Amazon’s 'LuLaRich' proves MLMs thrive because of how badly our society fails mothers

The dirtiest look I've ever received was during a friend's party for Partylite Candles about a decade ago, when, after a mimosa or two, I asked the consultant if she had any "pyramid-shaped candles." If looks could kill, I'd be six feet under.

I imagine many former LuLaRoe retailers know what it's like to feel the fiery contempt from those still enmeshed within the community, thanks to what I've seen in the new docuseries that has everyone talking: LuLaRich on Amazon.

The ingredients of 'LuLaRich' make the perfect recipe for compelling television: toxic "girl boss" culture, fraud, exploitation, religion, modern American motherhood, social media, diet culture and fast cash.

Multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) can be found almost anywhere across the globe, but they're an American institution thanks to the fact that it's an American custom to leave mothers without support—especially marginalized mothers. They are a product-based businesses that recruit unsalaried salespeople in an endless cycle to establish "uplines" and "downlines." A study on MLMs indicates that a majority of these salespeople experience financial loss, and rather than focusing on the product they're selling, consultants are required to constantly and aggressively recruit new members.

It's no wonder MLMs like LuLaRoe, Herbalife, Young Living, Avon and countless others thrive. American mothers who can't afford childcare, who are reliant on their husband's income, who want to stay at home with their kids but have something for themselves, too, are the perfect target for MLM recruitment.

LuLaRich - Official Trailer | Prime Video

LuLaRoe founder DeAnne Stidham portrays herself as a champion of stay-at-home and working moms, and that credo is something she drills into every aspect of recruitment. Her own story as a struggling mother (of a blended family including 14 children with husband and business partner Mark) whose multi-million dollar clothing business began by simply by making maxi skirts for her daughter's friends, resonates with many. It's a captivating story, especially for fellow struggling mothers who want what she has and sign on as LuLaRoe recruits.

'LuLaRich' shows the high-stakes MLM recruitment process

In LuLaRich, we get a glimpse into just how intense recruitment practices can be in these companies—because it's not the product itself that makes MLMs so profitable. Each recruit must pay a fee of $5,000-10,000 for their "startup kit," which consists of nearly 250 pieces of clothing they must sell in addition to buying monthly items in order to be eligble for bonuses. Retailers are also responsible for covering the cost of clothing racks, hangers, and clothing storage out of pocket.

Because the market became oversaturated with consultants (nearly 80,000 in 2017 at the height of the company's popularity), it grew increasingly difficult to sell clothing items. While those near the top of the LuLaRoe pyramid (trainers and mentors) received hefty bonuses, Vox reports that the average monthly bonus for a LuLaRoe consultant was about $92.

That's not even enough money to make a single car payment or a monthly electric bill for most people. Many former LuLaRoe retailers went into debt without ever breaking even, let alone making a proft.

So why do these shady business practices continue to thrive in the U.S.? Because of the idyllic lifestyle they're selling, not the product itself: You don't need a village to help you raise your kids—you can do it yourself. You just have to spend a few days a week selling leggings (or essential oils, or makeup, or diet shakes) and you can spend all the time you want with your family.

How MLMs target mothers

Part of the dream LuLaRoe sells to its recruits is the American Dream: You, too, can easily become an wealthy entrepreneur without having to sacrifice your family! It's part-time work with full-time pay, or so they have you believe.

You just have to pay an exorbitant sum of money to join the company, dedicate all of your waking hours to selling leggings and tunics, encourage your husband to quit his job so the whole family can be reliant on one company, neglect the needs of your children and yourself, and, oh yeah, shell out as much money as possible in order to make money.

For LuLaRich producer Cori Shepherd Stern, the motivation to pull the curtain behind LuLaRoe is personal. Her mom was a single mom trying to make ends meet, and borrowed money to purchase a makeup kit from a popular MLM. She hoped to make thousands of dollars per month to provide for her children—like she was promised. When that didn't happen, she took more than just a financial hit.

"She took a big hit to her self-esteem because of that, like a life-changing hit," Shepherd Stern tells Motherly. "She came away from that experience with, like, this pink suitcase of shame that was in her closet for years. She took a hit to her idea of herself as a capable business person."

The slippery slope of MLM 'success'

Getting caught up in MLM culture likely feels empowering in the beginning. You're surrounded by other moms who just want to earn a living while staying home with their kids. And because our society makes it difficult for women to work—childcare is expensive, moms often carry the burden of having to leave work for family-related issues like sick kids, etc.—it's easy to see why moms would get sucked into the promises of predatory companies like LuLaRoe.

Especially with the added convenience of hosting online parties through Facebook. Hosts don't have to pay for snacks and drinks, everyone they know is online, and you can reach a much bigger audience when geography isn't an issue.

And when you fail, well, that's not the company's fault. They give you all the tools you could possibly need to become rich beyond your wildest dreams. If you fall short, that's on you. Or so Mark and DeAnne Stidham will gaslight you into believing.

