Photographs by Xavier Guerra
When Amber Portwood, Catelynn Lowell, Farrah Abraham and Maci Bookout were 16 and pregnant and eventually teen moms, they probably did not imagine how much their lives would change -- and most likely did not comprehend that they would be a part of two revolutionary television series.
Post-16 and Pregnant and during the infancy of Teen Mom, those who were so closely involved with the franchises were a part of something historic: The shows began to make an immediate impact on the audience and the nation. Statistics surrounding the themes presented in these shows changed (for the better), and it forced people to view teen pregnancy in a brand-new, unfiltered light.
In honor of Teen Mom OG -- which is currently in the middle of Season 6 -- MTV News conducted interviews with six people who have been responsible for bringing this show to the small screen. From their day-to-day involvement to which scenes stand out among the rest, the group is sharing it all (think of it as a reunion special -- sans the ladies).
Without further ado, here's the honest discussion -- and be sure to keep watching Teen Mom OG, every Monday at 9/8c:
INTRODUCING THE ROUND TABLE
LAUREN DOLGEN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER AND CREATOR
DIA SOKOL SAVAGE, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: My day-to-day varies enormously. I help to oversee all the creative and editorial content and also manage the logistical details.
MORGAN FREEMAN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: I oversee all aspects of the franchise in partnership with Dia.
LARRY MUSNIK, CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: I have a more unique type of position, similar in some ways to Morgan and Dia. But I think always, even from the very beginning, I’ve been a little bit more involved with the families, the cast, the show, the crew and the producers. I oversee everything -- all of the teams and groups on all of our shows and specials.
KIRSTEN "KIKI" MALONE, CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: I run the creative on the show. I deal directly with the cast and producers -- I'm completely immersed in their lives and their stories and how to best track them through the series.
AMY KRAMER, SENIOR DIRECTOR OF ENTERTAINMENT MEDIA AT THE NATIONAL CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT TEEN AND UNPLANNED PREGNANCY: The National Campaign is a non-partisan, non-profit that works on the issues of teen and unplanned pregnancy. We work across multiple sectors -- including research, policy, communications and entertainment -- and have worked closely with MTV since before 16 and Pregnant premiered.
TEEN MOM'S EVOLUTION
Teen Mom would not exist if it wasn't for '16 and Pregnant.' Dolgen recounts how she came up with the initial idea, which eventually spawned the spin-off.
DOLGEN: I was flipping through People magazine, and I came across an article about teen pregnancy. It said that 750,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 get pregnant in the United States every year. It was like getting punched in the stomach. I couldn’t believe it because it was happening to our audience. It could also be happening to someone they know or someone in their school. It felt very relevant to our audience. I was in development at the time, so I went to my boss [Liz Gately], and I came up with a concept for the show. I told her that I thought this was a story we should tell. My boss immediately said she loved it and said, “We should call it 16 and Pregnant.” She already had the title in her head, and she said that we needed to start casting it right then.
We started casting, and it was not a normal casting process. It was a pretty sensitive arena that we hadn’t really approached before. We really had to handle it in a very responsible way. We decided to connect with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and they became our partners from the very beginning. We wanted to be very responsible about how we talked about the issue and educate ourselves so that we could handle the issues responsibly. For example, we didn’t know how adoption worked in the teen pregnancy world and how rare it was.
Morgan had done an MTV show called Maui Fever, so my boss had worked with him before and recommended him for the project. We hired him and started working with him, and it was a perfect marriage because he totally understood where we wanted to go with this, and he understood the sensitivities of the issues. It was also at a time when not all storytelling on reality television was authentic – there was a lot of soft-scripting of TV shows, and we could not do that in this space because we were dealing with extremely sensitive situations.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF AMBER, CATELYNN, FARRAH AND MACI
Dolgen, Freeman, Savage, Musnik and Kramer became acquainted with the foursome during '16 and Pregnant,' while Malone met the girls during the inaugural season of 'Teen Mom.'
