IT’S A CHILLY Saturday at the First Assembly of God church in upstate Marcy, New York, but the commotion seems more like Christmas morning. And from the looks of it, the turnout is better. Jon and Kate Gosselin, the darlings of Jon & Kate Plus 8 — the TLC reality show chronicling their lives raising a set of twins and sextuplets — aren’t scheduled to appear for another hour, but the parking lot is already packed.
The crowd is more than 500 strong: silver-haired matrons, stroller-pushing moms, college girls in sweatshirts, kids in tees emblazoned with photos of the Gosselins, the occasional unlucky boyfriend or husband, dragging his feet like it’s the first day of school. Many have traveled for hours, paying $10 to snap a fuzzy picture, get an autograph, and adore America’s Favorite Parents in person; many will buy up Jon and Kate’s best-selling book, Multiple Blessings: Surviving to Thriving With Twins and Sextuplets, from an impromptu Barnes & Noble kiosk.
The pastor delivers a blustery introduction about how marriage and family are under attack, and how Jon and Kate represent our political mantra of the day, hope. In flawless makeup, stylish jeans and a gray sweater, Kate takes the stage (no Jon today, turns out), looking more like a 20-something headed for a date than the 33-year-old mom whose brood has made her a cable phenomenon. Perched on a stool and looking down at the sea of wide-eyed fans below her, she launches into the practiced spiel: how she and her IT analyst husband from Wyomissing, two miles west of Reading, just wanted a family, and ended up — through fertility treatments, luck and prayer — with a modern Brady Bunch. She describes her resolve not to selectively abort any of the embryos; how Jon’s miserly employer laid him off because he didn’t want to insure all those kids; and the early days in survival mode, trying to feed eight mouths and standing in line for heating assistance. “We had no van … no car seats … no cribs, we didn’t have room in our house, we had no income,” she sniffles, and her fans nod in sympathy. They’ve watched. They know.
Well, sort of. What they know is the reality-show version of the Gosselin family, the funhouse-mirror reflection of what life is like for parents who suddenly find themselves with eight children and cameras rolling. Because there is another story behind the 80-plus episodes of family vacations, potty training and amusement park escapades, and it’s not so warm and cuddly.
JON AND KATE were an ordinary couple thrust into an extraordinary circumstance: six babies in three minutes. When the sextuplets were born on May 10, 2004, at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, the media swooned, dubbing the tiny babies the “Hershey Kisses.” Kate’s well-worn sob story on the speaking circuit notwithstanding, neighbors and businesses donated diapers and strollers and gift cards to Sam’s Club; before the whole family went home, the NBC remodeling reality show Home Delivery did over the couple’s small Wyomissing house to make room for six more.
Then, in September 2005, the Discovery Health cable channel broadcast a one-hour special on the family, and followed up with another less than a year later. Boffo ratings led to a regular series in April 2007 (it later moved to TLC), after the Gosselins had relocated to a bigger house in Elizabethtown, 10 miles south of Hershey. The family seemed startlingly normal, or as normal as one could with a daycare’s load of children. The sextuplets were matchlessly cute — six quarter-Korean two-year-olds, three boys, three girls, all healthy, bubbly, and in TV-ready coordinating outfits, bookended by two plucky six-year-old sisters. Episodes chronicling even the most ordinary days didn’t disappoint: Jon and Kate lose Aaden in a corn maze! Hannah poops in her pants! Alexis throws a tantrum in the dentist’s chair! As Jon and Kate bickered and buckled under the stress of their teeming flock, riveted women across the country formed an instant bond, drawn to their realness. Kate talked about clipping coupons and stretching a dollar, and wore sweatshirts and little makeup; Jon worked full-time, and his mellow, youthful mien complemented his wife’s no-nonsense demeanor. Their challenges appeared genuine and many, and Kate became an inspiration to stressed-out moms who, after watching, could summon a bit more courage — If she can do it with eight, I can handle mine.
