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

Published: Monday, April 28 2014 7:34 p.m. MDT

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

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