DOLGEN: It was a unique situation because we ended up piloting the show, but we cast all of these girls right at the beginning. It was a little bit of a quiet storm where we found all of these amazing stories really fast. And it’s a big responsibility because, in TV development, you typically do a pilot and then you wait for a really long time to find out if you’re doing a show. And we weren’t really sure if we were going to do the series, but we found all of these girls. So we decided to film with them, and we knew we had all of these amazing stories. Maci was our first girl to have the baby, and it was exciting. All of the girls were so different -- they had such different personalities and came from such different backgrounds. That was so important to us. I thought all of the girls were incredible, and they were all open to sharing their stories, which was really special.
SAVAGE: I met Amber before I ever saw her casting tape -- I'd just talked to Morgan about what was going on with her. Our first shoot was on 4th of July weekend, and it was filled with a lot of drama because Gary had just spent all of their money on a video game console. Amber and her family were really upset, and everyone was meeting for the first time for a BBQ (take a trip down memory lane with part of her episode below). My first impression when I showed up at her house the night before we were supposed to begin filming was that she had a lot to say and wasn't afraid to articulate it, which is always something you are grateful for as a producer. And that she and Gary were hilarious and that I could listen to them talk all day. And that she was stubborn!
I was eager to meet Maci, Farrah and Cate after seeing their tapes. I went to Farrah's house and met Debra first and then spent hours talking to Farrah about everything in her life. My first impression was that she was a really vulnerable and scared teenager who was used to acting really strong and powering forward despite any obstacles. It was clear that her mom had a really different perspective on what was going on than Farrah did, so I wanted to respect where both of them were at the time -- it was a tough position to be in. Additionally, it was a tricky first shoot because she hadn't told any of her friends that she was pregnant, and rumors that had been circulating at her school really heated up when MTV cameras showed up.
I think Morgan went on the first Maci shoot while I was with Farrah. The first time I met Maci was just after that initial shoot and right before she gave birth to Bentley. She took us on a quad ride in the hills of Tennessee. I was trying so hard to hold on to the gear and to the vehicle...I couldn't believe I went riding with a girl who was 8 1/2 months pregnant!
There was so much emotion right off the bat with Catelynn. My first impression was just how young Cate and Ty seemed and what a huge and adult decision they were making. And I was just blown away by their emotional intelligence and how well they could put into words the very complex things that they were feeling.
MUSNIK: I came in to the show and I was already a parent, so each of their lives in their own unique way was shocking to me, and I had to learn what this was all going to be about. Amber was my first shoot, and she didn’t have any food in her kitchen. And the only thing she had was a blue Gatorade and a can of mandarin oranges soaked in sugar. I didn’t even know if it broke documentary or whatever, but I immediately went to the supermarket and went grocery shopping for them.
With Farrah on Day 1, she opened the door in her cheerleading outfit. That’s how we met her. She didn’t even look pregnant; she just looked like a high school cheerleader. It was shocking.
I remember first meeting Maci with Morgan. We both went, and we said hello to her and Ryan. And she just seemed happy and everything seemed great; her and Ryan were madly in love. They had a house that they rented together; they had just recently moved in together. We knew that they were our high-energy, fun-loving teens. They both came from these supportive families that loved them, on both sides. It felt different than the others because they both came from these intact families.
For everything that was going on in their world, Cate and Ty couldn’t have been more mature. We had these two people who loved each other and were supportive of each other. They knew right from early on that (adoption) was going to be their plan -- they didn’t want their child to have to go through the life that they had.
MALONE: During the first Catelynn shoot, I was scared to death. I went out with Morgan so he could introduce me. I met them and fell in love with them instantly. But back then, I didn’t know them. I didn’t know all of the information about Carly, and I was trying to get up to speed on all of this. And they had just placed Carly less than six months before -- it hadn’t been very long. I remember we were filming that day, and we went back to Butch and April’s (where Catelynn was living at the time). Morgan was outside, and I was inside. I remember thinking, "This is a good scene. I wonder if I should ask how everybody is doing with the adoption." And everything was happy as a clam and going great, and I threw out that one question: "Hey, guys, can you talk about where everything is going with the adoption?" From there, Catelynn threw a lighter at Butch, and Butch is screaming, "You got a tattoo of a kid you don’t even have." I was hiding under the stairs watching this insanity break out (the tense scene is below). Catelynn was crying; she was fighting her mom. Within 20 minutes, Kim [Tyler’s mom] picked her up and took her to her house. That was my intro to the show -- and I remember thinking, "Wow, this is going to be an incredible and emotional journey." And from that moment on, I was so linked in with Catelynn -- and every time they cried, I was behind a monitor or camera crying through one full day of every shoot with them.
