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Mormons on TV: Latter-day Saints who have found fame on television

By Stephanie Moreton and Kaylene Morrill

Published: Thursday, Feb. 10 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Of all places, many Mormons have found their success on television.

Quite a few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have become well-known and sparked conversations about the LDS Church through the small screen. From trivia buffs to singers, here is a sampling of everyday Mormons who have experienced the spotlight thanks to television.

Ken Jennings

Seventy-four consecutive "Jeopardy!" wins and more than $2.5 million in earnings catapulted Ken Jennings from average Salt Lake software engineer to television folk hero in 2004. A Brigham Young University graduate, Jennings had always been a trivia fanatic, practicing pressing the buzzer while standing behind his chair in his living room while watching "Jeopardy!" as he grew up. Never thinking he would ultimately be named "the Michael Jordan of trivia," Jennings went on "Jeopardy!" to put his uncanny trivia knowledge to the test. Needless to say, he did very well.

While on his winning streak, Jennings used extra flash cards in categories such as "potent potables" to compensate for his lack of knowledge regarding alcoholic beverages. Despite his surprising success with the category, everyone seemed to know he was a Mormon.

The Associated Press noted, "Not bad for a Mormon teetotaler who's oddly proficient in alcohol-related questions."

Indeed, Jennings' LDS beliefs came on the radar as his "Jeopardy!" success grew. But his rise to fame gave him a voice, and he has used it to advocate for the LDS Church and its members.

During the past presidential election, when Mitt Romney came under the public eye, Jennings wrote an opinion piece for New York Daily News defending his faith when it came under fire.

"This is a strange season to be a Mormon," he wrote. "During my lifetime, I thought The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had effectively mainstreamed itself. Being a Mormon was like being Canadian, or a vegetarian or a unicyclist — it made you a bit of a conversation piece at dinner, but you didn't come in for any lip-curling scorn."

Staunchly defending his religion, Jennings has never shied away from admitting his beliefs in the Mormon Church.

Other post-"Jeopardy!" accomplishments included publishing two books and appearances on other game shows.

Most recently, Jennings joined with another "Jeopardy!" superstar, Brad Rutter, the highest winning contestant in "Jeopardy!" history, to take on "Watson," the IBM computer. The show will air Feb. 14-16.

Looking ahead, Jennings' overarching goal for his "Jeopardy!" fame is to forever remain in the halls of trivia geekdom. He told USA Today in an interview, "It would be like the Holy Grail for a trivia person to become trivia. In 10 years, some Trivial Pursuit game is going to hinge on who can remember the name of the geeky Mormon guy who won on 'Jeopardy!' in 2004."

David Archuleta

For David Archuleta, an attention to music began one day at age 7 when his father put on a "Les Misérables" tape. Archuleta was drawn to the tape and has loved music ever since.

Five years after his interest was piqued, Archuleta performed in the junior category of "Star Search" and ended up on top, winning the competition. An article in the Deseret News from March 2008 reported that after Archuleta won "Star Search" and consequently won $100,000, he stated that the first thing he was going to do with the money was pay his tithing.

"American Idol" was the show that changed Archuleta's life — as overall runner-up, Archuleta grabbed the attention of many inside and outside the music industry. Aside from releasing albums, Archuleta has also performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the annual Christmas concert last year.

As a 16-year-old boy from Murray, Archuleta's journey through "Idol" hinted at his faith as a Latter-day Saint. In his rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine," Archuleta skipped the first verse of the song which says, "Imagine there's no Heaven," and later, "… no religion too." A writer for the Los Angeles Times speculated that his reason for only singing the third verse was that he was a Mormon and "unlikely to espouse the song's agnostic ideal." Archuleta did sing the full song on "Good Things Utah" at age 13, but for whatever reason, he decided to skip the first verse this time around on "American Idol."

When Randy Jackson asked Archuleta why he did not sing the first verse of the song, his response was that the third verse was his favorite and that it had a good message.

The New Era published an article in August 2008 that discussed Archuleta's devotion to the gospel. His seminary teacher reported that Archuleta kept up with his daily scripture reading for class, and class members also stated that Archuleta attended church while in Hollywood, despite the craziness of his schedule at that point.

Kelsey Nixon

North Ogden, Utah, native and Brigham Young University graduate Kelsey Nixon has carved out her niche in the culinary television industry.

Bubbly and charismatic on television, Nixon worked hard to accomplish her dreams of hosting her own cooking show.

Best known for making it to the final four on "The Next Food Network Star" and voted as "fan favorite," Nixon has since taken the cooking world by storm.

Nixon recently moved to New York City with her husband, where the years of preparation and hard work have paid off as Nixon's own show, "Kelsey's Essentials," debuted last year on the Cooking Channel.

Although Nixon does not place her religion at the forefront of her identity in the media, she is nonetheless an example of a successful LDS woman full of ambition and talent who has worked to accomplish her dreams.

In a past interview with the Deseret News, Nixon said, "I'm so proud of where I came from, and I find that my religion is as much a part of my culture as it is my faith."

No longer just "a sweet little Mormon girl from Utah who loves to cook," Nixon has become a real force in the culinary television industry.

Shawn D. Nelson

Nelson survived to win the reality TV show "Rebel Billionaire." He won $1 million and the opportunity to serve as president of one of Virgin's many ventures. Nelson, the owner of LoveSac and a University of Utah grad, served an LDS mission to Taiwan. On the show, he was referred to as the "Mormon punk."

Ryan Benson

In 2005, Benson was named the "Biggest Loser" when he dropped 122 pounds and earned $250,000 during the show's first season. Benson is also a 1993 graduate of BYU and described himself on the show as a "Mormon on the edge."

Contributing: Trent Toone

e-mail: smoreton@desnews.com, kmorrill@desnews.com, ttoone@desnews.com

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