Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Storytellers make great salespeople. To sell a product, any product, you have to paint a picture in a person’s mind about why they need what you are selling. Storytelling in sales, unlike storytelling for other purposes (such as writing a novel) however, is tainted with the motivation of personal benefit. Behind every sales pitch is the desire to first persuade and then profit off the sales “mark.” The more the salesperson has to profit, the bigger the story is going to need to be to persuade the mark to buy the product. If your product is illegitimate, you’re going to have to paint a virtual fantasy of what you are offering to close your sale.
LuLaRoe is a company that had to paint a very big fantasy, and the new Amazon Prime documentary LuLaRich tells the story of why—and how. How a multi-level marketing clothing company, started by DeAnne and Mark Stidham in 2012, in just a few years saw profits shoot sky high, registering in the billions of dollars. How they attracted tens of thousands of sellers to sign on, despite buy-in costs in the $5,000 range (per seller), how they became known for throwing lavish parties and cruises, and how they revolutionized the way direct sales are handled by shifting the focus to social media. LuLaRich covers how the company got started, why anyone was ever interested in the skirts and leggings DeAnne had to offer in the first place, the allure and meteoric rise of the brand, and where they are now—after multiple lawsuits.
Carefully crafted fantasies start with truths. In the case of LuLaRoe and many other MLMs that target stay-at-home moms, the truths at the heart of the fantasy are that women in America today often feel unfulfilled, lonely, isolated, and frustrated. LuLaRoe targets older, married Millennial women in particular who are college educated and who suffered the bad end of a recession that left many of them jobless and struggling. In a world that still values men’s work over women’s work, if someone has to stay home with the kids, it’s going to be Mom so Dad can pay the bills—but these moms conversely want to spend time with their children, especially as the online world tells them they have to be super-moms. Social media compounds these vulnerabilities, and many modern women stuck at home with four-year college degrees feel like they have much more to offer their household economy than diaper changing and home-cooked meals. But most households demand two incomes to stay afloat, and childcare—which is required to have two spouses working outside the house at the same time—is often cost-prohibitive. And many women (and men!) do want to be home with their kids as much as possible.
So where do parents, especially women, turn when they feel torn between the desire and need to stay home and the desire and need to work? Enter the savior fantasy of the multi-level marketing company.
MLMs by nature are exceptionally alluring, and not just because they offer a seeming solution to this work-frustration problem. Every MLM has products to sell. In the case of LuLaRoe, it was first skirts and then most famously leggings. Individual distributors buy these products wholesale to mark them up and sell them. Scarcity plays an important role in these businesses because of the direct-sale nature of the items; you can only get LuLaRoe leggings from a LuLaRoe distributor, so find a seller and get them fast! A pyramid structure is also important to the LuLaRoe story (although the founders deny it). It forms as distributors are encouraged to sign up more sellers to be in their “downline” (and so forth and so on), as they and everyone else in their “upline” receive a percentage of all downline sales and bonuses based on the number of people in their downline. They are often called “pyramid schemes” because they are shaped like a pyramid, with one or a few people at the top who make nearly all the actual money and tiers of people feeding down from them.
This is the basic sales structure of all MLMs, and it’s appealing because of the very thing that also makes it unworkable. When you buy in to be a seller/distributor for an MLM, you are told that you need to recruit people to your downline—that eventually you will make enough commission off your downline’s sales that you won’t need to really work (sell product) anymore. But this is a structure that is inherently unethical because it’s mathematically impossible for anyone other than the few at the top—those who most likely got in early—to make a profit, especially once an MLM hits widespread popularity and cultural saturation like LuLaRoe did. Thus, it is also a structure that leads to questions of legality: Where does the money actually come from? How do people get paid? Are profits and bonuses coming from actual product sales, or from downline recruitments who buy-in and keep the dollars in motion? MLMs that make the majority of their money off product sales are legal; those that make the majority of their money off their own employees are not, and many (like LuLaRoe) have had to shift their bonus and pay structures around in response to lawsuits stemming from these issues.
Most people who sign up for an MLM aren’t thinking about these sticky financial realities, though, because the MLM works hard to center a message of prosperity, opportunity, and success. All MLMs promise some degree of “financial freedom” from the grind of the 9–5. LuLaRoe came on the scene and offered women a chance to free themselves and their families from… what exactly? It’s never made perfectly clear in LuLaRich. It’s just freedom! Sell these leggings and be free! “Creating Freedom Through Fashion,” LuLaRoe’s website boasts.
If there was an MLM creed, this would be it: Financial freedom is Freedom. If you’re rich, you’re free; you can do whatever you want. “We are creating confidence and security,” DeAnne says in LuLaRich. That is a big claim to make about a company that sells clothes. But they don’t really sell clothes, do they? They sell a fantasy; they sell the idea that you can be free, confident, and secure. And you can achieve this by selling leggings.
