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.

Jon Gosselin in the wilderness Phillymag

Photography by Chris Crisman, Prop Styling by Lauren Payne, Styling by Kara Bettie Speckhals, All Wardrobe Provided by Sugarcube and Barbour.

Following his Friday-night shift at the better of the two restaurants in Stouchsburg, Pennsylvania, Jon Gosselin emerges from its kitchen and asks if I want to try something he made. A minute later he comes back with two plates of beef and Hawaiian fried rice and sets them down at the bar. (You may remember a variation of this meal from Jon & Kate Plus 8, Season Four, Episode Four: “Korean Dinner.” Recap: Despite Kate’s insistence on mixing the green and white onions he’d requested she keep segregated, Jon’s dinner is a success.) “Beef sauté with mushrooms and onions,” he elaborates. “Prime rib. We cut it all up, sautéed it.”

He’s wearing dark-washed jeans, a cuff-linked shirt and a blue blazer—an outfit that speaks to his recent promotion from server to maître d’ here at the Black Dog Cafe. The familiar face is ruddier and rounder than it used to be, coarsened by four years of unrestricted drinking and cigarette smoking. His chinstrap/goatee combo is neatly groomed, and the sparse hair on his head—he’s 36 now—is still spiked upward, as if saluting the infamous summer of 2009, when he split up with Kate, moved to New York, and embarked upon a series of tabloid-recorded liaisons.

Wait. Jon didn’t actually make our food. “Actually, I say ‘we.’ Greg cooked it,” he says. Greg is the sous-chef. Jon looks at me a little bashfully. “I told him what to add.”

Jon started working at the Black Dog in August. Located in a 600-person hamlet 18 miles west of Reading, it’s a folksy wiener-schnitzel joint with delusions of Asian fusion grandeur—the perfect place for Jon to rehabilitate his image and reclaim his mantle as the nation’s preferred Gosselin.

“I started to think about my brand,” he says, explaining the larger meaning of this new gig. “I’m still technically famous. I mean, you’re here. Heh.” He continues: “How can you get people in the door? It’s not the entertainment industry, but it’s the food industry. Cross-branding marketing right there.” (An appraisal of the cross-branding marketing: By 10 p.m. there are three married couples at the end of the bar, a lone drinker to our left, and a co-worker who went to high school with Jon to our right.)

Jon gets up, asks me what I’m drinking, fixes himself a second whiskey, then forgets to bring me anything. “The main thing the tabloids did was separate me from my brand,” he says. “My brand was Jon & Kate Plus 8. Now that I’m divorced? My new brand, because of the tabloids, is Jon Gosselin.” He’s ambivalent about this. Mainly, he’s baffled that his post-Kate dalliances garnered the notoriety they did. “In 2009, I was on 52 covers. Most-photographed person in 2009.”

The bad-boy image, he theorizes, was abetted by the public’s inability to grasp the lag between when an episode was filmed and when it aired. The same week he’d be on the cover of In Touch Weekly, rocking an Ed Hardy tee with a 22-year-old on his arm, the show’s five million to 10 million nightly viewers were watching a younger, more married version of him. He surveys the restaurant. “This is Middle America. This is not the city. There’s New York and Philadelphia and there’s L.A.,” he says, gaining steam. “But Middle America’s all in between! That’s the viewing population! Those people live. That’s what they do. You and I go out, we read, we educate ourselves, we do a lot of stuff. … They watch TV.” He pauses. “I don’t even have a TV.”

Jon Gosselin's cabin in the woods

Photography by Chris Crisman, Prop Styling by Lauren Payne, Styling by Kara Bettie Speckhals, All Wardrobe Provided by Sugarcube and Barbour.

WHICH IS ESSENTIALLY why we care about Jon Gosselin again. But let’s get something straight, people: Jon may be punching clock at a podunk restaurant, and he may be living in a cabin in the woods on a 28-acre plot that once hosted a nudist colony. But that doesn’t mean he’s hit “rock bottom,” as one interviewer recently suggested. On the contrary, he’ll tell you, this Walden phase he’s going through, it’s all part of the plan.

But first, for the uninitiated: Jon and Kate get married, have twins, then have sextuplets in 2004. The Discovery Channel offers them a contract, starting at $2,000 an episode, to let a camera crew document their lives. As their paychecks grow more substantial, Jon and Kate quit their jobs, she as a nurse, he as an IT guy for Governor Ed Rendell’s office. In print, Kate is often described as “shrewish,” which sounds mean and possibly sexist, until you watch the show and realize it’s accurate. In 2009, Jon is photographed with a string of younger women; the marriage falls apart. He becomes a tabloid sensation and forfeits most of the goodwill he generated over five seasons of masochistic subservience to Kate. The episode in which the couple announces their separation breaks the all-time viewership record for a reality TV series.

