Jon Gosselin in the Wilderness

As part of the headlining duo of Jon & Kate Plus 8, he ruled the reality-TV roost. Then his life crashed and burned, and five years later he’s working as a maître d’ and living in a cabin in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania.

EXACTLY ONE MONTH LATER, VH1’s Couples Therapy announces the roster for its fourth season, in which washed-up celebrities and people who probably can’t be considered celebrities at all will live in a house together and get relationship advice from a Beverly Hills therapist. Jon has made the cut, along with his girlfriend of two years, Liz Jannetta. They will be joined by celebrity teen-mom-turned-aspiring-porn-actress Farrah Abraham and rapper Ghostface Killah, among others.

Whatever challenge the lawsuit posed to the Waiter & Cabin Dweller narrative, a return to reality television seems to blow the whole thing to pieces. Before the VH1 news broke last November, I spoke to Jon’s former manager, Mike Heller, who shepherded him through that treacherous fall of 2009, and whose father, Mark, was Jon’s divorce lawyer. Heller insisted that Jon is happier now than he was during Jon & Kate Plus 8. “He’s not the one who wanted to do the TV show from the beginning,” he told me. When he added that reality television was “the biggest addiction,” he was making the point that Jon had kicked the habit, not that he had succumbed to it.

Jon and I eventually discuss the VH1 show, and he quickly gets defensive. “I didn’t put out an open bid—this is something that just popped up,” he says. Plus, he did it for his relationship with Liz, a single mom of three who DJs and tends bar. “We needed the therapy for our relationship. We really couldn’t afford therapy. And it’s free therapy.”

What makes all of this doubly incongruous is that for the past few weeks, Jon has been going full apostate on the medium of television, telling me that while paid interviews with The View and Oprah were fair game (“It’s a revenue stream”), filming a reality show was not (“That’s not me”). He claimed, somewhat improbably, that he’d turned down “10 to 20” reality-TV shows since his flameout, including Dancing with the Stars.

One Friday in mid-October, Jon finds himself standing in front of several dozen middle-aged lawyers and accountants at a tiny satellite campus of Temple University in a Montgomery County office park. Along with his entertainment lawyer, Chris Cabott, Jon is leading a day-long $149.99 continuing education seminar about the legal ins and outs of reality TV, about which Jon has some expertise. Standing at a lectern in an untucked purple striped shirt and blazer, he tells the class he walked away from the show to spare his children from later watching the documentation of their parents’ divorce. “I literally didn’t show up to work, and that’s a breach of contract,” he says. “But I did it for morals.” Cabott asks him about the role of producers. “I don’t trust producers,” he replies. “You trust yourself and the people that love you.” Outside, during a smoking break, a student named Pat asks him if he’d do it over again. Jon puffs on his cigarette and says, “Knowing what I know now, probably not.”

It’s not just TV that burned him. “One of the things that he did, that I really couldn’t control, he really let the wrong people get into his life,” Mike Heller says. “He was pretty much naive when it came to the Kate Majors of the world.” (Kate Major is a former tabloid reporter who alleges she fell in love with Jon; she then had a baby with Lindsay Lohan’s dad, and now thinks that “Jon is a piece of shit he deserves to live in the woods without TV.” Pride of Allentown, baby!) Stir in an ex-wife who was suing him and an ex-girlfriend who may or may not be floating fake texts, and it makes sense that Jon’s become a bit paranoid. “The Hellers protected me … as far as I know,” he says of the people with whom he was closest in 2009. “They could have sold me out, too. I have no idea.”

The antidote to all these leeches would be his current girlfriend, Liz. Unlike them, she fell for him after his stock had crashed, when there was no more money to be made off of him. Liz and I sit next to one another during the Temple lecture, and her crass charm inspires me at one point to overshare that I’d forgotten to apply deodorant that morning. She offers up her own stick of Secret, which is in her car. This experience is apparently bonding enough that when we return to the lecture, she grabs my laptop and starts typing out a message.

Because he’s been off air for so long … my questions are always …

Why do people still care? What did he really DO to become famous, other than have lots of children and a bitch ex-wife. But every single place we go he’s recognized. Whether it’s in Berks PA or another state. With or without kids. Now he’s living this life like everyone else, although his past will always exist. Nothing luxurious, Insane work schedule, Kid schedule, managing finances, making a little time to breathe etc. And it sucked for him to get to this point (as he says he’s hit “rock bottom” numerous times), but it’s good now and all about figuring out what to do to keep moving in right direction.

Fourteen days later, Jon and Liz fly to Los Angeles. Season Four of Couples Therapy debuts on January 2nd at 9 p.m.

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