The bait of the MLM fantasy is offering people a glimpse of financial independence, which is good. It starts with the ennoblement of work. And that is also good—work is good! But legitimate work doesn’t ask you to pay for the chance to work. And nobody is actually financially free until they are wealthy, and if we stop and think about what it means to gain the amount of wealth it takes to be free to do whatever you want, there are very few legal, legitimate, and—more importantly—ethical ways to end up like that. Financial freedom is not true freedom. It’s not what the Bible means by freedom, and Jesus wasn’t joking when he said that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. We should take a serious pause at any sort of fantasy that promises us worldly wealth—especially if the promise comes with a price tag.
LuLaRoe was (and still is) especially popular in white female Evangelical spaces, and speaking as a white woman in those spaces, I remember there was a period of time where it felt like an act of rebellion to not purchase, wear, or attend anything LuLaRoe. But I had previous experience with MLMs—experience that made me immediately question what exactly was being sold, and promised, by LuLaRoe. I also knew that MLMs tended to commingle business talk with Christian-lite and spiritual-ese, another reason why they were so popular in white (again, predominantly female) Christian spaces.
The spiritual language of MLMs is part of the grift, which makes MLMs like LuLaRoe so much more than businesses—and it’s part of what also makes them so dangerous. They offer—often promise—insta-community, insta-success, insta-friendship, insta-financial freedom, insta-spiritual fulfillment, insta-you-name-it. You can sign up to be part of something bigger than yourself where there is instant acceptance and the tenants of the organization promise to align with your existing morals and belief system. It’s everything you need and more. And then you might also find that your upline loves Jesus just like you, and you get to start a Bible study with your other sellers where you can chat business and Bible simultaneously. And suddenly you don’t feel so alone. So the business becomes a stand-in for what church should be, and you feel suddenly like you belong. No questions asked.
But the questions you should be asking yourself are: Why is this business using church language? What happens to this community, to me, if I exit the business? As LuLaRich points out—and as I’ve experienced in my own life—when you leave an MLM, the cult-like nature of the business rips relationships apart in an instant, and it hurts. MLMs foster a false community that exists only in the fantasy you’ve been told to pursue.
“Oh my G—, I’m in a cult,” interviewee Roberta Blevins says in LuLaRich. She says she realized how cult-like the environment was when Mark Stidham was on stage at one of the annual bashes, and he was quoting the Book of Mormon, and she looked around and realized all the women in the room were dressed alike. Sooner or later, people involved in MLMs usually come to the awareness that what they are involved in transcends the bounds of normal business operations and activities. With an MLM, you give yourself over; you sell yourself to the business because you are the product. They make money off you and if you make any money, it’s off your downline. Thus, companies like LuLaRoe have to keep you excited and engaged with your “work environment,” with “your sisters,” with your “community.” And how do they do that? By constantly dangling that fantasy: You can have everything the people at the top have. But you can’t, and they know it.
LuLaRich speaks to the deeply held longings of so many women in America—the longings to be wives, mothers, and providers. To be more than stay-at-home caregivers, but to be people who can use their gifts to contribute to their household incomes while simultaneously not neglecting their children. MLMs like LuLaRoe say that by selling with them, women can have it all and be happy, fulfilled, and free. It’s a heady promise, and yes, it’s “too good to be true.”
Except it’s not good at all. We aren’t meant to pursue a “freedom” that comes from wealth, especially not unethically and while presenting a false image of our lives to the world. I don’t think people are stupid for signing up for LuLaRoe, or any other MLM. I have been there, done that—it’s why I have the experience to write this. I think some people are desperate; many just want to provide for their families. Only a very few want to get rich or get rich quick. I honestly don’t think many believe that companies like LuLaRoe are really going to make them rich. But I do believe that the fantasy of having it all with the same limited resources they already have is a powerful motivator in a culture that tells women (in particular) that they do have to have it all—and they have to look fabulous at the same time. Have the 2.5 kids, an Instagrammable house, a spouse, a dog, and at least a side hustle to be considered a modern woman. Don’t forget your “crew” of gal pals to prop you up when you’re blue, your PSL (pumpkin spice latte, for the uninitiated), and a rotation of fashionable outfits for every season. Be sure to splash your life across social media.
“We want to see women succeed,” DeAnne Stidham says in LuLaRich, but the documentary reveals how she and Mark built a business empire by preying on the vulnerabilities of stay-at-home moms. MLMs like LuLaRoe don’t help people succeed; most of the time they present women with a fantasy of insta-fulfillment, and then trap them in despair. In the worst scenarios, they lead to financial and emotional ruin. Being a successful woman who is also a mom, who is also managing her household, has community, and feels fulfilled in life is not a fantasy, but it’s usually going to look a lot messier than anything we see in carefully crafted social media displays—and it will not be found in the empty promises of an MLM. It’s also almost always going to take real work. Don’t let people paint a fantasy of what they think your life should be. God has something so much better for you.