Doug Robinson: Neleh — from TV's 'Survivor' to motherhood

Published: Sunday, April 27 2014 11:00 p.m. MDT

Neleh Dennis Nielson and her children, Kai, River and McKay, play at their neighborhood park in Kaysville on Monday, April 21, 2014. Nielson was a contestant on the reality television show "Survivor" in 2002.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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.”

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