Neleh Dennis was born in Heber City, Utah, and is one of eight siblings (five brothers, Tom, John, Devin, Nathan and Landon, and two sisters, McKenna and Robyn). She was named after her maternal grandmother, Helen. Same name, only spelled backwards. Dennis has lived in California, Idaho, and most recently, Layton, Utah. She graduated from Layton High School in 1998.
Dennis was a member of the Layton High Drill Team, which placed second in a national competition her senior year. While in high school, Neleh taught dance, sang in choir, enjoyed theatre, donated time and energy to the Special Olympics and worked closely with mentally challenged young adults. Dennis also earned her Certified Nurse Assistance certificate before graduation and worked full-time with Alzheimer's patients in a nursing care center where she was promoted to Team Leader. During the summer, she worked as a lifeguard.
After graduation, Neleh attended Weber State University and earned an Associate degree. She was accepted into the nursing program, but decided to pursue a degree in psychology. Dennis is currently working on a Bachelor of Science in psychology with an emphasis on child and family studies. In addition, she took scuba diving lessons while in school. She also worked part-time as a psych tech on an adult psychiatric ward at a local hospital.
Dennis works full-time as a make-up artist for a major cosmetic company. In addition, she has acquired 900 hours toward a degree in cosmetology and is looking forward to a long career as a make-up artist.
Neleh Dennis describes herself as happy, outgoing and loving. Dennis enjoys country dancing, camping, boating, snowboarding, working out and waterskiing. She also enjoys exploring new places, going for long drives in the country, picnicking and four-wheeling. Ever the adventurer, she is a member of the Mountaineering Club. She currently resides with her parents, three of her brothers, her two ferrets, Bandit and Chance, and one dog, Rascal. Neleh has a major sweet tooth and loves to eat. Her birth date is February 19.
Neleh Dennis will soon become another Latter-day Saint reality-TV celebrity when episodes of the series "Survivor: Marqueasas" begin airing Feb. 28.
Dennis, 21, of Layton, will not only be showcasing herself on the show, but in a way, her religious convictions as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Survivor participants are allowed a luxury item for the show. While others chose items like teddy bears and footballs, Dennis chose her scriptures.
"I knew that they would bring me comfort when times were tough," she said.
Both of Dennis's parents are converts to the Church of Jesus Christ, and her mother is a BYU graduate.
"To me my religion means a ton," she said. "I didn't go out there to be a preaching Mormon, I just went out there for myself. Hopefully it will be a good example."
She said her motive for applying to be on the show was adventure, which has always been a big part of her life.
CBS director of publicity, Colleen Sullivan, said that religion played a secondary role, if any, in deciding who would be in the show.
"Ultimately when we are casting we are looking for 16 dynamic people with charisma, personality and charm," she said.
Although the show was finished filming before Christmas, Dennis said that network contracts keep her from talking at length about it.
Dennis is getting noticed, according to Reita Bybee, counter manager for Clinique in the Layton Hills Mall Meier and Frank store, where Dennis is employed.
Dennis signed her first autograph in the store on Feb. 7, according to Bybee.
Dennis is employed at the counter giving makeovers, and Bybee said she is looking to play up Dennis as a new advantage over her make-up counter competitors.
"She is so awesome, she is so good," Bybee said, who has long been a Survivor fan. "She could survive anywhere."
Dennis is a former Weber State University student and has studied nursing and psychology. She is now pursuing a career in cosmetology.
Dennis said she is unsure how widely she will be recognized by people, but that she hopes the effect she has is positive.
"I just hope to be able to do a lot of good from this," she said. "That would be my greatest reward."
It's a long way from Layton to the South Pacific island of Nuku Hiva, but 21-year-old Neleh Dennis made the trip hoping to win a million dollars in the fourth edition of the hit CBS reality series "Survivor."
Dennis and 15 others were unveiled as the contestants for "Survivor: Marquesas" on Wednesday morning. They were chosen from more than 60,000 applicants. (Originally from Heber City, Dennis is a graduate of Layton High School, where she was a member of the drill team.)
"Early Show" co-host Jane Clayson (herself a former Utahn who graduated from BYU and worked for KSL) had a little trouble with Dennis' unusual first name. As a clip of Dennis carrying rocks was shown, Clayson introduced her as "a student, Melia Dennis."
Dennis was named (in a roundabout way) for a grandmother her first name is "Helen" spelled backwards.