After Jon left Jon & Kate Plus 8, Kate busied herself with Kate Plus 8, followed by stints on Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Wife Swap. She’s been out of work since losing her blogging gig with CouponCabin.com, but has expressed interest in returning to television.

As for Jon, he partied in New York City, the Hamptons and Park City, Utah, making money by doing personal appearances and selling tips about himself to the tabloids. After that burned off, he installed solar panels in New Jersey, but all the good renewable-energy work was in New England and he didn’t want to be that far from his kids. So he returned to his roots in IT, doing “Help Desk Level 3 and Inside Sales” for Omega Systems in West Lawn, Pennsylvania. His LinkedIn page hasn’t been updated to reflect his most recent gigs, at Black Dog and another restaurant called Emily’s. Seems a little ungracious; without them, there might never have been a comeback.

Last August 26th, Kate sued Jon and a former tabloid writer named Robert Hoffman for, among other things, violation of section 18 U.S.C. § 1030 of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (in federal court, as Jon likes to point out). According to Kate, Jon stole a computer hard drive from their house and hacked into her email, giving Hoffman personal information—including a typed-out diary that allegedly indicates she abused her children—that Hoffman then self-published in a book called Kate Gosselin: How She Fooled the World. Amazon quickly pulled it when legal issues surfaced in 2012.

Three weeks after the suit was filed, Entertainment Tonight caught wind of Jon’s new job and rolled into Stouchsburg to film a three-minute segment called “Jon Gosselin Today: Waiter & Cabin Dweller.” Two days after that aired, a British paparazza tailed Jon after his shift at Emily’s to take a picture of the cabin. She got the shot, along with one of Jon pulling out a .45 caliber handgun, which he then fired to chase her away. (“It is a great shot when I’m pulling out my weapon,” he admits.) The View and Oprah came calling.

Even aside from the usual questions about how to brand and market oneself, Jon’s been doing a lot of thinking about the meaning of his new life as Waiter & Cabin Dweller. “It’s called: going into the woods,” he tells me 10 days later, as we’re cruising around Berks County. “Like, I always look at it like, if you’re in the woods, you take a path out of the woods. It doesn’t work? You come back in the woods, ’cause you’re comfortable. And then you figure out your shit—out of the woods again. Everyone does it. CEOs lose their jobs, they go back in the woods, they think they hit rock bottom because their lifestyle changed. But in actuality, they go and invent shit. Like Steve Jobs. Or Bill Gates, or, you know what I mean? Recession breeds innovation. So I just start thinking what I can do.”

What he’s doing is coming out of the woods.

WE FINISH EATING and head outside so Jon can have a smoke. We’re discussing the shooting-your-pistol-in-the-general-vicinity-of-a-tabloid-photographer incident when the issue of privacy comes up. “Yeah, Twitter,” he says in between drags. “I deleted it last year. Best thing I ever did. I can disappear. Nobody knows where I am.” @Kateplusmy8, meanwhile, is going strong at 174,000 followers. This enrages Jon. “She tweets everything. To the world, all about my children. I think it’s disgusting and awful. They can’t even have a normal life.”

I feel compelled to remind him he volunteered those same children for a five-season stint on prime-time television; Collin, Aaden, Joel, Hannah, Alexis, Leah, Mady and Cara’s formative moments are currently stacked in a pile of DVDs on my coffee table. He thinks this over for a few seconds. “Right. So I made a mistake.”

Jon first had this “epiphany” in 2009, after which he repented on Larry King, days after he walked out on the TLC show, never to return. (For this, and other violations, TLC’s casting partner sued him for breach of contract, which Jon says cost him about $500,000 and explains why he’s working at Black Dog.) But now he’s taking the epiphany to a whole new level. He says he wants to tack an amendment onto a piece of 2012 Pennsylvania child labor legislation known as “the Jon & Kate Plus 8 law,” to make it even more difficult to film minors. In November, Jon told Oprah that the show had given his kids “developmental” issues.

In this autumn of mea culpa, Jon can come across like a recovering alcoholic at an AA meeting who’s a little too eager to rehash his exploits. There are aspects of the bad old days he wishes he could have back. After he’s done smoking, one of the empty nesters at the end of the bar mentions the word “college,” and Jon, whose frenetic conversational style can seem like an endless game of word-association, launches into a story about the first time he ended up in the tabloids.

“My mom lived right behind Juniata College,” he recalls. “I was playing beer pong in a sorority house for four and a half hours. And I was winning.” The Juniata College episode came on the heels of another important milestone. “January 17th, 2009,” he says, somberly. “That’s the first time I went out knowing full well that I wasn’t coming home. I got home at four in the morning. And [Kate] said nothing. And then I knew it was over.”

