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Growing Up MLM: LuLaRich, The Sticky Ideology Of MLMs, and Reflections on Being the Child of a Mary Kay Recruit

by Alison Lanier

My first “job” ever was, age eight, putting Mary Kay labels on products, reboxing them, and organizing them in the first of the three rooms in my childhood home that Mary Kay would eventually take over. Pictures of Mary Kay Ash, the company founder, were framed like saints around our strictly Jewish house. Any female-presenting restaurant server with good skin inevitably walked away from our family’s table with a Mary Kay business card and a sales pitch. My mother reached the first reward tier, then the next, earned a pink Cadillac, and kept on climbing. So when LuLaRich’s “empowerment” messaging began to parade across my screen last week, I knew I was seeing nothing new.

As soon as the opening scene of LuLaRich begins to roll, there is instant discomfort. DeAnne and Mark Stidham, the couple at the heart of legally besieged legging conglomerate LuLaRoe, sit posed for an interview as DeAnne fusses ostentatiously with the tassels of an ostentatiously ugly carpet. DeAnne Stidham exudes a kind of polyester, hyperbolic femininity I associate with Bianca del Rio on her way to a PTA meeting. Mark gives off the kind of anti-analytic, anti-critical vibe of an aging man who likely falls asleep with Atlas Shrugged.

In total, they put the viewer on edge in a similar way as the Pences: a stage couple so obviously rehearsed and unreflective that they live in a version of reality all their own. They’re also deeply, upsettingly familiar to me: I grew up surrounded by a very similar women-focused MLM, composed of people who genuinely believed—and still believe—that what they’re selling is opportunity, not devastation.

What is LuLaRoe? For those out there who weren’t aggressively petitioned by high-school nonfriends to sign up via Facebook, here’s a quick rundown: LuLaRoe is a multi-level marketing company in which women—primarily white housewives—could theoretically earn a full-time salary working part-time selling LuLaRoe leggings out of their mostly suburban homes. After an initial buy-in cost totaling around $5000 or upward, LuLaRoe “consultants” would receive leggings to sell as well as never-ending encouragement to recruit more women to the company, in order to collect their
onboarding payment. Those payments flooding into LuLaRoe headquarters by the millions.

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Cue the private jets, corporate luxuries, a private Katy Perry concert, massive cruises, and self-lionizing status for DeAnne and Mark Stidham. The Stidhams staffed the growing company with their own expansive family, in an ethically sticky move that even this in-depth documentary doesn’t have time to examine fully. There’s just too much else going wrong. Unsellable moldy product, toxic control over the consultants’ appearances (including encouraging weight-loss surgeries), stolen artwork, and a suffocating insistence on continual positivity only begins to scrape the top of the iceberg.

The thing about multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes is, as MLM expert Robert FitzPatrick and journalist Jill Filipovic explain over the course of the four-part series, that they don’t work. In order for people at the top to make money, the system necessitates that those people recruit more consultants, who recruit more consultants, who recruit…In short, the profits are all flowing upward, while the people at the bottom of the pyramid are feeding the system with their buy-in expenses and relying on their own recruits to bolster them in turn.

“People at the bottom cannot possibly duplicate the number at the top,” says FitzPatrick. “It doesn’t add up. It cannot be done.”

The word cult gets thrown around a lot in LuLaRich, and not without provocation. From tight control over social media behavior and physical appearance to deference to the “man of the house,” the legging company quickly begins to resemble a domineering cult-like structure that worships at the feet of positivity, profits, and femininity. The roots of LuLaRoe—like Avon, Mary Kay, Herbalife, Amway, and many others—are deeply seated in the cult of domesticity. That is, the set of idealized standards for middle- and upper-class women crafted in the West during the end of the 19th century: to be a present and productive mother, to be gentle and caring, to be a support to their husbands. Soft, ambitionless, and malleable, the women imagined by the cult of domesticity were the perfect angels of the home, defined by meekness, industriousness, and positivity. MLMs make space for these women to have so-called ambition—but not ambition to reach beyond the home and never to put career before the duties of family and homemaking. LuLaRoe retailers were explicitly recommended to read Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s 2003 book The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands—a book that one consultant says encouraging “not having contrary feelings” to her husband. LuLaRoe’s three magic As concerning husbands were to “appreciate, accept, and admire” while not having “better ideas” and not “mothering him.” Phrases like “girlboss” and “#BOSSBABE” are everywhere in a trendy rather than a truly feminist message.

DeAnne describes how she is inspired by her mother, who campaigned for women to have women’s rights, rather than equal rights. DeAnne’s mother, Maurine Startup, coauthored a book with her husband, The Secret Power of Femininity. Choice tidbits from The Secret Power include “Stand before a mirror in the privacy of your room and say to yourself, I’m just a helpless woman at the mercy of you big, strong men. Stamp your feet daintily, saucily, and shake your curls, as much as to say, I am furious but what can a little girl like me do with a big strong man like you?” DeAnne taught from the book in LuLaRoe trainings.