There should be no such confusion once "Survivor: Marquesas" premieres on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. (locally on Ch. 2). According to a CBS spokesperson, Dennis is one of those contestants who "pops" who makes a big impression on the small screen. (By contract, contestants cannot do interviews until after they are voted off the island or until after they win the million dollars, if they're that lucky. If they talk, they not only lose whatever money they win but stand liable for millions of dollars in punitive damages.)
The fourth edition of "Survivor" takes place on one of the remote Marquesas Islands, a distant neighbor to Tahiti in the South Pacific.
On the other side, the Maraamu tribe is Gina Crews, 28, a nature guide from Gainesville, Fla.; Hunter Ellis, 33, a Federal Express pilot from La Jolla, Calif.; Peter Harkey, 45, a bowling alley/wine shop owner from Millis, Mass.; Patricia Jackson, 49, a truck assembler from Lugoff, S.C.; Sarah Jones, 24, an accounts manager from Newport Beach, Calif.; Rob Mariano, 26, a construction worker from Canton, Mass.; Sean Rector, 30, a teacher from Harlem, N.Y.; and Vecepia "Vee" Towery, 36, an officer manager from Portland, Ore.
When Survivor returns to an island today, the participants (and viewers) should expect one big change in the $1 million game: No rice rations or jugs of water.
These 16 folks will be on their own for Survivor: Marquesas (8 p.m., Channels 12, 7), fourth in the series.
"It was always my idea to do that," says Mark Burnett, executive producer. He could do it on Nuku Hiva, a remote South Pacific island with plenty of fruit, fish, shellfish and taro, a potato-like plant also abundant in Hawaii.
The castaways were shocked to open their supply box and find no food, after their raft trip from a fishing trawler. The box contained a frying pan, knife, magnifying glass, two cooking pots and two machetes.
"The island has enough to eat," Mr. Burnett told TV critics in a conference call earlier this week. "Believe me, they soon figured it out."
Viewers also should expect other changes in Survivor 4, which Mr. Burnett called "small evolutions." Changes were made to keep participants off guard, keep his production crew from getting bored, and to keep viewers from switching to Friends, TV's No. 1 series. (Cincinnati has been CBS' No. 1 Survivor market for the past two adventures.)
"You need to evolve," he said. "There are some small, subtle evolutions to improve the game."
Mr. Burnett also hinted there could be some romances in either the Maraamu (yellow) or Rotu (blue) tribes. "Yes, definitely the potential is there. But we don't want to give anything away," Mr. Burnett said.
Eleven of the 16 are 36 or younger; most have hard, sexy bodies. Viewers can't escape the fact because the cast members talk about each other's physical attributes. It sounded like Fox's Temptation Island.
"Sarah has a cute body. She paid a lot for it. And if you have it, flaunt it," said Vecepia "Vee" Towery, 36, an office manager from Hayward, Calif., about Sarah Jones, 24, from Newport Beach, Calif.
When Gina Crews, 29, the Gainesville, Fla., nature guide, saw shirtless FedEx pilot Hunter Ellis, 33, of La Jolla, Calif., she declared: "I'm already in love with Hunter."
Here are the tribe members:
-- Maraamu: Rob Mariano, 26, Massachusetts construction worker; Sean Rector, 30, former Harlem teacher; Peter Harkey, 45, Massachusetts bowling alley and wine shop owner; Patricia Jackson, 49, South Carolina truck assembler; plus Sarah, Gina, Hunter and Vee.
-- Rotu: Neleh Dennis, 21, Utah student (and first Survivor Mormon); Gabriel Cade, 23, Los Angeles bartender; Tammy Leitner, 29, Arizona crime reporter; Zoe Zanidakis, 35, Maine fishing boat captain; John Carroll, 36, Nebraska nurse; Robert DeCanio, 38, New York limousine driver; Kathy Vavrick-O'Brien, Vermont real estate agent; and Paschal English, 57, a Georgia judge.
Survivor 5 locations have been scouted in South America and Asia, though CBS hasn't ordered more shows yet. CBS executives have said they want two Survivors for each September-May TV seasons.
"I don't think anyone would want us to do more than that," Mr. Burnett said.
When CBS debuts "Survivor: Marquesas" three weeks from tonight, Utahns will be able to cheer for a home-state contestant.
Neleh Dennis, 21, a Layton High graduate and Weber State University student, was the youngest of 16 castaways to compete for the $1 million prize on "Survivor: Marquesas."
Dennis applied on a whim, she said.
