'16 and Pregnant,' 'Teen Mom' women become tabloid subjects

At the newsstand this month, the usual slew of tabloid staples appeared on various magazine covers: Angelina Jolie, at least one Kardashian and the most recent couple to come out of "The Bachelor."

But also featured was a new class of tabloid star: a handful of young teenage girls whose biggest claim to fame is being on a reality television show about getting pregnant at age 16.

"Teen Moms Addicted to Surgery," read a recent In Touch Weekly headline, which went on to purport that three of the stars of MTV's series "16 and Pregnant" — who later graduated to the show's spinoff, "Teen Mom" — are thinking of getting breast implants, liposuction and nose jobs.

When "16 and Pregnant" first launched in June 2009, the reality show was billed by the cable network as an inspirational cautionary tale. It was shot in a gritty documentary style, trailing the girls as they balanced the demands of motherhood while working low-paying jobs, going to school or dealing with their kids' absent fathers. ("Teen Mom" selects four "16 and Pregnant" cast members to follow each season.)

In many ways, the show was the antithesis of the network's other hit reality series, "Jersey Shore." Instead of glorifying wild antics, "16 and Pregnant" emphasized the consequences of poor decision-making. On the most recent season of "Jersey Shore," for instance, when star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication, she laughed off the incident and received a light slap on the wrist from her father over the telephone. But when "Teen Mom" star Jenelle Evans was arrested on suspicion of possession of drug paraphernalia recently, her mother was shown threatening to kick her out of the house and cut her off financially.

Last week, a third season of "16 and Pregnant" kicked off. The franchise has been a ratings boon for MTV — the finale of "Teen Mom 2" attracted 4.7 million viewers last month — and if the current iteration is successful, it will likely lead to yet another "Teen Mom" spinoff.

Somewhere along the way, these shows became a launching pad for the next round of tabloid stars. Once perceived as near-role models who harbored a can-do attitude in the face of adversity, many of the program's stars now have a reputation for bad behavior, including drug arrests and domestic violence.

Attempts to contact the stars of both "16 & Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" were rebuffed by MTV, which also declined to comment for this story. But when interviewed in February 2010 — less than a year after "16 and Pregnant" began — one of the program's initial cast members, Maci Bookout, said she was already beginning to notice the effect of celebrity.

"I usually only talk to fans if it's in my city because now it's just gotten so ridiculous that I don't want to talk to one person and not to talk to another person," said Bookout, one of the girls who was rumored to be getting breast implants in the recent In Touch cover story.

Us Weekly was one of the first magazines to feature Bookout and a few other girls from the MTV series on its cover. Ian Drew, a senior editor at the publication, said the decision to spotlight the young mothers came from a desire to focus on figures outside of Hollywood.

"We were writing about the same people over and over again, and I said to my editor in chief: 'We have to make new stars. How many times can you write about Jennifer Aniston's love life?'"

But emphasizing the girls' plucky attitudes quickly changed when Amber Portwood — who appeared on both "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" along with Bookout — was shown on the latter program aggressively hitting the father of her child, Gary Shirley. The physical altercation prompted both the police department and child protective services in her hometown, Anderson, Ind., to investigate her conduct. Last November, she was charged with three counts of domestic violence.

Portwood's saga began popping up in the tabloids and on websites like TMZ. Galo Ramirez, a Los Angeles-based paparazzo for GSI Media, was dispatched to Indiana last December to snap pictures of Portwood walking in and out of the courthouse.

"Sometimes you can make more money off of the 'Teen Moms' than you can with actual celebrities," said Ramirez, who typically receives a "couple thousand" dollars for a photograph of a girl from the show. "And you could tell Amber liked the attention. She'd kind of talk to you when she was being photographed and was real friendly."

After the violence between Portwood and Shirley occurred, Michelle Lee, the editor in chief of In Touch, said she and the three reporters who are on the "'Teen Mom' beat" were at a loss as to how to report the story.

"Looking back on it, I realize that there was a real rawness and reality to their situation. What we see nowadays in Hollywood feels a little bit fake — there's a PR spin to everything. With the Kardashians, their entire ties are within Hollywood. Whereas these 'Teen Mom' girls, most of them are from the heartland of America."

That's an argument Jennifer Pozner, author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," doesn't buy.

"It's cheaper for magazines to pay the paparazzi for pictures of the girls from 'Teen Mom' than Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt," said Pozner. "The magazines have cultivated a market for stories about reality stars, but it's a market based on a much cheaper set of stars."

And they're stars who keep feeding the tabloid machine. Already, one of the new cast members from "16 and Pregnant" has popped up on TMZ, where the father of her child claimed she got pregnant as a way to get onto the show. The tabloid website also posted a violent video of "Teen Mom 2" star Evans brawling with another young woman.

Yet many of the programs' fans continue to sympathize with these young women. In October, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy published the findings of a survey it had commissioned, in which 93% of youth surveyed at various Boys and Girls Clubs of America said they agreed that they learned teen parenthood was "harder than [they] imagined" after watching an episode of "16 and Pregnant." That message, says Amy Kramer, director of the campaign, is the show's important takeaway.

"I don't fault these girls for wanting to be on TV. I think what they have done by taking part in this show is extraordinarily generous because they are allowing other people to look at them at their most vulnerable and emotional moments," Kramer said.

Meanwhile, "16 and Pregnant" is tasked with a balancing act: Keep the show real and avoid glamorizing teen pregnancy, even as its stars become increasingly notorious.

"These were girls who had not had a taste of anything, and now you see them on red carpets, getting modeling gigs and agents — it definitely changes things," In Touch's Lee said. "Now they're thinking, 'We have our 15 minutes of fame, what do we do next?'"

Indeed, at least two of the teen moms are working on books, a few have booking agents, and another has posed scantily clad to become a fashion model. It's the kind of stuff that only further clouds the show's intent, says Kramer.

"I always say to parents, you shouldn't go running screaming from the room saying, 'My kid is watching a show about teen pregnancy on MTV!' This is a show they should watch with their kids," she said. "Parents who just see the girls on the front of tabloids are drawing the conclusion that the show is giving off a glamorous depiction of teen motherhood. And it's really not."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°