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SHE DIDN'T IMAGINE IT WOULD BE THIS difficult. Kate Gosselin has been putting in long days with her partner Tony Dovolani, trying to perfect the Viennese Waltz for the March 22 debut of Dancing with the Stars. It's a dream gig for the reality star, who made headlines all summer long as her marriage to husband Jon unraveled. At last, with her divorce final in December, the mom of eight (twins Cara and Mady, 9, and sextuplets Aaden, Alexis, Collin, Hannah, Joel and Leah, 5) would return to television as part of a squeaky-clean show beloved by millions. But suddenly Kate, 34, was confronted with something far trickier than any tango or two-step. No sooner had she begun rehearsals than the tabloids went back on the attack, questioning her commitment to her children for signing on to a show that films in Los Angeles, across the country from her home in Pennsylvania, and labeling her as obsessed with fame at all costs.

Forget about aching feet: The accusations hit Kate where it hurt the most. "The guilt factor I have in my life is huge," she says with a sigh. "I feel it enough all by myself, and now I need someone else adding to it for me? All the other lies people want to tell, that's one thing. But these lies-about the kind of mother I am-they need to stop. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of defending myself. Stop attacking me. I already know the odds are against me-that with eight kids, there's not enough of me to go around. But you say I'm a bad mom, it destroys me."

Not that she'll likely feel crushed for long. "I'll be damned-and yes, I said damned-if I let my kids down," Kate says heatedly. "The people who try to hurt me, they just make me more determined to do better, to try harder."

She's bringing that determination to the dance floor-and she's ready to take on the naysayers. "I hope even the moms who hate me will say, 'Oh, this is so foreign to her, and look at her willingness to be up there.' But I can't promise anyone I can pull this off," she says. Kate talked openly to PEOPLE about her new life as a single woman, how her kids are coping with her long-distance commute and why she's ready to come out fighting.

Why did you want to do Dancing with the Stars, since you'll be away from home so much?

Pretty much any work that I do requires travel, and this isn't going to be more travel, it's just more predictable. Every Tuesday night I go home, and every Sunday I go back to L.A. It's not about an obsession with fame, it's about doing what provides for my family. Period. If I was financially able to provide for eight kids on my former salary as a nurse, I would do it...but that's not possible. I feel that my job is actually beneficial because it allows me large blocks of time at home with the kids that I wouldn't have if I worked 9 to 5. If I was on a nurse's schedule of 12-hour shifts, six days a week, including holidays, would that really be better? And yes, as jobs go, this one is pretty enjoyable. Imagine that! I get to enjoy what I do! Why can't a mom have fun?

You were recently away from home for nearly two weeks. How did that affect you?

It was the longest and hardest time away from them I've ever experienced. However, Jon was with the kids 9 of the 12 days, and our custody schedule was arranged this way purposely. Had I not been away, I would not have been home-based anyway during that time period. I talk to my kids up to 10 times per day. When my phone quacks-that's my ringtone for them, a duck quack-no matter what time it is or where I am, I dive on that phone to answer that call!

What help does Jon provide-both financially and with looking after the kids-while you're away?

I cannot rely on the fact that Jon will be there to help support the kids, so I approach it as if I am the sole provider. As for time with the kids, Jon is always welcome to increase his custody time with them. I would never stop him from having ample time; in fact I encourage it any chance I have. But when he doesn't, our kids are in capable, loving hands with our babysitter.

Why have the kids not come out to Los Angeles with you?

My kids' lives have been changed and compromised and altered enough over the past year that the last thing I'm going to do is change where they live, change the school they go to. The darn dogs are even coming back. [Shoka and Nala, the family's two German shepherds, were sent away shortly after Kate and Jon split.] I realized if I had two difficult kids I wouldn't send them away and ask for new kids. I'd never quit on my kids, so why would I think I was going to quit on my dogs?

Do you think you can handle all this?

The travel I'm not worried about, it's fitting in dancing and everything else, like preparing meals, labeling them and freezing them. Cara said, "I love that we still have Mommy meals even when Mommy isn't home." So when I'm home, I'm cooking three or four days worth of food and stocking up that freezer. I'm also making sure to actually schedule fun time: an upcoming trip to this place with bouncy trampolines for the kids, a movie with the boys, a concert with the girls.

How have your kids been behaving while you've been away? Have you noticed anyone acting out?

There are eight of them, so do they fight and bicker? Yep. I grew up with four brothers and sisters, and I remember it being the same way. But nothing outrageous has been happening. Obviously there's the continued adjustment of dealing with the divorce of their parents, but I remind them not to take their anger out on people and things. I'm more determined now, hell-bent on making sure they are okay. And I see great kids, kids who have stepped up, in school and at home. And they all know Mommy loves them whether she's near or far.

What do your kids think of you doing this show?

I told them, "Mommy has been learning to dance," and Leah said, "But Mommy, you can't dance." Mady asked if she could vote for me, and I said yes. She asked if the little kids could vote; I said yes. Those could be the only eight votes we get! [Laughs]

How far outside of your comfort zone is dancing?

Don't use "dancing" and "comfort" in the same sentence! My mind is at war with my body. I get really frustrated and annoyed with myself. This process, it's like I've never learned before in my life. Learning to dance has meant facing my biggest fears, and it has brought out the hugest insecurities in me, ever. I know what I'm supposed to look like, but I feel stupid carrying it out. I feel like I'm not fit enough, I don't look good enough, I can't pull it off. I'm a huge ball of insecurities.

Well, you certainly look incredible-there are even rumors you've had some form of breast enhancement...

Plastic surgery? Please. Who has time even to think about it, let alone do it? That's just plain ridiculous. It's nice that people say I look good, but it's really hard for me to take a compliment. Good enough is never good enough for me. At the same time, there are moments where I say, "I do look good for having eight kids." I want to drop the "for having eight kids" part!

What do you find sexy?

I just always try to look my best; I don't necessarily translate it into looking sexy. Eating healthy and working out and taking care of myself make me feel good. You can pour yourself into your kids but also take time to look good too. But you know, either way, if I'm the sweatpants-wearing mom or if I look like this, I'm going to get criticized. I know that. Is there something wrong with showering, doing my hair and putting makeup on?

What do you do to stay fit?

I run every day-about three miles or so. I put the kids to bed and go downstairs to run or do yoga. I got a punching bag for Christmas that I punch and kick. I love it!

If Tony starts to give you a hard time in practice, you can put his face on the punching bag.

Oh...there are far more suitable faces I could use. Tony can get in line!

How are you adjusting to single life?

It's been a process. But we've gotten into our routine, the nine of us, and it feels more normal and natural. We're more open and we talk about things, so it's good. We're just rolling with the punches. I don't feel like there's a whole lot missing for us because I'm married to my kids essentially. Where I do feel it is I'm very aware of the fact that all decisions are on me. The domino effect of what I decide today is going to affect tomorrow and the next day and so on.

Are you entertaining dating again?

No! If Mr. Wonderful and Perfect came along and was willing to accept all of my baggage, that would be marvelous. But I don't think that person exists. And then did you notice there's really no time in my schedule?

You've said you're determined to win on DWTS. How will you feel if you don't succeed?

I do want to win. It's just that the dancing part is getting in the way of my winning. In my mind I'm winning. In my actions, not so much. But you know, if I last two weeks on the show, I've shown my kids that hard work and perseverance pays off. And if I don't win, I've shown them you don't always have to come in first. You just have to keep on trying.