"I've always loved to do random, spur-of-the-moment things," she said. "Mainly, I just wanted to do this for the adventure. I saw the last episode of the Australia "Survivor," and it seemed like the funnest thing to do."
Dennis, the fourth of eight children in her Layton family, was stranded with the other island castaways on Nuku Hiva, a distant neighbor of Tahiti in the South Pacific.
The group was given no food or water. Castaways had to work as a team to survive, but outwit and outlast each other to win the game.
The competition has been filmed and the results remain secret. The first episode airs at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 on KUTV Channel 2.
Dennis said she has seen little footage and will be watching each episode with keen interest. Strict contracts bar her from revealing any details of how the game unfolded or how she felt about what transpired.
"It was really exciting," she said. "I had my adventure."
Dennis" CBS biography did reveal a few more details. Among them: She was named Neleh (neh-LEE-ah) as a tribute to her grandmother, Helen (reverse the spelling); she has worked as a psychiatric technician and a makeup artist; and for the one personal "luxury item" she was allowed to take to the island, she chose scriptures.
Utah's Neleh Dennis is sweet, good-natured and cheery on TV. That's why there is a growing wave of couch potatoes rooting for her as she vies for a million bucks on the CBS sensation, "Survivor: Marquesas."
But not only is she building a swell of support on TV, she's becoming the darling of the Internet, where giddy fans have dedicated Web sites to the 21-year-old Weber State University student from Layton.
"I like the fact she is a nice innocent girl. Her innocence shines through," said Sevaan Franks, an anthropology major at York University in Toronto, who created a fan site at NelehDennis.com. "Online, a lot of people are seeing the same thing. She is the most popular contestant. She has the largest fan base."
Indeed, Dennis, who has a penchant for likability (she named Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan her favorite actresses), has an 83 percent popularity rating on the "Survivor" home page for CBS.com, the highest of any contestant still in the game.
Dennis' unassuming charm mostly is what has kept her in the game, in which 16 strangers are dumped in a so-called isolated land (past episodes were in Africa and the Australian Outback) and compete in "challenges." They then vote off the unwanted in an effort to be the sole survivor and winner of $1 million. It can be seen every Thursday at 7 p.m. on KUTV Channel 2. A special recap of the first 24 days of "Survivor: Marquesas" airs tonight at 7.
"Right from the beginning, people were on board the 'Neleh Wagon,' " Franks said. "People need someone to root for and that's where they turn to Neleh."
What makes this Layton High School graduate, drill team member and psychology major the toast of reality TV?
Maybe it's her oh-my-heck, kid-next-door persona. Or the waif-like build and blonde-streaked locks that remind us of the girl who would turn her nose at the jock to help the geek. After just 10 minutes on the island, her tribe mates already nicknamed her "Sweet Pea."
She is "America's sweetheart," said Michael Starr of Orlando, Fla., creator of SurvivorFoxes.com, devoted to the female contestants on the show.
"She's the kind of girl that every guy wants for a girlfriend," he said, "that every father wants for a daughter, that every woman would be thrilled to welcome into the family as a daughter-in-law."
Just glance at her biography on the CBS site.
She "donated time and energy to the Special Olympics and worked closely with mentally-challenged young adults," it reads. "Dennis also earned her Certified Nurse Assistance certificate before graduation and worked full time with Alzheimer's patients in a nursing care center."
Talking to her face-to-face about the Survivor challenge is everyone else's biggest challenge. Due to a contract with the show's producers that could put her at risk for the million-dollar prize, Dennis or any other contestant is forbidden from talking about the show until they are voted off.
Seventeen-year-old Ashley Lange and her friend Jessica Martin feel they don't need to meet Dennis to know her.
They started a Neleh (pronounced ne-lee-a) Dennis fan site before the show even started.
"Neleh is young and she seemed cool and caring," said Lange, a high school student in the small town of Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Canada. "We wanted to pick someone [to do a Web site on] that we would like and who would go far."
And many think Dennis will reach the top of the pyramid.
Online sports betting site, Intertops.com, places Dennis to win with 9-to-5 odds. And she was voted most likely to win the million-dollar prize, according to a poll on CBS.com's "Survivor" page.
Last week's episode in which Dennis made her first power move, convincing Georgia judge Paschal English to vote off an unsuspecting member who had proclaimed himself tribal leader, also proved she has the wits to play the game.
"Don't be fooled by Neleh's gentle and unassuming facade," said Starr of SurvivorFoxes.com. "My guess is that it only conceals the steel wits and iron will within."