Teen Mom: 'They Treat Me Like I'm a Celebrity'

"16 and Pregnant" star voices concerns about media spotlight.

March 2, 2011, 2:54 PM

March 3, 2011 — -- Move over Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin. It's one thing to be a celebrity who gets pregnant at 17; it's another thing to become a celebrity for doing just that.

The visibility of teenage moms has exploded in pop culture. Lifetime's "The Pregnancy Pact," the Fox hit "Glee" and "The Secret Life of an American Teenager" have explored the subject.

But, without a doubt, today's most notorious young mothers are the stars of MTV's hit reality series "Teen Mom." The popular documentary-style show chronicles the highs and often trashy lows of teenage girls dealing with the fallout of diapers, dead beat "baby daddies" and demanding grandparents.

Pick up any tabloid -- Us Weekly, OK! magazine, Life & Style, In Touch -- and these high school moms are elevated to near-celebrity status. Even "Saturday Night Live" has poked fun at the trend.

In a skit spoofing MTV as "Maternity Television," actress Scarlett Johansson plays a 16-year-old girl partying her way through delivery, screaming, "I'm rich, I'm beautiful and I'm fully dilated."

While teen pregnancy may be exploding on TV, teen birth rates decreased 6 percent between 2008 and 2009, reaching a new low, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

While that's good news, the United States still has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world; twice as high as the U.K., and three times as high as Canada. One in six U.S. girls will become a teen mother, and the annual public cost of teen childbearing is estimated at $9.1 billion.

"There is no fear and shame in teen pregnancy anymore," says Michelle Hankins, who runs a Young Moms support group in Rome, Ga. "Seeing all these teen moms in the media, it makes them less fearful. It's desensitized them, there's just an immunity to the shock value of it."

Georgia teen pregnancy rates are 22 percent higher than the national average.

Hankins started the support group because she believed her community was in dire need. More than 40 teens gather twice a month. They receive sex and health education, as well as baby-care tips and supplies.

"There's, like, probably 20-plus girls at my high school that's pregnant," said Eryn Rampley, 17, who is seven months pregnant.

Victoria Burnette, 19 and nine months pregnant, said, "I wasn't using anything, like, protection or anything, birth control, condoms, anything like that."

At 15, Corinna Perussquia is the youngest in the group. When she got pregnant in the summer, she said, her reaction was shock and disbelief.

"This can't be. I didn't believe it at first," Corinna said. "I didn't think it would happen to me. I just, I never thought."

She was too scared to tell her mom for months, and the emotion is still raw.

"I never wanted that, like, to get pregnant," Corinna said, in tears. "And I always wanted to go to college and have a good life, you know. But now, like, I have doubts about that."

Does Media Spotlight Encourage Teens to Become Moms?

Like many of the girls in the group, Corinna follows "Teen Mom" on TV and in the gossip magazines. Although the series has been touted as a cautionary tale, Corinna did not interpret it that way.

"When I used to watch it before I got pregnant, I did not think too much of it," she said. "It was fun to watch. I never thought it would be like a lesson or anything. I just watched it for entertainment."

Corinna says she never idolized the girls on MTV or aspired to be a teen mom. But now that she's pregnant, her friends think it's is cute.

"They seem like excited. Saying, 'I want a baby,' and I'm like, not right now," Corinna said. "It is not as easy as you all think."

It's not easy, and it's not cheap. Corinna will likely need food stamps and welfare.

Although Rome is a small town, it has been touched by the media spotlight.

"Some people they just think it's so cool that I was on TV. They treat me like I'm a celebrity or something," said Whitney Purvis, a 19-year-old featured on "16 and Pregnant," the original MTV documentary show that launched the "Teen Mom" sensation.

Purvis said the movie "Juno" made pregnancy look "cute" so she wanted to participate with MTV to show teens the actual reality.

"You know you don't have to have sex," Purvis said. "If you do, be smart because this is what happens."

But Purvis wasn't the cautionary example she thought she'd be. She says the producers manipulated situations to heighten tension, drama and conflict.

"They would take you in separate rooms and then they would film me with my friends and my boyfriend with his friends and just get you to talk about the things you don't like about each other," she said.

"They want you to argue ... they want you to talk about each other, they want you to get where you want to break up with each other to go stay at separate places. .. .And ... I just didn't like that at all."

