Prince of the Professional Nobodies

Photo: Andres Serrano

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.

“No cover today, but you’re inside all of them!” the magazine vendor says to Gosselin, handing him a copy of Star. He flips through the tabloids and lights a cigarette, hiding behind wide Ray-Bans, a computer bag strapped to his back. “I’ve been on the cover of 50 magazines over the last twelve months. Some supermodels are lucky to have one, and look at me,” says Gosselin in a rural Pennsylvania twang, motioning toward his round belly. The headline of one of the tabloids reads JON GOSSELIN TO STAR ON SURVIVAL SERIES. He chuckles, dismissing the headlines as mere rumors. “It’s like NASCAR. People just go to see someone wreck. All I can do is ‘deny.’ If I tried suing every time they wrote a lie about me, I’d be broke tomorrow.”

According to Gosselin, when the tabloids aren’t inventing stories about him, they’re producing them. When he’s been at hotels, hookers have been sent to his room. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, while staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Gosselin was approached by a woman claiming to be a jazz singer and professing a strong desire to go to a Dodgers game with him. Having grown accustomed to ambush, Gosselin took precautions, calling his manager, Mike Heller, who then confronted the girl, later unmasking her as the wife of a paparazzo. “The paparazzi send prostitutes to photograph him in compromising positions! There’s a $150,000 price on his head! They’ll do anything to ruin him,” says Heller. “But he’s getting better at understanding who to trust.”

“So who can you trust?” I ask Gosselin. He looks around at the crowded streets and takes a deep breath, pondering his life in the concrete jungle. “My best friend, Joe, died last week,” he says with a somber tone. Taking the last pull on his cigarette, Gosselin has an epiphany. “He knew me better than anybody.” Just two days ago, Gosselin drove directly from his divorce proceedings to his friend’s bedside, where he promised his friend he would look out for his daughter. “I don’t think it’s hit me yet … with everything that’s going on … I’m just trying to surround myself with morally strong people who can help me to be a better person.”

“No cover today, but you’re inside all of them!” the magazine vendor says to Gosselin, handing him a copy of Star.

Gosselin speaks with a therapist daily. He has also sought moral counsel through Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has invited him to participate in public confessionals, where, for $20, attendees can observe as Gosselin and the rabbi discuss his story and how he will now utilize his celebrity to inspire others. “If you were a role model to fathers when you were married, you should still be a role model as a divorced parent,” Rabbi Shmuley instructs Gosselin, while perched on a throne on top of a stage at the Westside Jewish Center. Boteach, the shameless self-promoter, father of nine, and former star of his own TLC series, Shalom in the Home, was most recently known for having counseled Michael Jackson.

“Jews are cool as shit,” Gosselin says as he rings the doorbell of his lawyer’s brownstone near 72nd Street and Broadway. He looks up at the building, in awe of its market value. Mark Heller emerges from the building talking on a portable phone. George Hamilton’s Jewish doppelgänger has taken up Gosselin’s case against TLC. The former defender of David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, Heller recently appeared at Gosselin’s side on Larry King, confident they will emerge victorious against TLC.

While waiting on the steps of the brownstone for Heller to get off the phone, Gosselin pores over a Vanity Fair article about his wife, which includes her accusations that he removed $230,000 from their account, leaving her with only $1,000 to take care of their children. “If I only left her with a thousand dollars, then why does she want to go to eat dinner at Nobu?” He pauses. “What’s Nobu?”

“A very expensive restaurant,” I respond.

“Exactly! How does she get her hair done? How can she afford to pay her bodyguards?” Gosselin asks. “Kate doesn’t get it. TLC controls her life. If we worked together, we could be a better brand. We could make more money. In the end, the more money we make, the better off our kids will be.” Heller and his other lawyer nod their heads in agreement. “You’re rosy! You’re rosy!” says Heller. “There’s nothing they can say now!”

Later, walking down Park Avenue, Gosselin runs into two attractive socialites en route to a fund-raiser for Senator Mark Warner. Realizing Gosselin’s presence could benefit their cause, they approach him and end up inviting him into their limo. “Things like this happen all the time. I’ve ended up in some crazy places … like Avril Lavigne’s house. My kids love Avril,” Gosselin says, as he pulls up to the 59th Street entrance of the New York Athletic Club.

