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 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.

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