By its very title, 16 and Pregnant promised a certain amount of eye-opening drama when it premiered on MTV in 2009.
The series, and its logical spin-off Teen Mom, didn't disappoint. Over the past eight years, in addition to the highs and lows of motherhood, viewers have witnessed a never-ending stream of relationship issues, financial hardship, cheating scandals, legal troubles, medical scares and family feuds. So how did MTV know it was signing up just the right people to make for gripping, sometimes trainwreck television that audiences can't get enough of?
Between 2009 and 2014, 48 girls were featured on five seasons of 16 and Pregnant. Most were one and done, heading off into their futures without cameras in tow, but 12 continued on to the various iterations of Teen Mom. And while it's a toss-up as to who has dominated in the everyday drama department, Amber Portwood never ceases to up the ante.
"Hi, my name is Amber, and I'm just your typical teen from Anderson, Indiana," is the first we heard from the high school senior, who was actually 18 at the time, when she made her 16 and Pregnant debut. She and her boyfriend, 21-year-old Gary Shirley, a certified nursing assistant who had been in the same class as her older brother Shawn (who was stationed in Iraq when the show began), had been together for three years.
They had moved in together and there was a lot of arguing about money (Amber wanted every adorable baby outfit from Walmart, while Gary was blowing $500 on a PlayStation 3) and other very-real issues.
Amber described herself as a "rebel" and "total party girl" who of course had never thought about having kids. Tonya, Amber's mom, wasn't a fan of Gary (who said early on that he wanted to marry Amber but didn't think Tonya would approve) but she was involved and along for doctor appointments.
Amid the inevitable controversy that 16 and Pregnant caused (exploitation vs. education, etc.), of course people were curious as to how these girls—Amber, Farrah Abraham, Maci Bookout, Catelynn Lowell, Ebony Jackson and Whitney Purvis were the franchise pioneers—got involved.
In 2012, during the Teen Mom season four "Farewell Special," Tonya recalled hearing "about MTV wanting to do a documentary for young mothers," so she loaned Amber her camera to make an audition tape with Gary.
"I was so f--king mean. I was a bad kid, I really was," Amber observed while watching her tape, in which she called Gary (who was shooting the video) "kind of an a--hole," on her 2015 Getting to Know special. She admitted she didn't really take the show seriously in the moment.
"I didn't think it was real," she said. "They didn't have a name for it yet because it was a pilot for it. So when I did it, I didn't take it serious. Like, I didn't do anything they wanted. I answered the questions, that was about it."
But of course, Amber would go on to give MTV everything it could handle and more.
She and Gary, who was by then her fiancé, welcomed their daughter, Leah, on Nov. 13, 2008. As chronicled on Sixteen and Pregnant, not long after they brought Leah home she exhibited trouble breathing and they brought her to a specialist—she ended up being alright but it was obviously a major scare all the same.
And despite the occasional sweet moment, their relationship continued to deteriorate and their fights escalated to full-on screaming matches, with Amber—who would later admit that she was abusing prescription drugs the entire time she was shooting Teen Mom—becoming increasingly volatile. Gary moved out in 2010.
Then, when Leah was 2, Amber took a swing at Gary's face and seemingly attempted to push him down some stairs—an altercation featured on the show that led to an investigation into Amber's behavior (by both local authorities and state Child Protective Services) and then domestic violence and neglect charges. A no-contact order was put in place preventing her from seeing Gary unless their daughter was present, and they couldn't live together.
"We are cooperating with all parties and hope for a quick and fair resolution that allows everyone involved to move forward in a positive manner," MTV said in a statement at the time.
In June 2011, Amber pleaded guilty to two felony counts of domestic battery and was given the relatively light sentence of two years' probation and anger-management counseling, considering she was facing the possibility of three years in prison.
But it would turn out that authorities, while searching Amber's house, had found drugs. Portwood was charged in December 2011 with felony possession of a controlled substance, as well as violating probation by not engaging in the sort of positive behavior the judge demanded of her at sentencing. After ringing in the new year in jail, she pleaded guilty in January 2012 and was again given the benefit of the doubt with a five-year suspended sentence. The judge also ordered her into rehab.
In March 2012, Amber skipped a drug test and was called back into court for a probation violation hearing, at which the judge ordered her to undergo daily drug testing for 30 days. Instead, she dropped out of rehab and in June 2012, Portwood was ordered to start serving that five-year jail sentence.
"The system failed her, and that's all I can say," Shawn Portwood told E! News around that time. "She does not deserve to be [in jail], or anything that has happened to her. She is there because of who she is."
But it was jail that seemed to finally help Amber sober up and change course.
"Right now I'm trying to figure out what I'm doing with my life. I guess I just got lost. I went to jail because I had an addiction to opiates. You live and you learn and that's real," she wrote in a letter from jail that was read during a Teen Mom reunion special that aired in September 2012. "It was time for me to stop partying and realize that even though I'm 21, I'm not a normal 21-year-old—I'm a mother. Which means I have to grow up quicker and start acting like a mother."
She and Gary were understandably fairly estranged by then, but their relationship was taking a back burner to everything else Amber needed to figure out.
"My No. 1 priority right now in life is dedicating my life to being sober, to being a sober person," her letter continued. "And to show my daughter that people make mistakes but you can always come back. If Leah learns anything from me she should see how becoming a teen mom can change you. How everything is postponed."