My first impression of Maci was she tended to have her shit together. She had a lot of really big expectations and was not going to become a statistic. She stated, “I am not going to become pregnant again in the next year,” which was the statistic. She also really wanted to go to college and finish college. I remember really admiring her for that, straight out of the gate. I believe my first shoot with her, I actually went with her to Chattanooga State, where she had her very first consultation and Bentley was in a stroller.
TEEN MOM IS BORN
When '16 and Pregnant' premiered, there was no initial thought about extending the series and following the girls' journeys with their newborn babies. But then everything changed.
FREEMAN: It became evident to all of us that their stories were just beginning when we were wrapping photography on 16 and Pregnant. There was an obvious extension, so we continued shooting with them. It was a very natural progression into documenting their first years of motherhood, which were full of all the beautiful and challenging "firsts" for these very young moms.
DOLGEN: The first season was so well-received, and obviously it connected with the audience in a really big way. I think there are a lot of reasons for that: It was so authentic, it was like life on steroids. It was like, “I totally know what it’s like going to prom” to “Oh my god, prom with a baby!” Everything was amplified; there was something with this that the audience totally connected to. My boss at the time had said we should think about spinoff potential with this series, so we had a discussion about how we would approach that. It was a creative, joint effort where we said, “Let’s pick four girls and follow them through their first year of motherhood.” We would follow them separately and cross-cut their stories.
MUSNIK: The easy part about having a baby is having the baby. It’s the parenting and the growing up and what follows that is where it becomes really hard and really intense. And through conversations with MTV and our development executives, it came to be the natural thing to try this out and try this idea that became Teen Mom.
THIS SPECIFIC FOURSOME
Six girls were featured during the inaugural season of '16 and Pregnant' -- so why were Amber, Catelynn, Farrah and Maci chosen?
SAVAGE: There's not necessarily a reason for someone being selected or not, and in the case of that first group of six, it was devastating to us only to be able to continue to work with four of them because we knew that every single one of those young women faced unique struggles and had a story worth telling.
DOLGEN: It was a lot of factors. We look at a lot of things -- how open were they to the cameras and to opening their lives up and sharing all of these aspects of their lives. Also, how heavily populated their worlds were -- meaning, were there a lot of family members, friends and maybe the father who was or wasn’t in their life but there was a lot of story to tell. When you look at also putting the four stories together, we wanted the right balance between those four girls to make a really full picture of what the American landscape of teen pregnancy really looks like. Those four girls had such different lives and different situations. And the girls really have great personalities; they’re really interesting to watch.
THE "16 AND PREGNANT/TEEN MOM EFFECT"
Both series have been credited with helping to significantly reduce the teen pregnancy rate in the United States. Kramer outlines some important historical context -- and how these numbers have changed since the launch of '16 and Pregnant' and 'Teen Mom.'
KRAMER: Between 1991 and 2005, the teen birth rate decreased 35%. That was a huge, unprecedented accomplishment for the nation. The teen pregnancy rate (pregnancy and birth are not the same) declined 41% during that time. In 2005-2006, there was an increase in teen births of 3%. Not huge, but the first increase in a generation. People who work on this issue and care deeply about it were concerned, wondering if the progress of the last decade and half was coming to an end. (Spoiler alert: It was not). Since 2009 (the year 16&P and Teen Mom premiered), the teen birth rate has decreased 45%.
Put another way, from the early 1990s until the mid-2000s, the teen birth rate decreased pretty steadily about a 2.5% year on average. Since these shows went on the air, the decrease has happened much more dramatically. For example, in 2009 it dropped 9%; from 2012-2013, I think it went down 10%. Granted, these shows are not the only driver -- we’ve had a recession, the Obama administration has devoted $100+ million to teen pregnancy prevention programs, there are more/better kinds of birth control than ever before, emergency contraception is now more easily available to teens, some places have better sex ed (some places don’t…) etc.
