Not every Jeopardy! contestant leaves the show having the best experience. No players seek to have a poor performance on national television for all to see, but it certainly happens. Heather Chapman was ecstatic to go on Jeopardy!, but she ultimately had an “epically” bad showing that would continue to haunt her. She once detailed exactly what it feels like at the moment to have that experience.
‘Jeopardy!’ contestant Heather Chapman held the record for ‘the worst performance ever’ until 2021
Claire McNear’s book, Answers in the Form of Questions, explored the experiences of a Jeopardy! contestant. Chapman was in labor when she got the call to come onto the show, and she jumped at the opportunity. She made her way from Lexington, Kentucky to Los Angeles only a few weeks after giving birth, but things started to go wrong for her almost immediately.
The categories on the board were geometry, Catholicism, and weapons – all things Chapman didn’t feel very confident about. Nevertheless, she tried to ring in as much as she could. Unfortunately, this “aggressive” strategy didn’t pay off. The Jeopardy! contestant ended with a negative $6,200, which was a record for the “worst performance ever” at the time until Patrick Pearce’s negative $7,400 in July 2021.
Those with negative scores aren’t allowed to participate in Final Jeopardy!, so Chapman was moved to sit in a chair offstage while her two opponents finished the game. She explained that she felt “the weight of hundreds of eyes” on the back of her head.
Heather Chapman recalled the horror of doing ‘epically’ bad on the show
McNear wrote that the rush of emotion truly hit Chapman after leaving the studio. The Jeopardy! contestant recalled how she always wanted to go on the show, but unfortunately, she didn’t perform nearly as well as she thought she would. Chapman referred to her performance as “epically bad,” especially after breaking the record at the time for the most negative total in the history of the show.
“We went to a Starbucks down the street, and I just started sobbing,” Chapman said. “When it’s something you’ve wanted to do your whole life, and then it goes that badly—not just regular bad, but epically bad?”
Chapman explained that she just kept crying, but she wasn’t alone. She suddenly felt a hand patting her on the back reassuringly.
“I thought it was my mother at first,” Chapman said, until she realized that it was a stranger. It turned out to be a homeless man. “He kept saying, ‘It’s going to be okay, whatever it is.’ And then I felt like the biggest jerk in the world because what are my problems compared to this guy’s?”
The Jeopardy! contestant knew that the most embarrassing moment would be when her episode aired on television a couple of months later. She went with a friend to a local bar to watch the episode in an act that she called “a little Dutch courage.”
Other bar patrons recognized Chapman from the episode playing on the television and started buying shots for her. “Desperate times, desperate measures,” she said.
The ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant had her redemption
Jeopardy! producer Maggie Speak would give contestant advice to others using Chapman as a “proud” example of a determined player who didn’t stop trying. “I don’t know if I would recommend that strategy,” Chapman said with a laugh. “But I appreciate the sentiment.”
Nevertheless, Chapman ultimately had her redemption on another game show. In 2019, she went on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where she brought home a total of $20,000.