And so we fell in love. It was an easy love. Faced with the snake pit of bad-for-you television, why not sit back and enjoy the good clean fun of Jon and Kate and their eight? “This show is so much more than adorable (and often isn’t adorable at all, depending on how many Gosselins are having meltdowns in a given episode),” gushed Entertainment Weekly. “No, what makes J&K so fascinating are the challenges, which are beyond anything Survivor or The Amazing Race could dream up.” By 2008, some episodes were getting as many as three million viewers, a tsunami of eyeballs in cable. The kids were unequivocally adorable, and watching them grow was wholesome and guiltless. Or was it?
TODAY THE TWINS are eight and the sextuplets four, but Jon and Kate actually look younger than when the show began, more camera-friendly and polished. They’ve had their teeth whitened; Jon’s been working out and got a (free) hair transplant. The Gosselins have turned up on Oprah and Good Morning America, and inside the pages of In Touch Weekly and People. The show is TLC’s most popular series.
As a result, the family now goes on more free trips, and is treated to swag and catered to at every outing. Phils skipper Charlie Manuel let Jon and some of the kids run the bases after a game last season (they had box seats, and got an autographed bat from Shane Victorino); a zoo tour included getting to privately feed the giraffes. “They get the publicity of the trip, we get the trip,” Kate explains in one of the “Viewer FAQ” episodes. The kids model the latest tyke couture from Gymboree. They frolic with Wii Music, Play Doh’s Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop and Little Tikes Jump ’n Slide Bouncer as Jon gushes about why these are such great playthings and the camera zooms in on the logos. Nielsen ranks the series eighth out of 149 cable shows for product placement.
In one episode, the family is being photographed for the cover of Good Housekeeping. On an oppressive 93-degree day, the photo’s being taken outside, and because it’s for the November issue, everyone’s in heavy sweaters. Then the photographer’s strobe breaks. When Kate reviews the shots afterward, she’s heartbroken about how forlorn the twins look. Things aren’t any better the next day at the studio shoot. Twin Mady is grumpy, and Leah won’t raise her head up. The GH crew tries to coax smiles. “I’m always looking for ways to, like, make it fun for them,” Kate breezily tells the camera later. It’s episodes like these that have slowly roused some critics and viewers out of the Jon and Kate coma of undying adoration to ask an uncomfortable question: When do your kids stop being your kids and start becoming your meal ticket?
Jon and Kate have booked more and more speaking engagements at churches, where, according to several attendees and organizers, the collection basket sometimes gets passed so audience members can make a “love offering” to the family. Sometimes, the duo sells autographed photos for $20 a pop (cash only). Last spring, Jon and Kate hired L.A. manager Julie Carson May, who quickly broke the news to several groups that had booked the couple that they wouldn’t be able to make it, citing the production schedule and the demands of the kids. Jody Clark, of the Ohio Child Conservation League, had agreed to a $3,000 speaking fee, first-class airfare, a rental car and accommodations in exchange for the couple’s appearance at a convention this coming October. “I was pissed,” says Clark. May, she says, “apologized, said the Gosselins had spoken to God and made this decision.” She was offered a conciliatory autographed picture. At Noel Methodist Church in Louisiana, organizers say they pulled the plug after learning they’d be on the hook for first-class airfare and a $1,600-a-day bodyguard. A gig in Colorado was called off with just three weeks’ notice. “They are totally exploiting those kids now,” Clark says. “At the time we were booking them, the show wasn’t what it is now. It’s taken on a life of its own; it’s so commercial. I think the jig is up with them.”