When the first big decline post-Teen Mom was announced, Sarah Brown, then CEO of The National Campaign said: “Teens are being more careful for a number of reasons, including the recession, more media attention to this issue -- including the '16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom effect' -- and more attention to and investment in evidence-based programs. But at the end of the day, the thanks and admiration go to teens themselves."
Again, teen births are not the same as teen pregnancies. Not all pregnancies end in a birth. However, the decline in teen births is not driven by abortion -- abortion rates for teens have declined as well and are currently at historic lows. As far as pregnancies go, in 2008 about 750,000 teen girls in the U.S. got pregnant. In 2011 (most recent available data), about 553,000 teen girls got pregnant. A huge success story all around.
MALONE: Because of our involvement with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Teen Mom has had such an impact on the way conversations are had around sex. I have younger siblings who grew up watching the show, and I think back to 2009, how taboo it still was and what an epidemic [teen pregnancy] was. And the fact that we’ve been noted for being a part of why teen pregnancy is at its lowest rate is astounding to me. To be able to do a show that’s not just fun to work on -- because we work with great people and a great cast -- but also is doing something and is making a difference. We don’t script; we don’t ask them to do anything they wouldn’t do. Everything is so authentic, and it’s such a great show to be a part of.
HOW TEEN MOM COMES TO LIFE
Making sure story lines and major moments get captured is a big part of this series -- and those who work to create that production itinerary (Musnik and Malone) have a specific set of guidelines that they follow.
MUSNIK: We’ve never been the show that has embedded ourselves in their homes or communities, like other reality television might do for a period. We felt we did much better by expanding our filming window over a longer period of time and just kind of going in and out of their communities and visiting them. So we basically go in for sometimes two, three, four days. Our show never had a real production schedule, since day 1. We always knew basically when we would start, basically when we would stop, so we could get shows on the air.
It is not uncommon for us to say we’re going on a shoot and leave that afternoon. What’s very uncommon for our show is to plan a shoot a week in advance, because the cast members’ lives change so fast. This whole series -- 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom -- came about because of lack of planning. There wouldn’t be this show if things were planned out. We go and we film when stuff is going on -- moments we feel carry the stories and themes that are going on.
MALONE: Our shoot schedules are really, truly dictated by the girls’ schedules, unlike a normal reality show where we try and make a quota and say, "I’m going to shoot ten days this month with this person." We don’t do that, so we have an ebb and flow to it. They tell us what’s going on, and we follow that and then we continue to track those stories that are going on through every shoot. Generally, our shoots are set up around tent-pole events that they have going on: It could be a birthday, or it could be a doctor’s appointment. It could be as simple as Catelynn wanting to go shopping for an outfit for Nova. When we hear these things, and our producers talk to the girls nonstop, that’s how we track the show. It’s difficult to say how often we shoot with them. I would say the best generalization is we do about two to three shoots a month with each girl. The amount of time can vary. We usually shoot about three days for an episode. Also because we’re so rooted in the doc style, a normal show can shoot three days and get an episode and be done with it. Our stories don’t have clear-cut solutions just because we shot for three days. A lot of these became huge seasonal arcs and sometimes series arcs that we’ll track over multiple episodes. You kind of don’t know what’s going to happen.
BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL
When 'Teen Mom' returned after a two-year hiatus, the show began to feature cast members interacting with producers.
MUSNIK: It’s not something I’ve ever dreamed in a million years that I would be doing (relive his epic showdown with Farrah above). I’ve never had that feeling of wanting to be an on-camera person -- it’s not what has drawn me to being a producer or what I want to do at all. I’m going along with it because I think it’s what’s best for the show. It makes what’s going on at this stage in the game clearer -- like being able to track when they get upset and it’s directed at us. So I think it’s been a helpful element to the show, and I’m happy to do anything that’s helpful to the show. But I never once said, “Please add me in to the creative” or “I must go have this conversation with someone.” I do what I do and have been doing it since the very beginning. I have not done one thing different since I started on this project with the way I deal with the girls and the families. My title has changed through the years, but what I have done has remained the same. I don’t run home to watch myself on TV, and I want to be able to work with the cast the way I always have.