The documentary paints a different picture, though. Many of LuLaRoe's retailers describe non-stop working hours and endless hustling to sell clothes and expand their own downlines. Two women in the docuseries say their dedication to the company ruined their marriages and impeded their ability to be present with their children. Sheperd Stern tells the story of one former LuLaRoe retailer who was selling her leggings out of her baby's stoller with a sign that read, "LuLaRoe Leggings Ask Me About Them."

In LuLaRich, some mothers say they were encouraged to do anything to make enough money for their initial startup kit—like selling their breastmilk online.

"These are hard-working women, and I think that was really a big piece of our motivation," she says. "I hope we've blown up the idea that [failure] is on them, when it's on the system."

LuLaRoe, LDS, and the myth of 'female empowerment'

It's not uncommon for MLMs to have ties to Christianity. Both DeAnne and Mark Stidham practice Latter-day Saint (LDS) Mormonism, and use their faith as a tenet of their business. They encourage women to remain submissive to their husbands, but to manipulate them by weaponizing sex and femininity to get whatever they need (money) to remain a part of LuLaRoe.

In the series, LuLaRoe is presented as the ideal way for a woman to find "empowerment"—it allows you to work without threatening the patriarchy. And because in many faiths, women aren't able to achieve institutional power, those who are part of more traditional households and faiths could see an MLM opportunity as a win-win.

In one LuLaRich scene, we see Mark enthusiastically citing passages from the Book of Mormon at a companywide convention. He compares his own legal troubles (in 2017, LuLaRoe was the defendent in a class-action lawsuit that accused the company of operating as a pyramid scheme) to the persecution of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith.

Alternately, DeAnne tries to downplay her own power in the docuseries ("Am I the CEO? So they tell me," she says during clips from her legal deposition) in order to portray herself as the ultimate wife and homemaker. She also encourages the LuLaRoe community to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards—so much so that she pressures her staff to get gastric sleeve surgery in Tijuana in order to lose weight.

Where is the empowerment in that?

MLMs prosper because of the state of American motherhood (and capitalism)

The U.S. is the only industrialized country without paid maternity leave mandate. Forcing mothers back into the workforce before they're physically and emotionally ready impacts both maternal and child health. Access to paid leave in other countries, like Norway, has shown to lower maternal stress during pregnancy, increase breastfeeding duration, improve postpartum physical and mental health, and, of course, strengthens the parent-child bond.

According to Motherly's 2021 State of Motherhood survey, 92% of mothers feel society doesn't do a good job of understanding or supporting motherhood. This is a sentiment that has grown in strength every year we've conducted this survey—from 74% in 2018, 85% in 2019, 89% in 2020, to this year's high.

LuLaRich co-producer Blye Faust explains how the innate desire to be there for your children coupled with financial stress and the desire to have something for yourself provides the perfect trifecta for companies like LuLaRoe.

"You always want more time with your kids, but at the same time you want to be able to earn an income, you want to be able to pursue your passion, whatever the reasons you might be seeking work outside the house—you want that work/life balance," Faust says. "We all struggle to find that balance. The hardest thing is that these women were promised part-time work for full-time pay, which is just not true."

The Stidhams disguise their greed under the umbrella of "female empowerment." They do not appear to accept culpability for the labor they've exploited to get to where they are—the labor of the overwhelmingly white, suburban consultants, yes. But also the labor of those in the production line. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, textile manufacturing jobs are comprised of 12% Black workers, 9% Asian workers, and 23% Hispanic workers. Over 50% of all textile manufacturing workers are women.

[The documentary doesn't shed much light on the manufacturing aspect of LuLaRoe other than showing B-roll footage of the jam-packed factory, but it's important to remember that the lower someone is on the company ladder, the less likely they are to speak up out of fear for their job.]

All of this is, without question, the opposite of female empowerment. After getting the boot from LuLaRoe, many former consultants banded together in a Facebook group: LuLaRoe Defectives.

"The ironic thing is that they came together to empower themselves through these networks," Shepherd Stern points out.

By coming together and sharing their stories and financial stresses, that group is where many of these women found the empowerment they'd been seeking.

And that's how LuLaRich producers found these women. The rest is history.

Though we can only speculate that an improved state of motherhood in the U.S. would poke a hole in the MLM empire, it's impossible to argue that a lack of paid leave and a lack of affordable healthcare and childcare play an enormous role in why moms are drawn to these companies.

Blye agrees. "I would imagine if there were alternatives to that promise, however that support came, whether it's through the federal government or state governments or legislation—whatever it may be, one would think fewer people would be susceptible to fall for [MLMs]."

Though docuseries like LuLaRich and podcasts like The Dream (season one does an excellent deep-dive into MLMs in the U.S.) are utterly compelling, women are still signing up for these companies in droves. Until the U.S. aligns with other countries that prioritize the health and well-being of mothers, the exploitation will, unfortunately, continue.

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