Jon gets antsy and suggests we hit up a different bar. Five minutes later, we arrive at an equally middle-of-nowhere dive that looks like it specializes in late-night automobile fatalities. Jon orders a Paulaner Hefe-Weizen in an absurdly tall glass, and we move out to the patio and sit down at a table, where we’re approached by a 30ish guy and his girlfriend. She, Samantha, very drunk, has convinced him, Greg, a farmer of chili peppers, to ask Jon a question on her behalf.

Greg: Are you Ryan Gosling?
Jon: No, I’m Jon Gosselin.
Greg: My girlfriend was like, “That guy looks just like Ryan Gosling.”
Jon: I wish I was Ryan Gosling. God, that would be awesome. Ha!
Greg: Are you related?

Greg and Samantha peel off. Jon leans back in his chair and smiles, at peace with his relative unimportance. “It’s all human,” he muses, smoking a cig. “They’re all having a good time. You know what I mean? Why can’t the world be like this? Why do we have such an adversity towards each other?” I ask if it can really all be human when he’s famous and they’re not. “Yeah. I wait tables,” he says. “That keeps me normal.”

For a few months, the Waiter & Cabin Dweller redemption tour faced at least one massive obstacle: the federal lawsuit. If Kate was right, and Jon stole the hard drive for the purpose of exposing her already severely compromised private life, all hope of image rehabilitation would be lost. Jon disputed the charge, claiming that he made copies of all of Kate’s files for her on DVD, and that months after she threw him out of their house in October 2009, she then threw out all of those files. His friend, the tabloid writer Hoffman, says he simply nabbed the backup DVDs when he came over to help Jon officially move out.

Throughout the fall, nothing much happened with the case, which Jon’s lawyers repeatedly tried to get tossed. In November, the gossip site RadarOnline reported that Kate was trying to subpoena cell-phone records from Hailey Glassman, the most infamous of Jon’s post-Kate ex-girlfriends. Glassman apparently possessed text messages that, with Danielle Steel-level flourish, seemed to incriminate Jon.

Sent: October 14, 2009 11:02 AM
Subject: Grabbing computer
I’ll be back soon grabbing Kate’s computer before she gets home. I need that hard drive. I will put the nail in her coffin someday from it
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Sent: October 14, 2009 11:42 AM
Subject: Calm Down
You need to calm down. I’m doing this because she deserves it! Yet you call me evil. You want me to be honest with you but when I tell you the truth you call me evil. I don’t get you sometimes [redacted].
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

When I ask Jon about these texts, he becomes exasperated. He says he’s the one who wants to subpoena Glassman’s text messages. “I have proof to prove they’re fake,” he tells me, with a level of specificity his lawyers probably would not condone. “I didn’t have Verizon until 2010.” He adds, “Fuck you, Hailey Glassman, you lying piece of shit.”

In November, Kate dropped the charges against both Jon and Hoffman. (This is normally the place where I’d quote Kate’s Philadelphia-based lawyer, but he repeatedly dodged my calls and emails, claiming he was too busy to talk. He did, however, find time to post selfies to his Twitter account.)

In truth, Kate had put herself in a precarious position by suing at all. Jon’s lawyers say that if Hoffman’s book indeed “contained defamatory and untrue information about Kate Gosselin,” as she claimed, then she’d undermined her own claim that he stole her actual journal. On the flip side, if he did steal her actual journal, the information from it that he printed in his book would appear to be true, not “false” and “defamatory.” Jon’s take: “She’s admitting the child abuse. That’s her intellectual property. It’s her journal.”

A couple weeks before Kate dropped the case, Hoffman sent me a copy of a Microsoft Word file titled “Mommy’s Journal.” It totals over 100 pages. It begins on July 2, 2006, and ends on July 23, 2007. There are a lot of exclamation points and biblical verses. Hoffman says I’m the first journalist to see it, and has urged me to “independently verify” it. I’ll say this: If Hoffman did fabricate this diary, he has a real gift for creating the mundane parenting anxieties that consumed Kate’s thoughts in the mid-aughts.

As far as Hoffman’s allegations go, suffice it to say their veracity depends mostly on whether one considers spanking abusive behavior or not. At the bar, when I begin to ask Jon pointed questions about the alleged abuse, he wises up, goes off the record, and says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” Then he looks around the patio, motions toward the bar, and yells: “Let’s do a shot!”

Post-shot, Jon tells me to trail his beige Ford Expedition back to Reading, where he can lead me to a good motel. On our way, he stops at a gas station to pick up a can of Monster for himself and a pack of cigarettes to bring to his friend Carey. When we get to Carey’s, I get out of the car and find Jon standing in her unpaved driveway, driver-side door wide open, taking a piss. After a few minutes of standing around Jon’s puddle of urine and making small talk, we get back into our cars. My phone buzzes. It’s Jon. All he says is, “We’re taking back roads.” He kicks the Expedition into gear, and I follow.

