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Here's how Kate Gosselin single-handedly serves lunch to eight ravenous kids: Take three kinds of soup, all heated in industrial-size glass measuring bowls. Ladle out in a blaze of maternal efficiency. Toss in two kinds of crackers, both organic. Have yogurt available for those who want dessert. And above all else, stick to the rules.

Kate may be one of the more controversial mothers. Ever. But when it comes to doling out chicken noodle, tomato and French onion soup, she takes a backseat to no woman. Her kitchen is tidy and nanny-free. And her children are as cheery and orderly as von Trapps. No child approaches the counter for a helping until the previous one has been seated ("You wouldn't believe how many times one kid backed into the next kid coming up before I instituted that policy," says Kate). Four bites into the meal, Alexis gasps. "Put down your spoons!" she commands, as hands are clasped and eight heads bow for grace. "Yes, please" and "No, thank you" are appropriate responses. Talking back? Not on your life.

For naysayers (at the height of her fame, Kate earned a few) this will all prove disappointing. Not so long ago, she was the biggest star the TLC network ever spawned, a nurse who rocketed to fame with her husband, Jon, on the reality series Jon & Kate Plus 8. At first the show traced their trials raising twins plus sextuplets. Later it let nearly 10 million fans witness a marriage implode. The tabloid frenzy - Jon goes yachting with a girlfriend in the South of France! Kate mangles the tango on Dancing with the Stars! - made the clan household names. Along the way came word that Kate was, to use one euphemism, demanding. "There was no pleasing her sometimes," says a source close to the production. "It became impossible." Little wonder that when the cameras stopped rolling, many feared that Kate's kids, raised in the spotlight, would spiral into the ruinous fate that awaits many former child stars.

But two years after the show ended, the Gosselins, Kate included, are all in one piece. As the family lives quietly in small-town Pennsylvania, none of the doom predicted has come to pass. Mady and Cara, soon to be teenagers and always the most drama-prone on the show, roll their eyes the requisite adolescent amount but remain far from juvenile delinquency. Their younger siblings are seemingly unjaded by their brush with fame (a small plastic horse is one of Alexis's prized possessions). Even Jon, labeled as a cad who lurched into a second adolescence, is happily ensconced in a nearby cabin. Yet Kate, maligned as a fearsome famemonger, remains a target for some. Last month a years-old photo of her clowning around with Jon, in which she used her fingers to slant her eyes, was leaked onto the internet as proof of Kate's mocking Asians. Pointing out that she married an Asian-American and has eight biracial children, Kate says now, "I'm quite certain I'm the last person that could be called a racist." Nevertheless, "people are dying for me to fail," she says. "They can keep waiting."

Still, life isn't easy. The perks that came with stardom are gone. Kate says she is living "very carefully these days," by "piecing and patching together" an income from various projects (see sidebar). "To not have a reliable income is scary," she concedes. Attempts to revive her on-camera career have not yet taken off. "Which will beg the question, 'Why don't you go back to nursing?' But if I did that, I'd be spending everything I made on the babysitter I'd have to hire. So it needs to be something else. I have to make lightning strike."

Still, there are limits on what she will do. While Kate maintains a functional if not-quite-cordial relationship with her ex, she will not appear on-camera with him despite multiple offers. "There are plenty of people who'd do anything to be on television, but I'm not that girl," she says. "So everyone who thinks I'm starved for fame should know I do draw the line."

Much of the remaining tension between the two has to do with their clashing parenting styles. "I don't have many rules," says Jon, who sees the kids every other weekend. "Treat each other with respect, and clean up after yourself. That's it." His ex is not entirely approving of his choices. "The way he lives versus the way I live is the reason why we're divorced," Kate says simply. "Let's just leave it at that."

Ask the younger Gosselin kids if they miss being on TV, and their answer is a uniform, emphatic yes. "I'm glad someone is asking the kids themselves," Kate says, "because whenever I say they miss the show, everyone thinks I'm just putting words in their mouths." The younger children particularly miss the "adventures" they enjoyed. "I liked the trips," says Hannah, recalling the family's outings to Hawaii and Australia. Nature-lover Alexis fondly recalls a dude ranch in Wyoming. But there is only so much they remember. "Do I look different now than I did when I was on TV?" asks Alexis, who made her onscreen debut with her siblings when she was less than a year old. "I wish I could remember when I was a baby." Then she recalls her peculiar advantage: "I can just watch the show and then I'll remember!"

