Last week, Kate Gosselin danced her final cha-cha on ABC's Dancing With the Stars. That she was voted out in week four of the competition came as a surprise, not because she was such a great dancer but because she danced so poorly and was so maligned by critics that it was a wonder she made it that long. But Gosselin, the reality-show veteran, mother of eight, and recent divorcée was bolstered by the boisterous voting habits of her fans, who view Gosselin as the patron saint for put-upon working mothers.
Like another controversial woman, Sarah Palin, Gosselin has the ability to rally her fan base while simultaneously infuriating the rest of the nation. An example of the disparity: when New York Magazine published a blog post on DWTS, one commenter mentioned that while she couldn't stand Gosselin, her cousin voted to keep her on DWTS as often as the telephone voting system would allow.
"I've never seen a story take hold and last this long," says Laurie Goldberg, a TLC spokesperson, who witnessed the beginning of the phenomenon when the network began broadcasting John and Kate Plus 8, where Kate got her start as a mousy brunette trying to raise sextuplets and twins with her then husband. "Anything that mentions Kate gets thousands of clicks," Goldberg says. "I think it's because she is showing her vulnerability. She resonates with working moms because she's flawed. Kate's not perfect, but she's trying hard to do her best."
That's a message Linda Grant, the blogger behind NYC Single Mom, responds to. "Kate really is a mom from a small town. A lot of moms look at her and think 'that could be me,' " Grant says. To her, Gosselin represents both the good and the bad of what it's like to raise kids as a single mom: a devoted, if frazzled mother who provides love and financial stability to her family, and still wants to look her best in the process; and a woman underappreciated by those around her, criticized for both her parenting and fashion choices, and constantly taken to task for stepping away from some perceived formula for what a good mother should be.
Web sites and chat boards like The Sage Way Express, which often generates more than 500 comments per post, and Gosselin Family Fansite are devoted to sharing appreciation for Kate and shouting down "haters" who criticize Kate and her choices. The haters complain that Kate's a fraud for going from frumpy housewife to blonde bombshell, but what mom wouldn't want a steady hair appointment if she had the time and money? They complain that she's exploiting the kids, then criticize her when she's seen without them. The vitriol and judgment directed at Kate and her choices as a mother hit close to home for single moms who feel unfairly criticized in their own lives. "I guess that is why I'm so interested in all this. I dislike it when I see it in my own life so much," says commenter Momsby on the Sage Way board. "It just seems like every day poor Kate is dealing with another social inequality."
Haters castigate Kate for spending time away with the kids training for a reality show, but supporters see it as a way to raise money for her family. "[As single moms] we're forever justifying our decisions to work outside the home or opting to stay at home and care for the kids," says Leight Goldman Balber, an editor at UrbanBaby.com. Moms aren't put off by her glitzy gigs, says Balber: Gosselin has to leave the house to earn a living, just like any banker, lawyer, or ad exec.
Meanwhile, her husband—portrayed as a generally useless lump on Jon and Kate Plus Eight—is now seen partying in Ed Hardy outfits and dating 20-somethings, yet another indignity Kate's weathered in public. "Kate gives a voice to women who feel like they've been exploited by immature men—especially women who feel like they have to do all the heavy lifting in a marriage," says New York City psychiatrist Marianne Gillow. Putting on a sexy dress and doing the rumba on national TV is a sign of Kate's strength, not her shallowness, say fans: "Jon is just one of the many reasons that I will continue to vote for Kate on Dancing With the Stars—she is not the best dancer but kudos for leaving it all on the floor!" writes one mom on a parenting Web site.
"She represents the need for women to be seen and to matter," says psychologist and frequent counselor to reality TV stars Jamie Huysman, Psy.D., M.S.W. Huysman says the problem with relationships in trouble is the woman feeling she's not a partner—that she's discounted. Gosselin's visibility on DWTS puts her in the limelight as a person, reflecting her importance to all the mothers out there looking to matter. "Kate's saying to the world, 'I can take care of my kids, and I can take care of myself,' " Huysman says. "That's a powerful message."
It wasn't powerful enough to keep her moving on Dancing With the Stars. And it's not enough to keep her most recent book, which was released last week, from tanking. And yet among the 60-plus reviews on Amazon.com—most of them one-star pans with descriptors like "disgraceful," "whiny," and "shameful violation"; some of them five-star raves from hard-core fans. Then there are a few who take a more thoughtful approach: "I don't understand why most of the reviews on this book say how horrible of a woman she is and how she is exploiting her children. If anything, this book shows that she really loves them," writes C. Kelly, from St. Louis, Mo. Then, Kelly asks the same question that troubles a lot of her fans. "If you hate her so much, why are you reading her book?"