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.

JON WANTS TO BE CLEAR: He was only filming in L.A. for two weeks. That’s it. Two weeks. Now he’s back home, picking up his kids, working at Black Dog. And you know what? He didn’t know if he and Liz would be a couple by the end of the therapy. But it was the best fucking thing he ever did. For them. Not for TV, dude. It wasn’t about TV.

One of the reasons Jon is doing damage control on the Couples Therapy gig is because what he wants out of this article is precisely the opposite of what he fears I’m going to write. “My good name is tarnished,” he told me before the VH1 gig materialized. He thinks the hacking charges have hurt his already compromised reputation, and he needs to defend himself in print. I ask how my article will redeem him. “I’m just a normal person. Let’s not use ‘normal’ anymore. Let’s use ‘ordinary,’” he says. “Ordinary is: I’m a fuckin’ tax-paying, law-abiding citizen of Pennsylvania. That just happened to be on TV for five years. You know what I mean? That’s it.”

Three days after the Temple seminar, Jon invites me back out to Berks County, to get a glimpse of the realness. We meet at a McDonald’s off the highway, where I drop off my car and climb into his.

He’s on speaker with Carey but cuts her off: “I gotta go do errands with Simon. I gotta get a gun safe.” According to his family court judge, a trigger lock and a slide lock are not enough when you have eight children, so we drive to Dick’s Sporting Goods. Jon walks over to the section of the store with the plastic deer and the rifles, where everything’s colored camouflage or orange. He finds a safe that’s not too pricey, tacks on two boxes of American Eagle ammo, and heads back to the car. I ask his opinion on gun control.

“It’s your choice. Right to bear arms,” he says nonchalantly, playing with the new bullets. “Second Amendment. Here you go,” he says, and puts the gun in my hand. “That’s a .45 automatic. Smallest carry .45 you can have. So, three-quarter-inch barrel. Nine rounds in the clip and one in the chamber. But I don’t chamber a bullet when I carry it.”

He takes back the .45. “This is the gun I pulled out,” he says, referring to the paparazzi incident. He smacks the clip shut. “It’s loud as fuck. But it’s my right.”

Jon says VH1 contacted him out of the blue a few days before Halloween, and flew him and Liz out to L.A. less than a week later. The implication is that he wasn’t actively shopping himself around. This is plausible. None of the people closest to him ever gave me any indication he was interested in doing TV again. That said, by agreeing to a series of humiliating Waiter & Cabin Dweller appearances on the big daytime shows, Jon Gosselin reestablished his D-list potential—and set himself up nicely for a reality-show comeback.

The same dynamic is at work during our day of errands. He takes me to meet his mom, who lives in a planned suburban community and declines to speak on the record. He shows me his childhood home, which is located in a good neighborhood on a handsome boulevard. He drives by the first house he and Kate lived in, a little wooden three-story a few blocks away. He takes me to his cottage in the woods, where he’s lived for more than two years. Outside, an ax leans against a tree. Inside, a pretty painting he picked up on a street in Paris hangs on the wall. There’s a fridge and a grill on the deck, along with a glass bowl full of beer bottle caps. I want to stay and talk, but he gets me out of there pretty quickly, and tells me I can’t write about his kids’ stuff. (He gets the kids one day a week and every other weekend.)

The operative question to ask about a former reality star seeking a redemptive magazine profile is whether he’s full of shit. Well, yes and no. Heller says that Jon was earning close to seven figures at the height of his fame, but pissed it all away by buying expensive clothes and flying first-class and renting a $5,000-a-month apartment on the Upper West Side that he barely used. So, yeah, this is his new life. But that doesn’t mean he can’t try to leverage the folksiness into some vague reputational boost. Letting the world in on the mundanity of his life, after all, is how he got big in the first place.

After a couple hours of rote sightseeing, he drives me back to the McDonald’s. Before I go, I tell him I want to tie up some loose ends about the court case, which at that point he’s still embroiled in, and suddenly he wakes up. “Everyone thinks I’m out to get Kate. I don’t give a fuck!” he says. “What would I get out of it? Everyone knows she’s an asshole, you know what I mean? I don’t have to—she’s proven that!” He goes on: “Kate wants to still be on television. She’s now digging into the past, because that’s what sells. Too late, honey. No one gives a fuck, really.”

Soon, Jon will be the one back on television, sharing a house with Ghostface Killah and Farrah Abraham. Maybe after that, he’ll cross-brand-market his way onto a gun show or, God willing, a cooking show. Maybe he’ll sink into obscurity, back in the woods again, his relationship with Liz strengthened by two weeks of mind-blowing therapy. But for now, Jon Gosselin is just a guy sitting in a McDonald’s parking lot, ranting about his ex-wife.

Follow @svzwood on Twitter.

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