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Neleh — from TV’s ‘Survivor’ to motherhood

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KAYSVILLE — The last we heard of Neleh Dennis she was coping with her new-found fame as the runner-up on a “Survivor” reality TV show and starting a TV career.

Are you sitting down? That was 12 years ago.

She’s all grown up. Neleh Dennis is now Neleh Nielson. When all the post-"Survivor" fuss died down, she got on with the rest of her life. She got married. She bore three children. She returned to cosmetology school.

She is a full-time mom, which is what she had said she would do all along, to laughter.

“Life has been good,” she says.

In the family garage there is the torch she used on the show, an important piece of symbolism on “Survivor.” In the home office, there is a fish aquarium that contains a troca shell, which she hunted for food to survive in the South Pacific. In the family room there is a scrapbook filled with photos taken of her on Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands where she and her fellow survivors lived for 39 days.

They are memorabilia seemingly from another lifetime. Her kids were only vaguely aware of her brush with fame until recently. It was only in the past three months that Neleh and her husband, Kris, watched the "Survivor 4" episodes with their children.

“The kids have had so much fun watching it,” Neleh says. “We didn’t tell them how far I got on it, so every episode they’d think this is the time I’d go.”

She never was booted off the island. She made it to the final cut, only to finish second, a single vote out of first. She won $100,000 — the one vote cost her $900,000 — and a new car. Having worked since she was 14, she was cautious with the money (“There was no way I was going to blow it,” she says.) She bought a chair and a camcorder and banked the rest.

She was 21 at the time. She is 34 now, still petite, upbeat and fit enough for another "Survivor" challenge. During a 90-minute interview, she never utters the Utah phrase she made famous on the show: “Oh my heck.” The family living room is dominated by large photos of Neleh and Kris with their children — Kai, 8; River, 6; and McKay, 4.

When the show was casting for contestants, Neleh was asked during an interview what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to be at home with her children. “They thought that was so funny,” she says. “They laughed. They thought it was funny that that’s what I aspired to be. It’s been the most rewarding thing that I’ve been able to stay at home to be a mom. I love it.”

In her spare time she “does hair” in her home, refinishes furniture in the garage — she and her sister have a how-to website dedicated to the refinishing art, Inoursparetime.com — and trains to run half-marathons.

“I’m glad you are writing this,” she says. “I laugh because all the articles (online) are always the same. It’s information from 10 years ago!”

She had thought she would slip back into her old life after the show. Almost as soon as she came home, she returned to her job working the Clinique counter at Layton Hills Mall. A month into the job, the show hit the air and suddenly the Clinique counter had long lines of people waiting to talk to her, or get an autograph or a photo with her. She quit the job just before the show’s finale aired.

“I knew the show was a huge hit, but I didn’t realize how that bit of stardom would feel,” says Neleh, who received hundreds of letters, some of them addressed simply, “Neleh’s home, Layton, Utah.”

The demands of celebrity surprised her. She would go to dinner with family and friends and could barely finish a meal because of interruptions. Her wedding invitation was posted on eBay, which sent her on a quest to find its origins to have it removed. She debated whether to restrict guests to her wedding reception to family only, fearing "Survivor" fans would show up.

After the show aired in the winter and spring of 2002, the offers for other TV work began to arrive. Besides the beach-girl looks, she has a charming, sunny disposition and an innate streak of niceness that play well on TV. She was hired by KUTV-Channel 2 as a morning news reporter. She did light reportage, some of it the participatory variety. She hang glided, parasailed, scuba dived, rode rodeo bulls, cooked in restaurants. … “I probably flipped a million pancakes,” she says. “It was a lot of fun. I felt like I got to do everything.”

Talent scouts and her agent came to her with opportunities for similar jobs in bigger markets and asked her repeatedly to send video of her work. “You are marketable,” they would tell her. She wasn’t interested.

“I’m not star-struck,” she says. “I didn’t really want that. I didn’t even watch TV. People contacted me at the news station. They got really frustrated that I didn’t pursue these things. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I never sent a tape in.”

After a little more than a year of doing local TV work, she left KUTV to resume the life she had charted before "Survivor" interrupted her, although she has continued to do Mormon firesides and charity work related to her celebrity.

She began dating Kris during the airing of "Survivor." They had met at the Clinique counter — he was there with his sister, a classmate of Neleh’s. They dated for a few months, and he pulled out all the stops. Neleh had tried to buy her island torch, but a viewer outbid her for it during an auction of the show’s memorabilia. She wrote to him asking if she could buy it, but he refused. Unknown to her, Kris recruited Paschal English — one of Neleh’s close "Survivor" friends — to contact the man. He was able to convince him to sell. Kris sent Neleh on a scavenger hunt that led her to it, propped against a tree.

They married in the Manti Temple in July 2003, about one year after her final "Survivor" episode aired. Kris, who studied broadcast journalism at Utah State University, took a job with a TV station in Medford, Ore., but after a couple of years on the job he grew disenchanted with the profession. He became a salesman/rep in the pharmaceutical industry, first in Texas and then in Utah.

Neleh is still recognized occasionally by "Survivor" fans, even a dozen years later, although they aren’t always certain about her exact identity. "Do I know you? You look familiar," one girl told her. “We just loved watching on 'So You Think You Can Dance.’ ”

Looking back, she doesn't dismiss her "Survivor" experience as mere entertainment fluff. Living for six weeks on an island with only the clothes on her back and whatever fit in a backpack affected her, she says, “spiritually, emotionally and physically. It helped me focus on who I was as a person. You have a lot of time to think. You are stripped of all comforts. You are given no food or water or even fishing supplies. You have to find them on your own. From sunup to sundown you work very hard. You can only put on a show for a couple of days. When you are hungry and tired and around people you would not normally be around, your true colors come through.”

She felt additional pressure to be at her best because she believed she was representing more than herself and her family — there also was her church. Among the few possessions Neleh was able to take to the island was a Book of Mormon, which, to her surprise, was borrowed by some of her fellow survivors. Before some of the stiffest challenges, they asked her to pray.

“I was scared,” she says. “I was 21 and I was going to represent what the world sees as a Mormon. More people were watching the finale than there are members of the church.”

When she returned from the island, she received many letters from people who were inspired by her faith and the way she represented it.

If nothing else, the island predictably renewed her appreciation for modern comforts. On the return flight home, she had a layover in LAX. She recalls hearing a woman complain about the tap water not being warm enough in the bathroom. She heard another woman complain because she didn’t have a place to hang up her coat. She laughed to herself. She had just survived nearly 40 days without a toothbrush and toilet paper and would never take anything for granted.

“I still appreciate things more because of the show,” she says. “I’m very sensitive to the things we have and things people complain about. It changed my perspective. I have a simple life. I’m not going out of my way to get things that don’t matter.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com