Mady and Cara are old enough to also remember the bad parts: paparazzi and scandal. And fans can clearly recognize them. Not long ago a woman spotted the twins at Target and followed them into the ladies' room. "She kept saying how much she loved watching us, how she'd loved us since we were little girls," Mady says in a mixture of embarrassment and bemusement. As for their parents' split, Cara - more quiet and reserved than her outspoken sister - is sanguine. "We're all adjusted, and it's normal now, and it's just more settled," she says, shrugging. "It happens to a lot of people. I mean, not the TV part but the divorce part. Lots of people have divorced parents." Both girls - especially Mady, who'd like to be an actress someday - have learned that fame has its price. "If we'd kept going on trips all the time and not ever seen that there's, like, a different way to live, we could've wound up being really bratty, you know?" Mady says.

They weren't the only ones in danger of becoming spoiled when Jon & Kate was in its heyday. The production source says that the network ultimately grew tired of Kate's diva-like antics and, given the show's dwindling ratings, pulled the plug. Humbled now by her simpler life, Kate recognizes she wasn't always easy - "I made so many mistakes, of course," she says - but regrets very little. "It feels like a whole other lifetime ago," she says of her early days as a struggling wife with eight kids, and later as a shattered divorcée. "And sometimes I don't even remember much of it. Both when the babies were first born and during the divorce, I was on survival mode. I feel like I've lived two lifetimes already. I'm not the same person I was in those first seasons. I don't even recognize her."

Not only her hair, still wet from the shower, has radically changed; gone is the reverse mullet, ditto the long extensions. Wearing running shorts and no makeup, "I'm more laid-back, and I realize now what's important," Kate says. Not that she has given up her type-A ways. No longer employing caregivers or a housekeeper (or bodyguard: Erstwhile security sidekick Steve Neild is not in her employ), Kate has her kids pitching in wherever possible. The laminated chore charts posted in her kitchen today are not for the faint of heart. A full-page, 52-point checklist details how the house is to be cleaned; Mady and Cara earn $1 for each item completed. An additional 10-item checklist on the refrigerator for the twins carries a fine-print disclaimer threatening $1 fines for each item not completed, as well as the removal of iPhones and iPads based on "attitude and response." The younger kids also have a chart, focusing on general tidying up of the kitchen and the feeding of the family's dog Shoka; in the summer pool maintenance is added.

Despite this (or perhaps because of this, as the kids approach their chores with a sense of cheerful camaraderie), laughter and shrieking fill the house. After lunch the table is cleared of bowls, the dishwasher is loaded, the crackers put away with nary a complaint. The children- animated, amusing, chatting away to visitors - giggle constantly. "I didn't know how things were going to turn out, during the thick of it," Kate says. "Cara and Mady, they're old for their age in a lot of ways. But all of my kids, I'm so proud of them. They're loving and funny and bright, and they've accepted their situation when it comes to me and Jon, and they've accepted the way things played out. The kids and I, we have really walked through that together, and as terrible as it was, it has made us closer."

The ugliness of the past, of course, has been captured for posterity. "Our whole lives are out there, and one day my kids will be able to find all of it," she says. "They can't Google yet - it's blocked on their devices - but they will someday. But I've realized, anything about me out there that's true, I'm fine with them knowing. And the stuff about me out there that's not true, they'll know for themselves it's a lie because they've been here with me."

Still single - "At this point, a man would have to beam into my kitchen, Star Trek-style, for me to meet him," she quips - Kate's main worry remains how to provide for her kids in the future. A gig on a show like The Talk would be ideal, she says. If renewed fame brings about renewed scrutiny of herself and her kids, she's not about to worry. "My kids, they've generally accepted that things are going to be okay, and that they're okay the way they are right now," she says. "Our lives have been such a roller coaster: We were struggling, then we were doing really well, then it all fell apart, and now we have a so-called 'normal' life. They've seen that through it all, we've dealt with it, survived it, and we keep on going."

PEOPLE

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