And so, perhaps inevitably, the official Jon and Kate backlash has begun. In earnest. As they so often do, Internet bloggers have led the charge, asking tough questions about favoritism by Jon and Kate to some of the kids, the ominous tone behind the couple’s playful on-camera bickering, Kate’s frequent shrewishness, and — most persistently — the sudden disappearance from the show of Kate’s sister-in-law and dutiful babysitter, sweet “Aunt Jodi.” Ground zero for such discussions is Gosselins Without Pity, a site that’s taken on an almost religious zeal in its mission to expose the underbelly of TV’s happiest family. The brickbats are surprisingly well-written and thought-out, and even for the newly initiated, the arguments are hard to refute. The site has surpassed two million page views; posts are made almost daily, with most generating hundreds of comments.
The criticism has spread beyond the ’Net. Kate’s battleax behavior has made her every husband’s nightmare and consequently the butt of pop culture jokes, too. On their syndicated radio show, the notorious Opie & Anthony called her “a capital C” and her marriage “loveless,” as men whose DVRs have been taken over by their wives’ and girlfriends’ obsession with the show lit up the phone lines. The Soup’s Joel McHale can’t seem to get over the way Kate regularly emasculates Jon, calling her “Katezilla” while highlighting a recent episode in which she berates Jon for forgetting to use a coupon, and hypothesizing about a spin-off: Jon Minus Nine. In October, Paul Petersen, a former child actor from The Donna Reed Show who advocates for child stars, delivered a blistering attack while on CNN, arguing that “children need secrets, they need silences.” In California, Jon & Kate Plus 8 as it exists today would be highly illegal, explains Petersen, because of the state’s extensive protections for all kids on camera, scripted or reality. But Pennsylvania doesn’t offer similar protections. TLC has installed studio lighting throughout the Elizabethtown house, illuminating it, a neighbor says, so that “you could see it from space.” And while Kate contends in one episode that the kids have been living with cameras since infancy, “so they don’t think anything of it,” a recent episode showed a close-up of a child-drawn sign reading “Stay owt with camras.”
None of this comes as a surprise to David Rothermel. Owner of a custom cabinetry business in Lancaster County, he was Jon’s boss (and a friend of Jon’s parents) during Kate’s second pregnancy. He’s the guy singled out during Jon and Kate’s speaking engagements as the man who “did not want to insure [Jon] … they let him go.” However, Rothermel says — and supporting documents prove — that Jon Gosselin was fired for other reasons. The state unemployment office ruled that Jon improperly did a side job on company time; furthermore, Rothermel claims that before the babies were even born, Jon was on the phone and the Internet soliciting freebies, boasting openly that he was never going to have to work again. Indeed, the Gosselin family website, Sixgosselins.com, was registered before the babies were born, and later featured a “Prayer List” of wants — a 15-passenger van, “a house that we fit into and can afford … it’s going to literally take a miracle” — along with a “Praise List” with the names of folks and companies and the supplies they’d donated. When the babies were six months old, family members, friends and neighbors got a letter containing the Gosselins’ account number with the electric company, in case anyone felt moved to pay the couple’s bill. (A TLC spokeswoman says the letter came from friends looking to help the Gosselins.)
Which brings us back to sweet Aunt Jodi and her mysterious disappearance. Jodi — who is married to Kate’s brother, Kevin — was a popular fixture on Jon & Kate Plus 8, often babysitting the brood, cooking with them, playing dress-up, even taking the kids overnight. Until she suddenly vanished from the series, leaving viewers wondering if she’d moved or died. Last June, Jodi’s sister Julie unraveled the mystery, blogging that TLC had finally decided to compensate Jodi for appearing on the show, at which point, she says, Kate lost it, insisting that only she and Jon be paid. Soon, Jodi — along with Kevin, another regular — was gone. In a video posted on Julie’s blog, Jodi confirms that the website is accurate. “Sometimes,” she says, “the truth is hard to hear, and this is one of those situations.” The TLC camp says that Julie’s account is inaccurate.
