you $20,000.”
Panarese dropped onto the floor in happiness when she found out she had won a brand new car, then she got in the car and cried of happiness.
“It’s crazy. I did not expect this, I did not expect the car, I did not expect the money, I was really bad at the game, I couldn’t even think,” Panarese said in an interview. “The money is going straight to my loans, I can’t even touch this. Mother would be like, ‘No.’”
Panarese’s friends were ecstatic over the winning prizes and that Panarese had the chance to see her idol.
“It was amazing because I knew how much she really wanted this and is a huge fan of Ellen,” student Anika Batta said.
Nidhi Patel, who is also a big fan of the show and a friend of Panarese’s, first saw Klisiewicz running into Starbucks and saw the entire event.
“It was absolutely amazing and she must be so happy to win,” Patel said. “I was also freaking out because I love Ellen and I love Jeannie. I can’t believe Ellen was live here in UM.”
Klisiewicz herself went through the same process Panarese did, entering numerous contests in 2008 to prove that she was Ellen’s biggest fan. When she finally got a response, however, her call from Ellen was much different.
“So you entered every contest and you have never won one contest,” Degeneres told Klisiewicz in August 2008. “Do you know why I am calling you? To tell you you still haven’t won anything.”
Klisiewicz was eventually hired by Ellen, and became an “invaluable” member of Ellen’s team, specializing in surprising fans the way she was surprised.
“There is nothing like surprising someone, especially when you are doing it with Ellen,” Klisiewicz said in an interview. “Nobody is better than Ellen, and Ellen finds the best people.”