He was a bodyguard for Danzig and Slayer. He has a thing for tattoos and skulls. He claims he’s a distant relative of the original outlaw, Jesse James. No, Jesse James hardly seemed like a logical candidate to wed Sandra Bullock — America’s Oscar-winning Sweetheart — but maybe we were missing something here. Maybe there was a certain whimsical charm to this pairing…or maybe our first instinct was dead-on.

Jesse James — the 40-year-old motorcycle mogul and host of testosterone-teeming reality shows like Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage and Spike’s Jesse James Is a Dead Man — is now branded as the most notorious guy in Tabloid Town after reports surfaced that he’d engaged in an affair with tattooed 32-year-old stripper Michelle ”Bombshell” McGee while married to Bullock, who has reportedly moved out of their L.A. home. (Three additional women have since come forward and claimed that they too slept with James.) America knows plenty about Bullock, a lovable A-list film star who was enjoying a trophy-collecting ride for her role in The Blind Side until she crashed into this roadblock. But what about James? How did he rise from renegade to reality star? And what happens to his career, now that he’s caught in the crosshairs of scandal?

Zeta Interactive, a company that tracks buzz on social-media sites and in the blogosphere, recorded an 82 percent positive rating for James pre-scandal, on a par with celebs like Robert Pattinson and Rihanna; the week after the ”Bombshell” bombshell, he’d fallen to a 53 percent positive rating, in the range of Tiger Woods or Kanye West (post–Taylor Swiftgate). ”It seems like the people who follow celebrities are very quick to go postal,” says Zeta CEO Al DiGuido. ”If you’re Jesse James and you’re thinking about your personality as a franchise that you want to make money on and appeal to middle America, this is a significant blow.” Adds Julie Roehm, a marketing-strategy consultant: ”He’s limited himself in terms of an audience, but also sponsors, licensing agreements, and television shows.” It doesn’t help that McGee has been photographed in Nazi attire and, in court papers, her ex-husband claims she has a swastika tattooed on her body — adding an anti-Semitic stink to the entire affair.

However, while James is clearly falling from mainstream grace, not everyone believes that the motorcycle master’s career will stall out, especially given his bad-boy-loving man-base. ”I think it’s a blip on the screen,” says Dave Nichols, editor of motorcycle lifestyle magazine Easyriders. (Nichols still plans to run a cover story on a new bike by James — and likely feature James himself — in the magazine’s October issue.) ”The men that have looked up to Jesse are not going to be necessarily surprised by that behavior, and the women who would normally be attracted to him, they’re looking for a bad boy,” adds Nichols. ”History has shown us too many times, it’s just going to add to the mystique.” (James’ employees at West Coast Choppers seem to be supportive; an anonymous staffer told PEOPLE that the media portrayal of James is ”extremely unfair and unjust.”)

It’s not just mystique, though. Nichols and others who know James cite his undeniable gift for building machines. ”Jesse’s appeal to his fan base is his skill set with metal, with motor-cycles, with automobiles,” says Discovery Channel president and general manager Clark Bunting. ”It’s not about Jesse as somebody that will be held up as a role model. He holds himself out for exactly what he is. He is a rebel. He is a mechanical and engineering genius.” One reality TV exec thinks that James can still succeed on cable with another ”macho blue-collar” series: ”He is such a male-oriented talent, and the types of guys that he appealed to may be much more lenient on him when it comes to things like this. It [may] tarnish him for broadcast television…but in the cable world it doesn’t resonate as much.”

Any kind of television must have seemed like a long shot when the former metal-band bodyguard first opened West Coast Choppers out of a friend’s garage in 1992. But James’ custom-made-motorcycle business — today WCC employs more than 50 people, counts celebs like Shaq, Kid Rock, and Keanu Reeves among its clients, and boasts a lifestyle brand with a line of clothes — would lay the groundwork for James’ later Hollywood success. He was featured in Discovery Channel’s 2000 documentary Motorcycle Mania, which begat two more specials, and came to fame as host of the network’s popular badass-vehicle-building competition Monster Garage, which ran from 2002 to 2006. (It was on the set of Monster Garage that James — who has two children with first wife Karla James, and one with second wife/ex–porn star Janine Lindemulder — first met Bullock in 2003, when she took a tour with her godson. They married in 2005.) ”He was a true artist and a helluva businessman,” recalls TV producer Sean Gallagher, who was a Garage exec producer and Discovery executive. ”He’s no bulls—. He has a lot of passion for what he does.”

The straight shooter with an edge attracted the attention of Spike, which aired 2009’s Jesse James Is a Dead Man, where James attempted stunts like setting himself on fire, which some may argue he has done again these past few weeks. (The network decided last summer not to renew the show.) In 2009 he also starred on NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice, finishing in third place. ”He was very quiet,” recalls host Donald Trump. ”I really thought he had a great relationship with his wife, and actually I would ask him on more than one occasion, ‘What the hell did Sandra ever see in you?’… He’s a tough guy, but very smart. And very guarded. I’d rarely see him let down his guard.”

That must make the current media glare all the more uncomfortable. (Undoubtedly, Tiger Woods is busy preparing the Best Fruit Basket Ever to thank James for distracting the public.) Much like in the Woods saga, each day brings some new twist, be it a TMZ report alleging that in 2007 he paid $725,000 to a WCC employee who claimed that James made sexual advances to her, or even that his pit bull Cinnabun ran away again. (Don’t worry — she was found safe and sound.)

But while Hollywood may never forget, it loves to forgive, at least when there is money to be made. And someone who knows a thing or two about comebacks, Donald Trump, thinks that not only will all the notoriety not hurt James’ career, but ”in terms of television, it probably helps him…. Whether you like Jesse or not, he’s now a much hotter commodity than before this happened.” The Donald even has some crisis-management advice for James: ”Just keep your chin down and keep going forward. There’s not much you can do…. But he’s tough. He’ll survive.” (Additional reporting by Dalton Ross)

Recent occupants of America’s most hated list

Kanye West
The Incident Interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs.
The Fallout Public disapproval of bullying ways.
The Aftermath Kanye made the apology rounds, and Swift got good publicity.

Bernie Madoff
The Incident Madoff made off with billions in a Ponzi scheme.
The Fallout 150 years in prison. Ouch.
The Aftermath His victims recuperate while he whittles figurines out of bars of soap.

Michael Vick
The Incident Involved in an illegal dogfighting ring.
The Fallout Jail time; angry letters from PETA.
The Aftermath Vick showed off his reformed side in a BET documentary series.

Spencer & Heidi Pratt
The Incident Being themselves and NOT GOING AWAY!
The Fallout Complete public repulsion.
The Aftermath See: Fallout, The.