If one wonders where “Balloon Boy” dad Richard Heene got the balls-out insane idea that he might win fame, fortune and international infamy by concocting a media event involving UFOs and starring his own darling 6-year-old son, one has to look no further than your nearest supermarket tabloid. When the year-end lists start rolling out in the next month or so, my bet is the biggest celebrities of the year will be the people who are famous for doing little more than being freaky in public: Nadya Suleman, better known as Octomom, Balloon Boy, and the reigning couple of parenting in public, for pay, Jon and Kate Gosselin.
Just taking it by the numbers, Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales points out that, from March to October, Jon and Kate have starred on the covers of 50 tabloids, dwarfing even Brad and Angelina. Given that the only thing that qualified the couple to be broadcast into American living rooms on a weekly basis was once having the good — or abysmally poor — fortune to give birth to two sets of multiples, it’s astonishing they’ve made it this far. How, Sales asks, did “two average parents from rural Pennsylvania” become “the biggest celebrity story of the year”?
The answer, as Sales writes it, is fascinating, perhaps even to those who feel an uncontrollable burst of nausea when the remote accidentally coasts across yet another “E! True Hollywood Special.” It’s hard to think of any family who could more perfectly embody our current obsessions: There’s the general obsession with mommy culture, and the specific rise in fertility treatments and multiple births. Like Obama, their children are biracial (Sales points out that the show is especially popular with Asians, and one can’t help but think that Heene, whose wife is Japanese, may have thought of this as a bonus to his hypothetical show as well). There’s the divorce, with the — alleged — soap-opera twists (she’s screwing the bodyguard! He’s screwing the baby sitter and the plastic surgeon’s daughter!) And there’s also a shrewd business story: How does one turn one’s everyday life into a multimillion-dollar career?
Kate Gosselin, in particular, seems to be a walking advertisement for the ways a sprinkling of magical celebrity pixie dust can bring about a literal physical transformation. When the show began, Sales writes, she was a “dowdy, sweatpants-wearing mama hen” — one, we might point out, who had recently carried sextuplets. Now, thanks to a little surgical intervention and an army of stylists, she looks “very much like a celebrity — from her tanned, trim body to her curiously asymmetrical blond hairdo, now so iconic as to be the model for a popular Halloween wig.” (Jon, for his part, got hair plugs). This past year, tabloids seem to have taken sadistic glee in printing the unflattering earlier photos side-by-side with ones depicting her in an orange bikini or bug-eyed glasses, as if to create a “Before” and “After” montage: See, the message seems to be, she wasn’t even pretty! But with a tummy tuck and a couple of million, anyone can look like Posh Spice! Ladies and gentleman, let’s hear it for the awesome democratic power of celebrity.
It was Kate, not Jon, who, from the beginning, was unapologetic about shilling her family on TV for the money. Yes, it takes a lot of cash to raise eight children, and before she signed with TLC she had already become “controversial” in Pennsylvania after she sued Medicaid to demand more compensation for a baby nurse. But even before the divorce, viewers seemed to freak out over Kate’s bossiness and belittling of her husband. “In an era of confusion about gender roles in marriage,” writes Sales, “Kate was unapologetically wearing the pants.” Gail Collins even went so far as to diagnose Jon as the spouse who was suffering from the “feminine problem that has no name that Betty Friedan wrote about in 1963.” Kate was the star while Jon, the laid-off I.T. guy, described himself as “Mr. Mom,” staying home with the kids while his wife went back out on book tour. He was the depressed housewife. Or as Kate put it, “I’m the cook, he’s the waitress.” “Waiter,” corrected Jon, glumly.
Although I obviously applaud, in theory, the idea of being a good businesswoman, the nature of the business — broadcasting the lives of one’s small children, with an extra dollop of frisson coming from having a relationship that showed “friction from the start” in the words of Figure 8 producer Bill Hayes — has given me pause from the beginning of the show. And I hope it’s not a blow to solidarity with womankind for me to say that, on the rare occasions I did watch the show in the earlier seasons — my mom became addicted — I was turned off by Kate’s general nastiness and control freakishness toward her husband and children, a quality I find resolutely unappealing in people of either gender. (I also find it disturbing that some people have seen these qualities as just another part of being a “busy mom.”) But when the couple’s story evolved from filming trips to the dog breeder to stage-managing a divorce, a curious thing happened: While the “business” expanded into an empire beyond even the most ambitious reality TV producer’s wildest dreams, the businesswoman seemed, for a time, to lose the P.R. war.
Weirdly enough, though Jon was the one who first admitted to having an affair (he later accused Kate of striking the first blow of infidelity by sleeping with her bodyguard, which she denies), according to tabloid editors, most readers sympathized with him. Meanwhile, the Gosselin “brand” — a term that Kate is more comfortable with than Jon, who allegedly told a friend that his wife would only agree to go to marriage counseling with Dr. Phil, who, not surprisingly, was more concerned with keeping “the brand intact” than solving their marital woes — went through the roof. When they were just a family with a bunch of kids, the TLC show was enough. But once the divorce hit, the scandal itself became the family business. Suddenly, as Ginia Bellafante, the New York Times TV critic told Sales, it was a story “completely suited to a multi-platform world”: “You can’t just watch ‘Jon and Kate’ on television and understand it anymore. You have to participate in it on all these different levels — tabloids, news shows, talk shows, the blogosphere. ‘Jon and Kate’ became unintentionally brilliant because it demanded so much other consumption to find out what was ‘real.’”
In some ways, Jon and Kate were the perfect celebrity couple for our depressing, broke-ass recession year: Unlike, say, Brad and Angelina, or other celebrities who have plenty of other ways to earn their livelihood, their brand grew in direct proportion to how thoroughly they trashed their own lives. (“Brad and Angelina try to be discreet,” says an editor at In Touch magazine, “while Jon and Kate serve it to you on a platter.”) “I’m running a business — hello?” Kate says to Sales, in her hotel room, right after taking a call from Kelly Ripa, and right before the reporter convinces her that a shopping trip for toys at FAO Schwartz might be a better plan than going for sushi at Nobu. But the most depressing part of their story is not the cavorting on yachts and beer pong contests, or the endlessly scripted crying fests on talk shows. It’s that the business wouldn’t exist in the first place if someone hadn’t decided to pay them a lot of money for the rest of us to watch while they parent their children. That part of the business, sadly, seems to be the one thing they don’t have a lot of time left to do.