Beth Carson, once one of Kate’s best friends — she often watched the kids and traveled with the family on the show — endured a similar unpleasant departure from the series. (Though Carson pretty much wrote Multiple Blessings, poeticizing Kate’s anecdotes keystroke by keystroke, Kate is almost always referred to as the book’s sole author.) Jenny the babysitter, another fan fave, also no longer works for the Gosselins; a confidentiality agreement blocks her from explaining why. All of this has left former friends of the Gosselins who have been shoved out of the family’s life both puzzled and concerned. One is worried because she claims Beth and Jodi often “were the ones on set taking that role [of looking out for the children’s well-being], telling the film crew, ‘Okay, they need lunch’ and ‘You’ll get your shot later.’”
THE LATEST EPISODES of Jon & Kate Plus 8 detail the Gosselins’ move to a new $1.13 million house on 24 acres in Lower Heidelberg Township, near Reading in Berks County. Viewers have also met the family’s two new dogs. (Of course, this hasn’t stopped fans from trekking to the old house to snap pictures as if they’re on a studio tour, much to the former neighbors’ consternation.) The most burning question viewers have begun to ask is whether Jon and Kate will adopt, yes, “just one more baby,” as Kate wistfully says on the show, with the couple answering in a recent episode with an enigmatic, “No. We don’t know. We don’t know what’s going on.” And that is, after all, the point — to make sure viewers don’t know what’s going on, either, so they keep tuning in, week after week.
In the meantime, what might be called the Jon and Kate Effect has bled throughout the airwaves, echoing the rule of reality TV: If the show’s a success, copy it. TLC, also home to such highbrow fare as Half Ton Teen and The Man Whose Arms Exploded, is now promoting other big-family documentaries with titles like Twelve at the Table, Kids by the Dozen and 17 Kids and Counting. Later this year, WE is scheduled to debut The Joy of Six, with cameras trailing Bryan and Jenny Masche of Arizona and their two-year-old sextuplets. All of which has critics like Penn bioethicist Art Caplan concerned that frenetic publicity over higher-order multiples perpetuates the myth that such pregnancies can be had any day; that they’re lucrative, fun and easy, like a never-ending class trip. In fact, most end in heartache, cerebral palsy, and preemies too young to survive. “No one should get the impression that it’s anything other than a big gamble to try to deliver six babies at once,” Caplan says, “both for the mother and the babies.” The controversial birth in January of California octuplets set off a whole new media frenzy, raising troubling issues once the public learned the mother in question already had six other children under the age of eight, and was unmarried and unemployed. (None of which prevented her from quickly hiring a publicist.) L’Affaire Octuplets presented several PR opportunities for Kate, who dutifully appeared on Access Hollywood and CBS’s The Early Show to give California’s newly supersized family some advice, while in the background one of her sons whined, “I wanna go home now.” Kate’s words of wisdom in an AccessHollywood.com article were strangely self-revealing. She wished she had known beforehand, she said, “that although we are always surrounded by more people than we know what to do with, we often feel lonely and lack friends and family who truly know how we feel.” (Through TLC’s publicist, the Gosselins refused repeated requests from Philadelphia magazine for an interview for this story.)
If Jon and Kate Gosselin have sold their children’s privacy, we the viewers are the guilty buyers, even as we find it harder and harder to see the pair as the guileless, relatable-to, in-over-their-heads parents we once knew and adored. Looking ahead, the Gosselins’ challenges are still real and many, though different: How will they teach their kids to be humble, and that normal people don’t get to run the bases at Phillies games? That everything isn’t free and yours when you want it? That fame is, by and large, capricious and fleeting? Only time will tell how their eight will deal with having grown up in a home studio, in front of cameras and fans, as the world watched.
“As their friend, as somebody who loves the kids, I was always the one saying [to Jon and Kate], ‘Okay, be careful.’ Because they’re not just a commodity, they’re people,” says one of the kids’ former babysitters. “And someday will come and … you know? Nothing comes free. Everything, everything, has a price. And because I love them, I don’t want them to pay a price that’s too dear.”