Yolanda Vega knows her numbers.
The vivacious voice of the New York Lottery has been announcing 3s, 19s, 25s, 42s and other members of the arithmetical family for 20 years now. She’s been on the job during 12:25 and 7:35 p.m. Lottery drawings, always ending her 45 seconds of airtime with a spirited, exaggerated pronunciation of her name: “For the New York Lottery, I am Yo-LAAAHN-da Vega!”
The 54-year-old Yolanda has been on camera for more than 2,000 drawings. Her job has taken her to the top of the Empire State Building in New York City, the boardwalk at Jones Beach and the New York State Fair in Syracuse, among other places.
“Most times, I’m working on promotional schedules for the [draw] team, introducing our new Lottery millionaires, announcing our winning numbers or getting the studio ready for a drawing that someone else is doing,” Vega said.
The job has made her a star. She estimates she hands out 5,000 autographed Yolanda photos each year during promotional appearances. “It’s my way of passing on some Lottery luck,” she said.
The Brooklyn native lived in Schenectady’s Mont Pleasant section for 14 years and now lives in Guilderland.
Here’s her story by the numbers — starting at square 1.
Q: How did your career with the state Lottery begin?
A: I was just in the right place at the right time. I have a degree in economics from Hunter College with a minor in communications and accounting. I was doing some accounting work in New York City and coming upstate to the Albany area to hang out with my best girlfriend. I came up one particular time and there was a gentleman going to SUNY Albany along with her brother and I was introduced to him and I fell in love; Miguel and I had a long-distance relationship of four years. Then I came upstate.
He became a state trooper and I wanted something to do beside my bookkeeping 9-to-5 job I had here at Bruegger’s Bagels. When a friend came over and said the Lottery was auditioning for on-air masters-of-ceremonies, I said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can really do it because I don’t have any radio or TV experience, but I’m going to give it a shot.’ I came up against some very shocking competition. I said, ‘I’m not going to get this job, these girls are hot and they’re young!’ I was 34 at the time, not that young, but they surprised me when they hired me.
Q: What were your first times on camera like?
A: Very nerve-racking. Even though I had prepared, memorized the script, going with the flow of the music, I was still very nervous I’d say something incorrect. When you say something incorrect, automatically they yell ‘Recap!’ So I was hoping for no recaps.
Q: How about appearing on live television? Also nerve-racking?
A: I shielded my brain from contemplating there were millions of New Yorkers out there watching. I just looked into that camera and honest to goodness, I saw my mother at the end of the camera in her home in Brooklyn, watching me. My mom, back in the day, she was an avid Lottery player and she saw the Lottery drawing every single day.
Q: How did the distinctive signature line start?
A: You know, fluke again. Didn’t give it any conscious thought. I came into work a couple months after I was there, confident I had the script down, the flow of the music down. I had a couple extra cups of cappuccino espresso that day, I had such high energy and I said, ‘I’m Yo-LAAAHN-da Vega!’ And the program manager at the time said, ‘What are doing, you’re stretching your name, you only have 45 seconds.’ And I said, ‘But that’s my name and that’s the way I like to say it, because I’m proud of who I am.’ That just came out, I had never said it that way before. It just continued.
Q: Yolanda is not a real common name. If you were “Sandy Vega” or “Dorothy Vega,” this might have never happened. Who gave you the name, your mother or father?
A: That was another flukey thing, my life is made up of flukey things. I was the third of three in a row, we were all girls and Mom and Dad really thought the third would be the boy, so they were not prepared for me. In the hospital, the nurse came over and said, ‘You’ve got to pick a name.’ My mom said, ‘I’m not even ready, I didn’t even give it any thought.’ The nurse brought in the baby book of names and said, ‘Here are the girls’ names, just pick one.’ My mom closed her eyes, flipped the page, pointed and there was ‘Yolanda.’
Q: Your job has made you a celebrity. Any funny stories about being recognized in public?
A: I do get recognized when I have the makeup on and the hair and I’m dressed up, but 90 percent of the time, I’m a normal wife, I’m in jeans, I have my hair in a ponytail, in curly curls, no make-up and no one even recognizes me. But when they do realize who I am, if I present a check or credit card at a supermarket, they say, ‘Wow, you have a name like that girl on TV, Yo-LAAAHN-da Vega.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s me!’
Q: Is this a full-time job?
A: It evolved into a full-time job. I took it back in February of 1990, part-time, I was working in the evenings. Not long after I arrived at the Lottery, my husband, Miguel, and I hit the jackpot and we became with child. We had two babies and I chose to be at home with them and work in the evenings. So I left the bookkeeping job after they were in full-time kindergarten. The Lottery wanted me on board full time, so I’ve been full time something like 13 years or so.
Q: Speaking of funny numbers, have there ever been nights when some really strange numbers came out?
A: Luckily I’ve been blessed with not making any mistakes. We’ve had weird numbers like 7-7-7, and I had the privilege of announcing 9-1-1 on the one year anniversary of the World Trade Center. In the evening draw, it was 9-1-1. I said, ‘The first number is 9, the next one is 1,’ and I was thinking ‘Oh my gosh, this could be 9-1-1,’ then I said, ‘And the last number is 1’ and I kept it cool and said, ‘Making tonight’s winning number 9-1-1.’ Then I went on to say Win 4 and then it was over and I was like ‘Oh my God.’
Q: What has been your favorite Lottery road trip?
A: I’ve been to all corners of New York state. I remember one particular day, it was in a school somewhere in the Southern Tier where we had given the school an award for something they had won. I went to this school and presented the award in the gymnasium to a group of maybe over 400 elementary grade school kids. I shook every single child’s hand. That was amazing, that was very special to me. I love kids.
Q: Did you ever think this would last this long?
A: No, no, I didn’t give it any thought. But why not? I love it and I’m going to be here forever, until they say ‘OK Yolanda, it’s time for you to leave. That’s not a 9, that’s a 6.’ I’m only kidding.