Nobody said winning is easy. There are interviews with the National Enquirer and radio stations from coast to coast. You have to stay on top of your schedule -- things like entry deadlines and what time you're due at Ozzie Smith's sports bar to play video football with Marshall Faulk. Then there's keeping track of all the stuff you've won.
"A reporter is here from The Riverview Times," Carol Shaffer tells a relative who calls her Columbia, Ill., apartment in the middle of an interview. "Also, Good Housekeeping -- they want a picture of some of the prizes, so I need to get that stuff back again. And Donald said I didn't give him back that football shirt that -- was it Bruce Isaac or somebody? -- autographed. He wears it when he watches Rams games. I think I may have given it to you instead of back to him. What time do you want me there?"
She hangs up and returns to the kitchen table scattered with scrapbooks and photographs that chronicle her five-year journey from run-of-the-mill housewife to Carol "Lady Luck" Shaffer, star of her own infomercial and winner, by her count, of $100,000 in prizes from various sweepstakes and contests. "There's not enough hours in the day, are there?" she says. Her hair is styled à la the Church Lady, her fingernails painted a conservative tone of pink, her voice a perfect Route 3 Midwestern twang, her white slacks spotless, her yellow T-shirt loudly emblazoned with her Web site address: www.winbigprizes.com.
Shaffer may not be the best at details like the name of the Rams' star wide receiver or what position Faulk plays (she thinks he lines up at fullback). But she has a knack for winning. With her three children grown and the ink on her divorce papers barely dry, she spends $5-$10 a week on postage in an attempt to win more fabulous prizes. She's driven, but not nearly so desperate as some. "I read an article one time in a magazine about this lady who entered contests," she recalls. "To get money for postage, she sold her blood."
Shaffer's dream is a spot in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Last time around, she sent in 70 recipes, including one for a cake made with ground-up pickles instead of applesauce. She still can't believe that didn't catch the judges' eyes. She once dressed up as a cowgirl to deliver a batch of cookies shaped like cowboy hats, and she'll dress Mexican-style if the Pillsbury folks take a liking to one of her south-of-the-border concoctions and fly her out to California -- anything to make herself stand out and give her a better shot at a prize. "Anybody who talks about you or laughs at you are almost always people who don't do anything," she says.
Laugh all you want, but Shaffer has won a $10,000 shopping spree, a trip to Hawaii, a day with Oprah Winfrey in Chicago and much, much more. Whether she won a $30,000 Chrysler LHS three years ago is a matter of some dispute. Yes, her ex-husband's name was on the entry blank. "But it was my techniques, and I put it in the box," she says. "He got that Chrysler. I contend that I won it." Nonetheless, she drives a Chevy Cavalier today.
No matter. There will always be cars to win -- she says she was recently a finalist in a drawing to win a BMW. Most prizes, of course, are more mundane. You have your electric woks, your $100 checks, your all-expenses-paid trips to San Antonio. Shaffer has won so many times she can't remember right off hand which contests led to which prizes on a list that fills up 10 handwritten pages.
Take Shaffer' recent foray to Ozzie's Restaurant and Sports Bar. She doesn't immediately recall that she got the chance to play video football against Faulk as a result of a drawing aimed at promoting Totino's frozen pizza. She shows up late -- the photo shoot with Good Housekeeping took longer than expected. A dozen or so other winners are already there waiting for Faulk, who proves a serious student of the electronic game. He thrashes Shaffer, three plays and out. The best she can do is a 2-yard gain. Afterward, Faulk saunters outside the roped-off VIP area and spends more than an hour playing video golf, unnoticed, at the bar's arcade. Shaffer is all smiles. This is her favorite kind of prize. "I call these adventure prizes," she says. "You can't buy time with Jack Buck. You can't buy a day with Oprah."
But you can buy leather skirts, Gucci purses, jewels and sequined dresses, which Shaffer did when she won a $10,000 shopping spree at Plaza Frontenac five years ago. It was her first big prize. She thinks she had an edge because she folded her entry blank like a fan, which made it easy to draw from the big box. She's been going hard ever since. All it takes is some Magic Markers, a bingo dauber to decorate entries, stamps and a little time. "It's a relatively easy hobby to do," she says. "It's a hobby that appeals to all ages. Even my grandchildren win things" -- with help from Grandma, who once urged a granddaughter to draw a yo-yo in Mickey Mouse's hand to win a coloring contest. "All kids pretty much color the same," she confides. "I told her, "Add something to your picture.'"
Shaffer, who works part-time as a Wal-Mart greeter, has hit the airwaves with an infomercial to promote her two videos that detail her winning secrets. The videos, each costing $19.95, are short. Together, they run 40 minutes. And, truth be told, the secrets don't sound so earth-shattering: Follow the directions on entry forms. Penmanship counts. Enter often, using the names of every relative and friend you have in the world. Always include your ZIP code. Do anything to make your entry eye-catching. A favorite trick of Shaffer's is to soak entry blanks in colored water, making them bright and stiff when they dry out and increasing the chances they'll be drawn. "The bottom line is, I do anything I can to make my entry or myself stand out and be noticed," she says.
That includes sending letters and copies of her video to television producers and other media. David Letterman and the Today show have declined, but she's heard encouraging words from Oprah, Donny and Marie, and Roseanne. She's written out talking points on a manila envelope to help her through phone interviews. "It makes life fun, let me tell you," she says. "I do radio interviews every morning from as far away as New Zealand. I'm in my nightgown, 6 o'clock in the morning, and they call me, especially when it's on the East Coast. It's kind of hard to wake up early in the morning and sound enthusiastic and not have sleep in your voice. I gargle. I talk to my cat. I sing, "La, la, la.' People ask me when I do these radio interviews every morning, "Why are you giving away all your secrets?' For one thing, there's so many contests out there I can't hit them all.
"To me, it fits back into adventure. It just opens up a whole new avenue for me to do things."