MALONE: The trickiest part of the first four seasons was that our relationships had become such a huge part of the girls’ stories as well, and we couldn’t recognize it in the show. We couldn’t recognize the fact that they were on a show. And that was very restrictive. I like that we are involved in that way. Personally, I hate seeing myself on camera because I freak out. But it did motivate me to lose 70 pounds in the past year. And I would not have even noticed if I hadn't seen myself on camera.
DOLGEN: We had done several specials that had broken the fourth wall, and it was really well-received. And then when we decided to bring back Teen Mom, we realized we couldn’t just bring it back the same way. It had been almost two years since the show had been on; the girls’ lives were so different and all of them were friends with the producers. Some of them were better friends with the producers than other friends in their lives, so they may have a real conversation with a producer rather than someone else. We weren’t going to ignore tabloids and scandals and stuff that came out and some of the other hardships that they were dealing with, so to us it just felt right to address it and be able to look at the camera every now and again. It made perfect sense for the return of the series.
ISOLATING KEY MOMENTS
For the people closest to this program, certain incidents stand out for being particularly tough emotionally ('16 and Pregnant' included).
FREEMAN: Cate & Ty's choice to place Carly for adoption (watch it above). Their 16 and Pregnant episode remains one of my favorites, as we had unfettered access into their final hours with Carly and the actual hand-off. It really underscored how hard making that decision is plus how courageous those two are. They knew their home was not the best place for Carly, so they chose a better life for her. It was very powerful for me.
MALONE: The toughest emotional shoot for me and the crew was the Carly visit in New York City. Every other visit before that had gone pretty well, and they felt really good about it. It was the first time when Carly was a bit older -- she had a personality and was more of a little person. The two of them were sitting crying, and Tyler was saying, "I wish she was calling me daddy." It was the first time it really hit them. I remember the entire crew of all men and me were on the street shooting this and crying at the same time, because it was so heartbreaking. Another shoot that breaks my heart was a reunion, I believe during Season 1, and Brandon and Teresa were there with Carly. We are at an off-camera dinner with the cast and crew, and Carly took her first steps. Catelynn and Tyler got to see her first steps, and everyone threw up their iPhones to shoot this. We filmed the reunion the next day, and Brandon, Teresa and Carly left. And when they left, I remember looking across the room and seeing Catelynn breaking down and crying and running to me. That was hours of emotional heartache. The Carly storyline has been the hardest and most emotional.
SAVAGE: Even though we have to remain objective, when one of the participants is struggling, it can be really hard to watch. It was very scary to see Amber at the height of her drug abuse, so it feels like such a huge accomplishment to see her clean. And it makes me so happy for Leah that she is able to have a mom who is drug-free.
YES, THERE'S ALSO STRESS
Working on a hit series brings a lot of joy -- but also some panicky emotions as well.
FREEMAN: Having to tell Maci on camera that Farrah was coming back (the duo's interaction is above). I knew Maci had very strong feelings about this, and I'm very close to Maci, so dropping this bomb on camera created boatloads of stress for me. I couldn't sleep the night before because I was so worried about her reaction. Turned out to be a great scene when she quit on camera. And ultimately, she forgave me. I still got invited to her wedding!
MUSNIK: The shoot where Amber decided to turn herself in and say she wanted to go to jail -- we were outside of the courtroom when she told the judge, “Just send me to jail, I can’t deal with this program.” And at that time, Gary was just falling apart in the car crying after he basically said goodbye to her. Being part of that shoot, sitting outside of Amber’s grandparents’ house talking to Amber the day before she went to jail -- that was probably my most stressful moment. I was thinking about the family and what would happen with Amber in jail for what could have been much longer.
