Diane Ogden’s 30-year stint with the U.S. Post Office ended the same way her appearance on the popular CBS reality show “Survivor” did — sooner than she expected.
Ogden, who celebrated her 55th birthday Sunday, planned to retire as a mail carrier at the end of the month. But she left her southeast Lincoln route a few weeks ago after tripping over a baby gate while carrying her sleeping granddaughter.
The baby was fine. Ogden … not so much. She broke her foot.
In 2001, Ogden became the first Nebraskan selected to compete on “Survivor,” the unscripted show that features contestants trying to “outwit, outlast and outplay” each other in order to win $1 million.
She was one of 16 to participate in the series' third installment, “Survivor: Africa,” set on the Shaba National Reserve in Kenya.
Ogden was the first eliminated, lasting three days and just one episode. She was deemed too weak by her Boran tribe teammates after suffering from dehydration, which nearly forced her to be evacuated after collapsing following a challenge.
Sitting last week on the couch in her southeast Lincoln home, with her foot in a boot and her small black dog, Shadow, beside her, the irony of early departure from the TV show and her longtime job isn’t lost on her.
“Only I could pull that off, I swear,” she said, laughing.
She plans to return to the post office Thursday — she’s based out of the College View office, where she spent more than 20 years of her career — for cake and a proper send-off. She only wishes she had a chance to say goodbye to her customers.
“We’ll absolutely miss her,” said Terri Jo Podraza, league coordinator at Parkway Lanes. “We already do. You get used to having the same carrier. She was always fun, jovial and in good spirits.”
Ogden’s outgoing personality may be what led to her “Survivor” invitation 13 years ago. Watching the end of season one and all of season two prompted her to send in an audition video to the reality show.
“They’re camping,” she remembers thinking. “I could do that.”
Those who know her well know her audition video was vintage Diane. With a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the raspy-voiced Ogden dared CBS to cast her.
“I was being myself and told them, ‘What you see is what you get, and if you don’t pick me you’ll be sorry,’” she said. “Apparently, they saw something they liked.” (She quit smoking seven weeks ago for two grandchildren and the third that’s on the way.)
She filmed “Survivor” in July and August 2001. The episodes aired beginning in October and finished in January 2002, when CBS flew her to California for the finale.
On the walls of her home, she has a photo of herself in her one-and-only tribal council, a blown-up autographed photo of the season three cast, a team Boran flag and a canteen given to her by the production crew.
Her “one-and-done” made her part of an elite club: She’s one of 28 “Survivor” contestants to be voted off first. She admitted her short run bothered her for several years afterward, but she’s OK with it now.
“I got the best deal as far as the trip went,” she said, referring to an all-expenses-paid safari she took while the other contestants continued to sweat it out in the desert.
Her then-10-year-old son, Alex, took it especially hard.
“I was so bummed,” Alex, now 22, said. “She came back and didn’t tell us who got voted off. Then we watched it and she was the first one to go … Still, it was cool just getting there and making it on the show.”
Ogden said CBS contacted her to gauge her interest in season 27’s “Blood vs. Water,” featuring former castaways competing against their loved ones. Alex wanted to go in order “to redeem” his mother. But Ogden passed.
“I thought, ‘You know, I don’t want to do this again,’” she said. “I see how the show is now. It’s brutal. That’s not how it was back in the early seasons. They are just mean now, real mean.”
Some meanness existed back then, too. Ogden remembers how upset she became when fan websites mentioned her “poodle hair.” She bobbed her hair not long after her return. Today, her hair is long and curly again.
With Twitter and other social media, “I can’t even (imagine),” she said. “That’s another reason why I wouldn’t do it again. (The fans) are very judgmental on everybody — on how they look and stuff.”
She did take away several friendships from her experience. She remains in contact via Facebook with season three participants Ethan Zohn (the winner), Lex van den Berghe and Carl Bilancione. and season four contestant Jeff Varner. Several “Survivors” came to Lincoln at her invitation in July 2002 for a fundraiser for Camp Kindle.
Ogden still gets recognized around town despite her brief appearance on the reality show. She and Omaha’s John Carroll from “Survivor: Marquesas” have been the only Nebraskans to compete.
“Just this year, some gal came out of CVS and shook my hand and said ‘We were so proud of you,’” Ogden said. “I told her that was like 13 years ago. She said, ‘Yeah, but we’re still proud of you.’”