A concierge darts from behind the front desk to intercept Gosselin and prevent him from coming in. “I know who he is!” the concierge says. “But he’s wearing sneakers and we can’t make any exceptions.”

“I’ll just buy new clothes! I want to meet the senator!” says Gosselin. He heads to the nearest haberdashery, and fifteen minutes later, after purchasing a new pair of shoes and borrowing a jacket from the front desk, Gosselin gains admittance to the club.

In a small reception room, Senator Warner’s fund-raiser is momentarily interrupted as Jon Gosselin enters the room. Confounded, Warner shakes Gosselin’s hand, not recognizing the short man in the baggy jacket. The senator’s aide whispers into his ear, and Warner excuses himself from the crowd, mechanically leading Gosselin to the other side of the room where a photographer is waiting. “I’ve always loved politics,” Gosselin says to the senator. “I’ve become a public figure. Why not run? One day … ” Warner halfheartedly smiles for the cameras, Gosselin’s statement going in one ear and out the other. After the photo is taken, the senator returns to his speech without introducing Gosselin to the crowd.

G osselin’s manager, Mike Heller, son of his lawyer, enters the waiting room of his Murray Hill–based Talent Resources, a marketing firm where Gosselin spends afternoons strategizing over his future endeavors. A former adviser to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, Mike is full of ideas as to how Gosselin might capitalize on his current media presence. “I’ve got a couple of deals on the table. Nothing final. Ideally, we’re thinking talk show. We’ve also got some great ideas for Jon doing a furniture line for children. Tell him, Jon!” While Gosselin dispassionately describes several products, including an idea for a dual-purpose baby carriage for which he says he has applied for a patent, Heller initiates a screen saver on the large flat-screen television. The video rapidly rotates and fades in and out of pictures of Mike Heller in the back of limos with celebrities, at parties with celebrities, and in candid photos with celebrities, the TR logo floating around the edges of the screen.

“Ideally, we’re thinking talk show. We’ve also got some great ideas for Jon doing a furniture line for children.”

When Gosselin’s former girlfriend Hailey Glassman arrives, he wraps his arms around her, fully absorbing her into his chest as if he’d just spent the entire day under police interrogation and his representation had finally come to his rescue. “You’re my best friend,” Glassman says to him on the back porch of Talent Resources. Glassman, who has successfully turned her skin the color of a carrot, presumably from frequent visits to a tanning salon, holds a bouquet of sunflowers that Gosselin purchased for her as an apology for the latest batch of tabloid rumors about his various and sundry affairs. Since they first appeared together this summer in St.-Tropez, Glassman has been publicly vilified as a “home wrecker” and blamed for ending Gosselin’s marriage, though they began seeing each other six months after Jon and Kate separated. “It feels like the entire world is against me. They can say whatever they want about you,” Glassman says with a heavy New York pothead accent. There is an undercurrent of sadness in the room as Gosselin hangs his head, a shadow covering his face. If it weren’t for him, she would have gone back to school. Instead, they spend most of their time in their apartment, reading about themselves on the Internet.

“Shmuley doesn’t think it’s such a good look for me to be dating anyone right now … until the divorce is settled,” Gosselin later tells me. Following Rabbi Shmuley’s advice, Gosselin and Glassman have decided to take a “break from their public relationship.”

Tomorrow morning, Gosselin will make the two-hour drive back to Pennsylvania for his weekly changing of the parental guard. The paparazzi will be waiting for his arrival, loitering in packs on the edge of his property, hoping for something unexpected to happen, though it won’t. Gosselin will spend the next four days with his eight children, taking them to school, cooking for them, watching cartoons, and putting them to bed. For the first time in five years, there will be no cameras following him as he does this. In celebration, his brother and his friends will come over to drink a few beers. They might even have a bonfire or do some dirt-bike riding. “It’s really not that interesting. Even if they could film it,” Gosselin says, “I don’t know why anyone would wanna watch.”

Prince of the Professional Nobodies