MALONE: He’s going to kill me for saying this, but Ryan is probably the most stressful part, when I was producing. I love the kid madly; I consider him a close, personal friend. He’s like my little brother. But he can be stressful because he doesn’t care and doesn’t show up. Tracking him down can take days. He has no bad intentions -- he’s in his own world.
FEELING TREMENDOUS PRIDE
Everyone closely associated with 'Teen Mom' (unsurprisingly) had the same thoughts.
DOLGEN: The show on the whole has been a wild ride. I came up with the idea because I was shocked by the statistics of what was going on in the United States. I never imagined that it would have the impact that it has had with affecting the teen birth rate, and that is by far the most amazing thing to achieve. The show had so much negative and controversial press at the beginning, so it just feels good that it had such a positive impact. The goal was always to tell a poignant story.
SAVAGE: Oh man, so many great moments throughout the years. Obviously, hearing about the impact that the show has had is enormously gratifying but also just watching the cast members grow and develop and see the direction their lives have taken is kind of a documentary filmmaker's dream. To be able to be immersed in a subject's life for eight years has been an incredible privilege and honor.
FREEMAN: When the independent study was released that cited a huge decline in teen births, I was struck by a sense of pride that our series was elevating the conversation around birth control, safe sex and contraceptives in a way that was contributing in this decline. I also felt the same emotion when Nicholas Kristof's New York Times op-ed came out pointing to the same thing.
If you have been following the protagonists since the early days, or recently started viewing this series, 'Teen Mom' has made a unique mark in the pop culture landscape. Those who have worked the closest on the show reflect on this phenomenon.
DOLGEN: I think this show came out at a time when there were a lot of very heavy-handed, overly produced shows, and our show was very authentic. You couldn’t manipulate the stories that were happening. I think the authenticity combined with the stakes -- it was really shocking. People saw themselves reflected, as if their lives were amplified. That got a really big response from the audience. I think the girls felt more real to the audience -- they looked more like them; they felt more like real girls. I think there was a bit more of a real connection that was happening. It came at the right time.
SAVAGE: In the early days, I think the show allowed the audience to be privy to private conversations around unplanned pregnancy that you never would have heard otherwise, which is powerful. It opened up new ways for kids to talk to their parents about sex and birth control -- for example, it is probably much easier to start a conversation with your mom about getting an IUD or a Depo shot by talking about a decision Maci made or discussing something that Cate and Ty were just doing. And as the show has evolved, people have just continued to be invested in the lives of the teen moms as they have taken different directions.
MALONE: I don’t think there’s ever been a show with such real people. Anybody who watches this show could be one of the girls. [Teen pregnancy] can happen to anybody, and I think where sex education is concerned, the videos that they showed me in high school made no sense. Knowing that you’re getting this very interesting form of sex ed from peer to peer, on an MTV television show, is so interesting. Sex is a hot topic, especially at that age, and it’s why teen pregnancy is an epidemic. But seeing someone who is not a parent talking to them about this, I think people really grasped on to it. And the girls are just cool -- they’re good girls. They are girls who have had so many things happen to them, and those things can happen to anybody.
KRAMER: Stories about sex, love and relationships are relatable and interesting. There’s a lot at stake on this show -- these girls were very young and they had babies. This isn’t nothing. This is real life with real people who showed you their real lives in a way that I don’t think “reality” shows do all that often. We saw them at their most vulnerable. I also think that when Teen Mom began, it was during the infancy of Twitter and the infancy of the widespread use of social media. And they were early into that and people connected with them that way, and I think that’s also been a driver of some of the popularity of the show. Social media was new, and people were communicating with them. This is one of those issues that people care about. These are four girls that people care about.
MUSNIK: I think Teen Mom has had such a major impact on pop culture because our audience is watching people that look like them, sound like them and basically are a reflection of what a lot of other people are going through. For that one hour people are watching our show, it actually makes them think about something. And it doesn’t feel like they’re being preached to because our show is not judgmental. It’s just putting everything out there. And over time, each of these girls has developed a fan base that watches them and is invested in their lives. This show is still unique, after all this time. I don’t know another show that has lasted with the same group of people, the same kids, the same families. We've watched the children grow since they were inside their moms, and now they're going into second grade.