But actions would speak louder than words. Portwood earned her GED while behind bars, participated in a substance abuse program and ended up being released early on Nov. 4, 2013, thanks to credits earned for good behavior.
Talking to E! News later about her time in jail, she said that "a lot of people knew who I was and I would get women yelling across the yard some crazy things at me. But I would say after five to six months, everything seemed normal...You just get used to it and you just learn to live in there. You want to do your time and you want to get out."
"Every time you see me on that show [Teen Mom, including when she attacked Gary], I am high," Portwood confessed on Dr. Phil the following month. She said that fentanyl, a potent opioid that's been connected to an uptick in overdoses, was her drug of choice.
"I'm not going to give anyone any ideas, but let's just say you can, it doesn't show up unless you send it to a lab," she told Dr. Phil McGraw. "It's patches. It's really dangerous. I opened up the patch and I would eat the patch. It's like a three-day patch. It's very dangerous, and I, um, I was using that the whole time I was in there. With a friend, or whatever she was."
Fast-forward to this year and Amber has talked about being on medication to manage bipolar disorder and borderline personal disorder. "When I got out of prison, I was sober from everything and I tried to do it myself for probably about two years," she told Fox News in April. "And I didn't take any medication… Now I do have to take pills for the rest of my life… We started very low, the medication… I'm still on a very low dose of medication, and I'm very proud to say that."
Meanwhile, as seen on Teen Mom, after her release Amber and Gary set about trying to figure out a custody arrangement and for awhile it seemed as if they could possibly get back together, though Shirley had a new girlfriend. Amber eventually met Matt Baier, a single dad in his 40s who had also struggled with addiction to painkillers, on Twitter. He proposed in 2015.
"My life now with my new fiancé is amazing and our relationship is completely different than what mine and Gary's was," Portwood told E! News after getting engaged. "There's not really fighting or anything like that. It's not perfect, but we're so happy together. I never thought I could find another man that could make me feel love again, honestly. I feel more love for him than I ever have for anybody."
At the time, she planned on her wedding being within the year.
"I think I've changed a lot. It's hard to think about the past because I can't remember half of it," she also told us. "Now, [I'm] living a sober life and trying to do good things. I'm trying to be normal."
In addition to continuing on with the obligations associated with Teen Mom O.G. stardom, Amber also started an online clothing store, Be Forever Haute. But it hasn't been happily ever after for her and Matt.
"I hope people will see me as not the guy in the tabloids, but the person in the actual book," Baier told Fox News last month, talking about his new memoir, You Have No F--king Idea: The Naked Truth About My Life. "Like a human being. The reason I did it was because I wanted people to understand that just because something is in print doesn't make it true."
Portwood had declared in December that she was leaving Teen Mom after being treated unfairly (and physically grappling with franchise returnee Farrah)—but she returned for the show's seventh season, which is currently unfolding.
And Amber fans continue to have their suspicions about Matt's true intentions, with one leaving this comment on Portwood's Instagram in reaction to this week's episode, in which he badmouthed her to a producer:
"Amber honey, not a hater. The opposite here. A concerned viewer who admires how far you've come and continue to go In life. So many things don't sit well with me and many other viewers but what baffles me is how he can name call you and disrespect women openly and then be completely fake to you in front of camera. After he called you a psycho he told the production lady that he would fake it from here on out and went over to you, told you he loved you and asked you for a kiss. I think your gut feelings against marrying him yet resonate with a lot of people who truly care about you for good reasons despite being limited to viewing only what MTV shows us. It shouldn't take so much convincing someone you're truly a good person if you really are one. Crossing my fingers you get to read this message and take something positive from it. Hugs, beautiful lady."
After Amber refused to elope with him in Vegas, saying she'd never tie the knot without Leah being there to watch, Matt is seen telling the producer, "I will not marry her. I will not marry her now, ever. I will make that statement. She wants to marry her brother. That's who she wants to marry. F--k her, she just humiliated me on TV. I'm done. Done!" Right after, he turns to Amber and asks her for a kiss, saying he loves her.
So no wonder Portwood is on the fence about the whole sex tape thing.
That's right, we're at the sex tape portion of Amber's journey.
"It's in consideration. I still have not made up my mind," Amber just told E! News about the offer she and Baier have from Vivid Entertainment to star in their own sex tape. "I am not strapped for cash. I have a nice house, a nice life. I have everything I need. But I'm a business person." (Vivid distributed Farrah Abraham's sex tape with porn star James Deen. Farrah gave her 2 cents on the subject to Us Weekly: "They hope to follow in footsteps of mine, the envy of them wanting to be me never fails. I doubt doing a sex tape at 26 is the right direction. It's sad how hard Amber tries to be me.")
Portwood says, "Right now I'm weighing the pros and cons. I've called most of my family and they told me they love me no matter what."
Amber's family has certainly had countless opportunities to exercise unconditional love. There's no reason to think this business decision would lead to any different outcome.
As for the one opinion that really matters, Portwood said she thinks Leah is just too young to be affected by it.
"Leah would not know about it until she's old enough," she told us. "She's in elementary school right now. I would hope no one would even think to tell her. It would be something I'd do when she's the right age." Baier added, "We wouldn't be doing anything illegal. It's just sex."