Kate Gosselin, her eight kids, bodyguards and a TLC crew took the ferry to Bald Head Island, N.C., on Sunday for a week of camera-ready beach fun. The next day I arrived with little more than a swimsuit and a stack of books, hoping to unplug for a whole week for the first time in years.
It was with a mix of vexation and glee that I learned the Gosselins were renting the house (at $8,025 for the week) directly across from me. I had been warned during my trip over. "Kate Plus 8!" was the subject line of several emails my devoted but celebrity-ignorant dad sent me, along with wildly distant photos of the sextuplets on the beach. My mom, who recognized the Gosselins only from reading my work, filled my voicemail with tales of Kate jogging at 7 a.m., Kate standing with her hands on her hips while her kids played with the camera crew, the piles of new pink and green beach toys and towels stacked in their packaging on their porch. It was a lot of excitement for an island where the biggest disruptions are intimate beach weddings, allowed only in off-season.
Bald Head Island is an isolated community filled with maritime forest preserve and lavish houses painted in muted colors. It's the same place John Edwards was once reported to be eying an estate for himself and Rielle Hunter (the listing is still on the market, much to the relief of homeowners who came for the quiet and privacy). It's also where Kate Gosselin took the kids last summer just before she and Jon announced their divorce.
The only way to reach the island is by ferry, and golf carts are the only way to get around once you're there. I've been visiting my family's Bald Head home for years. I go to clear my head of pretty much everything but how to prepare the fish each night. I do not go to think about whether and why I care about the Gosselins.
But I had little choice as their vacation, and mine, began with a photo op. I was sitting on the beach when they all paraded out of our shared beach access walkway with a camera crew, two bodyguards and a couple of boom guys. First came Cara and Mady, followed by their six younger siblings, the girls in pink polka dot two-pieces and the boys in Hawaiian print trunks. Finally Kate, in a sensible pink and white bikini, appeared. Blonde weave blowing straight behind her and one hand planted just below her waist, she smiled at the cameras. When the family reached the ocean they were directed to turn right around and head back to the house. One of the boys hung back, looking longingly at the water. His mom hadn't noticed, but eventually one of the crew ran back and whisked him into line.
The next day, the crew and sextuplets were out, but no Kate. The kids played in the ocean and fought for the attention of a young camera guy who patiently played a few dozen games of rock, paper, scissors. All were having fun until an argument over a granola bar led Alexis to spit on one of her brothers. "Alexis Faith!" the babysitter yelled, and the kids were soon assembled into a line to march back inside.
Wednesday finally brought an off-camera beach outing. Kate had swapped the modest two-piece she'd had on for filming for a nude-colored sparkly string bikini. The only other adult present, a middle-aged, athletic man with a full head of gray hair, sat very close to her. "Steve, Steve!" the kids called as he splashed them from a bucket of water. I later identified him as Steve Neild, a longtime bodyguard and travel companion who is married and was rumored to have served as Kate's boob job consultant last year.
I took a couple pictures with my phone and ended up catching Steve's attention. He jogged over to my beach chair and asked in a stern British accent, "Would you mind not taking pictures of the children?" I didn't point out I was more interested in snapping him and Kate touching legs. I agreed, and firmly, protectively, he said, "Erase those, now." I knew he had no legal basis, but allowed him to bully me because I had already saved the halfway decent ones and I did not want to become his enemy with several days left in the week. In exchange, Steve asked if I would like a picture with Kate. It seemed like a routine offer meant to disarm citizen paparazzi.
"Sure," I said, and we strolled over to Kate, who was staring into space, apparently unaware of the exchange. "I'm a big fan of the show," I told her. I have never seen an episode of the show, but it seemed like the least sinister motivation to offer. Steve asked Kate to pose.
"Come now, get up!" he said.
"In a bikini?" she whined. Her skin was a deep orange, her long nails perfectly French manicured. She wore dangly silver earrings and multiple necklaces. She pulled on a long white cover-up, ignoring Steve's repeated assurances that she looked "fantastic" in her bikini.
"One condition," she told me. "You can't post this on Facebook or anything. We're anonymous here and we'd like to stay that way."
I nodded, wondering how she equated anonymity with bringing a large crew to film her family vacation. Kate struck a red-carpet pose, hand on hip, facing into the wind ("My hair blows back this way," she explained), and we awkwardly embraced as Steve fumbled with my iPhone.
The next day it was back to work. The kids were forced to fly large, expensive-looking kites for the cameras even though the wind was blowing more than 20 miles per hour, too fast for small boats to go out. Not a single kite made it into the air as the crew and babysitter struggled with the kids' kites for more than an hour while Kate adjusted her black sundress. For this she earns a reported $250,000 per episode, more than twice what Jon Hamm makes for each hour of 'Mad Men.'
Five days into the Gosselins' trip, a celebrity photo agency had finally learned of their whereabouts and sent a paparazzo to the beach. He sparred with both beachgoers and 'Kate Plus 8' crew, but INF captured the kite-flying misadventure here.
The crew and entourage had swelled to about 15, and homeowners were starting to vent as they gathered to watch the reality circus that had taken over their beach and blocked their beach access.
"She is not a classy person," said a woman who had seen Kate, the kids and cameras invade the Bald Head Island Club pool the day before. "Just talking on her phone, ignoring her kids. And that tattoo!"
Someone called the police, who were eager to respond to something other than a speeding golf cart. The complaint was that the crew had trodden upon the protected sand dunes--an offense that carries a $300 fine--and that was as good a reason as any to get them off the beach. A camerawoman who had been shooting from a dune blamed the children, and a burly director type rushed over to establish himself as the go-to police liaison.
On Friday the family stayed in, and that night a newly chastened Steve circled the house several times looking for paparazzi before allowing everyone out for a sunset stroll. From my porch I watched Kate, Steve and the kids walk down the beach access and start flying a kite. The wind had finally died down and the sky blushed pink. Then a confrontation erupted between Steve and a paparazzo who had been laying curled in the sand. I would have felt bad had they embraced this sort of limelight hating earlier in the week.
There were moments that resembled a normal summer vacation--the twins shucking corn on the porch before dinner, Aaden in his glasses standing spellbound at the edge of the ocean, Kate running up to the house to get snacks and juice boxes for her kids. Maybe there will be more of these if they leave the cameras behind next year.
The day of the kite flying fiasco, two old ladies in one-piece swimsuits stopped to take in the scene. They asked me what everyone was looking at and I told them a big family was filming a reality series.
"What happens in the show?" one of them asked.
"Pretty much this," I gestured at the crew coaxing the tired, bored kids to play, Kate standing over them pointing her fingers and fixing her hair.
"I thought 'Seinfeld' was the show about nothing!" the other woman snorted, and they continued their walk down the beach.