Mark Arbeit/TLC
Lynette Rice
May 25, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

If a couple’s home is their castle, then Jon and Kate Gosselin are going to need a bigger moat. The stars of TLC’s megafamily reality show Jon & Kate Plus Eight got fed up with all the looky-loos peering through the front windows of their old place in Elizabethtown, Pa., hoping to get a glimpse of their 8-year-old twin girls and 5-year-old sextuplets (three girls, three boys). So last October, they moved to a sprawling three-story home on 24 acres off a sleepy road in Berks County. Kate took comfort in the new property’s electric driveway gate: Finally, she and Jon would have the space to raise their kids, with no one watching…except the cadre of cameras taping their every move for the fifth season of their top-rated reality show, which premieres May 25.

But the seclusion didn’t last long. ”When we first visited this house, you could sit here and see a car an hour, maybe,” explains the sharp-tongued Kate, 34, taking a rare break from her brood in a sitting room off their massive new kitchen. But once people learned that the octoclan had moved in, their rural road became a major thoroughfare. ”One day we sat out and counted 157 cars drive past in about six hours,” says the ever-deadpan Jon, 32. And the probing eyes reach far beyond their curb. TLC supplies a security guard for the family when they leave home — which comes in handy now that the tabloids are stalking the couple: Jon was recently photographed out at night with 23-year-old Deanna Hummel (both Hummel and Jon say they’re just friends), while Kate is now dealing with a report that says she’s involved with a family bodyguard, Steve Neild. (”The allegations they’re making about me are disgusting, unthinkable, unfathomable,” she told People.com on May 12.) Then there’s the Web chatter from viewers tearing Kate apart for how she nitpicks her husband. ”People always say, ‘Has the show changed you?”’ says Kate. ”It has not changed us. It’s changed people’s perception of us.” Yes, they’re still just a normal family, albeit one with an eight-headed cottage industry and a mom who dreams of having her own talk show.

Nobody was banging on the family’s door before TLC came around. If so, the frantic and overmatched couple would have welcomed the help. When fertility drugs left nurse Kate pregnant with sextuplets in 2003, the deeply religious mom made the risky decision to carry them to term. The couple struggled until 2006, when Discovery shot two specials about them for its Health channel; a year later the series began and then moved to TLC. (The show pays the Gosselins an undisclosed salary and occasionally sets them up with free vacations, appliances, and household goods, courtesy of lucrative product-placement deals.) At the time, makeover shows like What Not to Wear dominated the lineup, and TLC president Eileen O’Neill thought the family could chart a new course for the struggling cabler. ”So much of the draw was how adorable those kids are and the fascination of organizing a supersized family,” says O’Neill. It typically takes the producers a few hours a day over three days to shoot one episode — and whether a kid is melting down on a flight or Kate is getting a tummy tuck, the cameras are rolling. Throughout the episodes, the couple are interviewed by a producer, who often brings the discussion back to their stormy union. Kate doesn’t mind having her snippier moments — yelling ”Don’t be a victim!” after Jon complained about her slapping him, for example — captured for posterity. ”I’ve got to take care of my kids and live my life and do 150,000 things. What they catch, they catch, and it does not bother me.”

Viewers were immediately hooked by the candid clan. Each season has logged double-digit growth over the previous year, and March’s season 4 finale attracted more than 4.6 million viewers, the show’s biggest audience ever. ”I was like, Okay, it’s just our family, which is wonderful, but I didn’t get why fans loved it,” says Kate. ”I did not assign myself to being a role model, but many girls say that to me, and that’s hard. I am far from perfect. I’m just a mom who’s doing her best.” Jon & Kate‘s success inspired TLC to breed more big-family shows, including Table for 12 and 18 Kids and Counting — a wise move, given the public’s endless interest in oversize broods. Speaking of which, Kate is uncharacteristically reserved when it comes to that other famous multiple mother, Octomom Nadya Suleman, who is reportedly shopping a reality show: ”We just hope her kids will be happy and healthy.”

In many ways, fame has agreed with Kate, who has slimmed down to a size 4 and keeps her skin a deep bronze with regular visits to a tanning booth. She’s written two best-selling books about their family, Multiple Blessings and Eight Little Faces, and aspires to follow Oprah’s lead. ”There are no mom-centered talk shows,” she explains. ”I think that would be a very comfortable thing for me to discuss.” Then there are the downsides to celebrity life. After Jon quit his job as an IT analyst in November 2007, fans criticized him for his lack of outside employment. ”It’s hysterical,” says Kate, adding that coordinating their family life — and the reality show about their family life — is a full-time job. ”I thought nursing was hard, but you ain’t seen nothing until you see how late we’re up working, doing e-mails, conference calls…” Kate is also regularly lambasted on websites (like the Gosselins Without Pity blog) for her harsh words to Jon. Still, the producers are loath to sanitize the couple’s exchanges. ”It’s real and it’s raw, and that’s what has made the show popular,” explains series producer Jeff Lanter. ”If we water it down, we lose what we’ve built in the past four seasons.”

Today, the state of Jon and Kate’s marriage threatens to overshadow everything the show was originally about. In February Jon was photographed with two coeds at a bar, and in April paparazzi snapped pictures of him leaving a local club with Hummel. (Hummel’s brother recently told Us Weekly that his sister and Jon were definitely having an affair.) While Jon won’t address specific allegations, he insists the encounters were innocent. ”I may be guilty of choosing the wrong time and place to hang out with my friends,” he says, ”but I am not guilty of cheating on my wife.” The scrutiny has worn on the couple: ”Jon’s poor judgment and irresponsible behavior has…caused some added tension and stress between the two of us,” says Kate. The March 23 season finale — which was taped around the time the first tabloid story broke — played like a cliff-hanger, with Jon hinting about shutting down the show, saying ”I can’t just be Jon — I have to be Jon & Kate Plus Eight.” Back in her sitting room a month later, Kate confirms that the duo had considered pulling the plug; for TLC’s part, O’Neill says the couple currently has a multiyear contract, but ”we’re considerate of what they want to do.”

So what made the Gosselins change their minds about coming back for season 5? ”I decided it was to benefit my kids,” admits Jon. ”I don’t like the public life. [But] there’s a lot of positives, obviously — the house, an education for our kids, car, whatever. Material things.” The new season of Jon & Kate will incorporate the issues that their fame (and infamy) have brought. ”It will touch on our lack of privacy,” says Kate, ”but also some other big events.” She and the producers won’t reveal much — like why the family recently took an outing to get passports — but say the younger kids will be chattier than ever.

The tabloid coverage may only increase interest in the Gosselins and their series, but that’s not why Kate thinks fans continue to watch. ”People want to see our kids grow up. At this point I almost feel like I owe it to them. They’ve seen [our children] since they were 15 months old. And so to stop now would be like ‘What ever happened to them?”’

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