P icture! picture! picture!” Like a pack of rabid penguins, the Japanese tourists feverishly surround the man with cameras and give off ear-piercing shrieks—there is no escape. Befuddled pedestrians pause. Traffic screeches to a halt. Have the Beatles arrived at Shea Stadium? Has Michael Jackson risen from the dead? The only thing anybody seems to be sure of: The man at the center of this mêlée is famous.
After being nearly devoured, a stout, incarnadine-complexioned Asian-American calmly emerges from the throng; Jon Gosselin, one of the world’s most-photographed men, has the situation under control. “If you can just form a line, I’d be happy to take my picture with you,” he says, politely instructing the group.
When the camera is ready, Gosselin’s face goes from zero to party clown faster than you can say “has-been.” His lime-green eyes sparkle in unison with his cubic-zirconia earrings. His finely manicured eyebrows stretch skyward toward his porcupine hairline. He sucks in his gut and signals the next fanatic in line to have his picture taken beside the reality star. Well aware that it could all end at any moment, that he could walk out of his apartment to discover no paparazzi waiting for him, Jon Gosselin spends his days in New York City doing all he can to keep obscurity at bay, posing with whoever is interested—a woman in the vegetable section at the grocery store, the entire staff at Starbucks, a taxi driver. “As long as they’re snapping, I’ll keep smiling,” he says. “I didn’t win the Nobel Prize. I’m not an actor. I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I’m just a country boy with eight kids … I don’t really get it either.”
When Jon Gosselin was 26 years old, his wife decided they would have more children. At first, he was against the idea: It had been only three years since their twin girls were born. But Kate ran the show, and Jon, an amenable sort, was quick to acquiesce. For the second time, the couple rolled the dice in the craps game of fertility treatment. “Boxcars!” the dealer yelled, pulling the “six” back with his stick. Pregnant with sextuplets, Kate refused the doctors’ recommendation of selective reduction. Jon’s company could no longer afford to pay the health insurance for an employee with eight children, so Jon was laid off. Broke and out of work, he came down with shingles. “Never fear, the Learning Channel is here!” While living on handouts and donations, the family of ten were approached by the corporation to become the latest attraction on the traveling-freak-show reality-television circuit. This was the lightning bolt of fame and riches that every American dreams might one day strike him.
Jon and Kate Plus 8 became a phenomenon as millions tuned in to watch the seemingly perfect couple raise their aberrant baseball-team-size litter in their newly purchased $1.1 million, 24-acre spread in affluent Berks County, Pennsylvania. Seasons one, two, and three passed as the children aged within the four corners of the liquid-crystal-diamond screen. However, behind the scenes, Jon Gosselin had grown increasingly frustrated with the marriage. While Kate toured the country with book promotions, talk-show appearances, and newfound fame, Jon was left home to take care of the children. At night, they had stopped sleeping in the same room. By day, they had become actors, playing the role of a happy couple for the cameras.
In January, with the marriage having run its course, Jon “went rogue” from TLC as he began to step out in public, embracing his own celebrity. He attended college-sorority parties, where he played beer pong until four in the morning. He hosted events in Vegas. The tabloids linked him to a slew of women, including the children’s babysitter, a local teacher, a bartender, and numerous others (all of which Gosselin denies). The paparazzi, or “the paps,” as Jon refers to them, followed his each and every move, fueling the embittered divorce battle between the couple.
In October, TLC, which shattered ratings records with the show, announced it would continue shooting the program under the new title Kate Plus 8, sans Jon. TLC sued Jon for breach of contract. Jon countersued. Add a divorce battle, eight kids, and a tabloid feeding frenzy to the mix, and Jon Gosselin’s days as the average father have been replaced by a new Darwinism invented by the surreal media and an addicted audience feeding off the victims and survivors.
F or the past six months, Gosselin has been living in a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. He spends half the week there, until recently in the company of 22-year-old Hailey Glassman, his then-girlfriend (the couple has since split). When he is not in the city “looking for work,” or “rebranding himself” as a single father, Jon is back in Pennsylvania with his eight children and the home where he and his wife alternate parental duties. Having surrounded himself with new management and a powerful legal team, Gosselin is attempting the impossible: life after reality television. While waiting for his lawsuit with TLC to conclude, he walks these streets, listening for requests or to be called for another appearance on Larry King, The Insider, The View, another opportunity, a future in show business.