NEW YORK — You might think that missing out on a million dollars would leave Utah "Survivor" contestant Neleh Dennis at least a bit blue. But, on the contrary, the 22-year-old Layton woman was as bubbly as ever after she learned that she finished second in the TV competition.

"I'm feeling relieved," Dennis said in an interview Sunday with the Deseret News — her first after the "Survivor: Marquesas" finale. "I've been hiding this little secret for four months. It's nice to know what the outcome was and just kind of move on. And it was a great experience."

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If a bit nerve-wracking. After surviving two more eliminations in Sunday's two-hour telecast to make the finals, she lost by a narrow 4-3 jury vote to Vecepia Towery, a 36-year-old office manager from Portland, Ore., in a show telecast live (taped-delayed in the Mountain Time Zone) from Central Park in New York City.

But it's not like Dennis went home empty handed. She won the $100,000 second prize and, along with the other 15 contestants, was given a car. Not bad for someone who had never seen an episode of "Survivor" when she sent in her audition tape for the fourth edition of the series — and she sent that in "on a whim."

"I did it, seriously, just thinking it was going to be fun," Dennis said. "I never expected to get a call back."

Let alone become a contestant, travel to the Marquesas Islands and set off a new catch-phrase that seems to be sweeping the nation. Well, not exactly new, but the Utahism "Oh my heck" is now being heard even in this distant land of Manhattan after Dennis used it repeatedly on "Survivor."

"I think they showed every single one of my 'Oh my hecks,' " she said with a laugh. "I didn't even realize that I say it so much, but since I've been home from the show, I've really picked up on everybody saying it, and how much they say it."

But Dennis' 13-year-old brother, Lanvon, said Neleh hasn't let her newfound fame and pop-culture influence go to her head.

"No, she's just gotten nicer," he said, "She paid for all of us to come here."

(CBS paid for four members of the Dennis clan to come to New York; she paid for the other nine who also made the trip.)

But she sparked at least a bit of a national debate about whether she could be the sweet girl-next-door and a player in a cutthroat game like "Survivor" at the same time — an issue raised repeatedly by fellow contestant Sean during the playing of the game, and by Rosie O'Donnell, who hosted the follow-up "Survivor: Reunion" show on Sunday.

"It was funny. In Sean's case, he doesn't realize that you can be a nice person and be competitive," said Dennis. "As soon as it was my turn to step up and play the game . . . Sean was kind of like, 'Well, how can she be this sweet little girl but be competitive at the same time? So she must really be this little evil girl that's been covering up with her sweetness.'"

(After the finale, Sean said, "I still think she's a sweet girl — but not as sweet as she wanted everybody to think she was. She was a player.")

More than one of their fellow contestants accused both Neleh and Vecepia of hypocrisy for claiming to be devout Christians and yet playing "Survivor" to win. (A charge that smacked of the sourest of grapes.)

But Dennis wasn't backing down from either her faith or her competitiveness —the young woman whose "luxury item" she brought to the island was her scriptures definitely wanted to win. And, while the fact that she's a Mormon didn't appear in the show until late in its run, she said "everybody knew I was Mormon" from the start.

"I've always been really personal with my religion. I'm not somebody to just go out there and every five seconds (express my views)," she said. "I relied on the Lord so much out there, like in prayer and everything."

As for the future, well, that's a bit up in the air right now. At least she doesn't have to worry about money for awhile.

"I just quit work (at Meier & Frank) two days ago, just because I know things are going to be crazy the next three or four months," Dennis said. She's also looking to trade in the car she won on a model she really wants, "and I'm just going to invest the rest of my money and be smart with it — $100,000 really isn't that much, especially once you take taxes out and everything."

Like a lot of other former "Survivor" contestants, Dennis wouldn't say no if some sort of continued media exposure comes her way, whether it's commercial endorsements or some sort of acting opportunity.

"I just figure, I'm 22 years old, I'm young, I have everything, basically, at my fingertips," she said. "So I'm excited to see what kind of opportunities will come out of it."

But if she knew before she became a survivor what she knows now, she still would have done the show.

"I definitely would have," she said. "It's been the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

Million dollars or not.


E-MAIL: pierce@desnews.com