MTV said in a statement that producers "do not influence the stories in any way" and that their "cameras are there to capture real-life situations as they unfold."

In the end, Purvis says she was paid $5,000 for "16 and Pregnant" but did not go on to participate in the spin-off show, "Teen Mom." Now the program is one of MTV's biggest hits, second only to "Jersey Shore."

Girls on the show are rumored to make five- and even six-figure salaries, although MTV says it cannot disclose the financial terms of its contracts.

Teen-Mom Copycats?

Media critic Jessica Coen, editor-in-chief of Jezebel.com, says when a reality show becomes a popular hit series with multiple seasons, fame is inevitable.

"MTV can be as objective as they want about it, but once these women, these young women, are being followed by tabloids and on TMZ and on the cover of Us Weekly, it's hard to view them as documentary subjects. They're reality stars," she said.

Purvis of "16 and Pregnant," said, "Now I meet people who are wanting to get pregnant just to be on the show.

"That takes it to another level, because I know how it changes your life and then I meet people who are changing their life just for what I did.

"There's actually two girls who got pregnant just for that and they went to the same school and MTV had to wind up picking either one of them," Purvis added. "And so they picked one of them and then the other one, you know, is just sitting there."

Similar rumors of copy-cat teen moms captured headlines in recent weeks. Two pregnant girls who are friends with a current "Teen Mom" star said they got pregnant by accident.

"I think when you have a cluster of girls who are friends with one of the stars of the show and they all get pregnant by accident, there's something wrong," Coen of Jezebel.com said.

"It's not an accident. That has to do with how teenagers equate success. 'I want to be famous,' they think. 'I want to be on television,' they think. 'Look at this teen mom. She's on the cover of a tabloid magazine.'

"That seems great when you're young."

MTV said, "We absolutely don't solicit and would never knowingly cast anyone who chose to get pregnant on purpose. That is the exact opposite of the intent of the show."

Indeed, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy supports MTV's "16 and Pregnant." The organization conducted a poll indicating the 82 percent of teens who watched the show thought it helped them better understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenthood, and how to avoid it.

A few weeks after her interview with ABC News, Corinna gave birth to Khaley Laree Perussquia.

"I think she's beautiful," Corinna said.

Corinna's mom, Melanie Valasquez, said, "It feels good. Kind of feels like she's mine."

But the baby is Corinna's, and the new mom is having a hard time adjusting. Instead of joy, there are tears of frustration.

For this teen mom, there won't be photo spreads or a cushy TV salary; just family rallying around to help.

Corinna's grandfather is supportive but disappointed.

"Young kids don't understand," he said. "They think it's going to be fun and all. It's not fun.

Childhood Left Behind

After a four-week school maternity leave, Corinna will struggle not to become a statistic; one half of all teen moms drop out of high school. But Corinna plans to graduate, while her mother watches the baby.

Purvis, too, is back to regular life. Now that the MTV cameras are gone, she's waitressing tables at the local pizza joint, trying to make ends meet to support her baby son. She loves her child but regrets the timing, she said.

"If I could go back in time, I would have waited, I wouldn't have had sex without a condom," Purvis said.

She laments a childhood left behind. "There's so many things that I wanted to do," she said. " ... I've always wanted to go to prom and I didn't even get to do that."

She says pop culture's version of teenage motherhood isn't always in line with reality. "They all have new cars ... they're in magazines, they're going to 'Dancing With the Stars,' stuff like that," Purvis added. " I mean, it just seems like it's that easy."

MTV's Full Statement to ABC News:

As part of the filming process we sometimes ask cast members to talk about their stories to provide context and background on what they're going through, but we do not influence the stories in any way -- this is a documentary and our cameras are there to capture real life situations as they unfold.

We absolutely don't solicit and would never knowingly cast anyone who chose to get pregnant on purpose -- that is the exact opposite of the intent of the show.

"16 and Pregnant" is designed to cast a light on the harsh realities teens face when dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. In fact, the show has been called one of the best public service announcements for preventing teen pregnancy because it is a gritty, unvarnished look at the reality of unplanned teen pregnancy, and research by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that among teens who have watched "16 and Pregnant,' 82 percent think the show helps teens better understand the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenthood and how to avoid it.