By the time Jon Gosselin arrives at the Manhattan offices of his newly hired media attorneys, he looks like he's been through a war. His eyes and face are marked by fatigue, and, when not speaking, he leans back in his chair and stares blankly ahead, seemingly numb. Only when he realizes that he's reached this room without being caught by photographers does he crack a smile. "All of them are sitting at my house and I'm here," he says, with some satisfaction, of the paparazzi. "I swoop in and swoop out."
Lately Jon could be forgiven for wanting to swoop out and disappear entirely. Under attack ever since he was caught leaving a bar at 2 a.m. with another woman, the 32-year-old star of the TLC reality hit Jon & Kate Plus 8
—which chronicles his life with wife Kate, their 8-year-old twins and 5-year-old sextuplets—has seen his family become the target of choice for the tabloids. "I've never spoken to them. I've got nothing to say to them," he says of the magazines that have delighted in his marital meltdown. "My only outlet is the show, other than this interview."
But while Kate spoke openly to PEOPLE in May about the perilous state of her marriage, confessing that "Jon is confused and struggling with a lot of different things," Jon himself is cautious about being too candid. He recently underwent rigorous "media training" designed to help him deflect any and all questions that might be too personal. As a result, when asked about the status of his relationship with Kate, 34, how it reached such a crisis point, and even whether or not he still loves his wife, he offers the same response: "It's a private matter, and we're discussing it privately." Will he and Kate work on repairing their marriage? "That's a private matter," he says pointedly. "And we're discussing it privately."
But just last month, Jon was willing to shoulder much of the blame for his family's troubles. "Right now I feel a bit lost. It's been hard to deal on many levels," Jon told PEOPLE at the time. "The hardest part by far is what it's done to my family."
Nearly 10 million viewers now know what it's done: The season premiere of Jon & Kate Plus 8
was a heartbreaking documentary of a marriage imploding. Jon and Kate not only barely spoke to one another, they hardly made eye contact. "Very swiftly we've turned into two different people," said a teary Kate. This week's episodes, mostly taped in March, show Jon and Kate already leading separate lives. "This season, sometimes you'll see Kate and I interview separately, sometimes ... together," Jon explains on the show. "It really depends on how things are going."
How things are going, however, is still unclear. "I don't think we really know how we are," Kate told PEOPLE. "We're so busy shielding off attacks from the outside." But Jon is quick to point out that, while recent episodes may have shown him as surly or hostile, he's not angry. "I'd say it's more that I'm upset about certain things," he clarifies. "I think all parents, and anyone who is married, are always going to have times when you're upset with someone. This is a reality show, so you're going to see real emotion."
How much of that real emotion should be offered up for public consumption is just one point of contention between the couple. Last month Jon explained that things got rough once reality stardom really set in. "We have more viewers now; we're doing more episodes," he said. "The show is our life, and our life is the show, which is the hardest part. How do you separate that? I go home and 50 people want my autograph."
Yet, while Kate told PEOPLE that she will continue with the show because "I must go on and provide for my kids," Jon takes exception to the idea that reality stardom is his new profession.
"It's not my job," he insists. "My job is to take care of my kids and raise them the way that they need to be raised. That's Kate's job too. One of us will always be with them, regardless of what happens to me and Kate. Our focus will always be on our kids."
As for the continued paparazzi presence, Jon has resigned himself to it.
"I always think, Enough is enough already, and they should just move on to somebody else," he says. "But it has gotten to a point where it's become a working relationship. They know the rules about not photographing on school grounds, so I'm gonna drop my kids off at school. If they catch me, they catch me. If they don't, they don't. I'm not going to stop my life because there's 15 people with cameras outside."
Especially since there are several more cameras rolling inside, as the reality show has continued to document the family's daily life despite the considerable tension between Mom and Dad. It is this fact that has led critics to blast the show as exploiting the family's problems and, worse, their eight children. Recently the Pennsylvania department of labor announced that they were investigating to see if the show was complying with the state's child labor laws; TLC released a statement saying that it "fully complies with all applicable laws and regulations." But former child star Paul Petersen, who runs the nonprofit group A Minor Consideration to monitor the treatment of child actors, isn't satisfied. "The idea that there are permanent cameras in the home—that's not the way to raise children," he says. "To those who are saying, 'Well, they're doing quite well,' I say there are thousands if not tens of thousands of large American families getting by just fine because Mom and Dad go to work."
But Jon noticeably bristles at any suggestion that his children are being harmed. "Exploited? I don't even want to use that word, because I think it's ridiculous," he says heatedly. "Maybe people should look that word up in the dictionary and learn what it means before they use it in headlines. We're a family that happens to be on TV, not a TV family. We have healthy, happy, well-adjusted, educated kids. They're bouncing around and having a good time. Kate and I have worked our hardest to raise them that way."
It is, in fact, when talking about his kids that Jon is at his happiest. When he mentions the antics of youngest child Joel ("For some reason, this summer he just wants to wear jeans. It's 85° outside!"), it's as if the oxygen has returned to the room. And, Jon insists, his children's happiness remains his focus, even if keeping them happy means quitting the show.
"Every time a season renewal comes up, we always have a family discussion," he explains. "Our kids are 80 percent of our family, and if they don't want to film, we're not filming. It doesn't matter if we want it or production wants it. If they don't want it, we're done."
But with the show continuing—at least for this season—Jon admits he has yet to figure out how he will maintain some level of normality while the world is watching.
"I can't tell you what the future is," he says with a shrug. "How am I going to do it? I'm taking this day by day, hour by hour. I'm going to do what I've always done. I'm going to roll with the punches."
- With Liza Hamm,
- Steve Helling.