LuLaRoe mingles the cult of domesticity’s “angel” with the capitalistic work ethic ofself-driven self-improvement and financial success—two seemingly disparate ideologies that nevertheless come together comfortably in MLM thinking to produce a dream of freedom through both domestic and economic labor. The harder you push yourself, and the bigger your smile while you do so, defines your self worth in LuLa-World.

When Antonio Gramsci wrote that the Marxist revolution against capitalism hadn’t come about because the populace had internalized capitalistic values to a hopeless degree, LuLaRoe is exactly the shit he was talking about. Here there are echoes of the capitalistic values of out-and-out cults like NXIVM, where an all-consuming push toward a particular brand of personal success becomes a system for abuse and coercion. If you’re not selling product, Mark lectures via one of his and DeAnne’s trademark too-close-to-the-camera FaceTime streams, it’s not because the product is stale. (Spoilers: the product was extremely stale, and also smelly from being stored outdoors. As one consultant recalls, one delivery made her whole house smell like mold.) It’s because, Mark half-shouts, you’re stale.

So, when faced with the imploding and unreliable reality of LuLaRoe—poor quality product, neighborhoods overcrowded with consultants, and wildly fluctuating policies on whether or not you could return clothes which posed massive risks for consultants managing their inventory—what could the consultants do? Continue clinging onto a company barreling toward overexpansion and collapse or jump ship with as little financial destruction as possible? For some of the upper-level sellers, like Courtney Harwood, getting out of LuLaRoe meant financial ruin from her investment in unsellable inventory, while the potential $100,000 LuLaRoe owes her in returns hangs over her head as yet another impossible dream as she struggles to afford food.

The recruiting messaging of LuLaRoe echo almost exactly the enticements offered to my mother by Mary Kay. When I was about eight, a neighbor and good friend recruited my mother to the Mary Kay business: a so-called women empowerment movement that allowed women to buy into a business scheme, in which they sold products, hosted events, and built out their customer units with new recruits who then bought into the process, in a pyramid structure that has raised many, many eyebrows over the years.

Mary Kay came into our house with a host of life-style advice, inspirational magnets on the family fridge (pinks isn’t a color, it’s an attitude), stadium-style “training” conventions (Dallas, yearly), and rigid gender norms that stuck out in jarring moments. I came home from college to help out with one of my mom’s biggest sales event of the year, her holiday open houses—massive weekend-long affairs with Whole Foods catering and labeled cheeses—dressed professionally in a button-up, blazer, and slacks. Except that I was then told I couldn’t wear slacks because I was a female and there were company rules. As a student of gender studies and media, that sent my eyebrows rising right up into my hairline. But my mom was panicking and overwhelmed—any conversation about my incredulity would have been, to say the least, unproductive—so I found a skirt and I wore it.

The Mary Kay open house still happens every year, and two rooms of my parents’ new house are devoted to stockpiling and displaying product. What’s more mysterious to me is not how my mother continues to believe in the company—she is, after all, not at the bottom of the pyramid—but where all those many, many recruits over the years have ended up. I have a distinct memory of sitting in an apartment living room with a recruit’s daughter—we were both about ten—and drumming beats on VHS boxes to pass the time as my mom used her Rosetta Stone Portuguese to onboard her mom. My mom said I’d see the recruit’s daughter a lot. We could start a Mary Kay kids’ club! I could help run it! As it was, I never saw that girl again, and I think it would be overly optimistic to think that her mother made back the inventory buy-in cost paid to Mary Kay that afternoon.

There are piles of promises that go along with these MLM endeavors. Feel better, gain independence, find security. The thing that makes these appeals so effective, though, is that the recruit sees it in action. They’re approached by a woman they know—maybe a neighbor, a classmate, a close friend—who is happily riding the wave of success this incredible business opportunity afforded her. The recruit sees a woman she knows and trusts attaining the kind of financial comfort and personal wellbeing that the company advertises: living proof, in short, that you will get what you sign up for. I know, because for the last two decades I’ve watched my mother become embroiled in a very similar company.

The purpose of LuLaRich’s emergence now is not just as a fascinating true crime story. It is the fact that the Stidhams’ destructive empire, and many companies similar to theirs, are still in operation. The teeth-grinding conclusion of the series betrays just how easy it is for large corporations like LuLaRoe to slip around already slippery business laws or to simply settle accusations offstage, a deeply unsatisfying ending to a mini-series that contains so much pain.

These companies, as the deep pain permeating LuLaRich demonstrates, operate on a betrayal of trust. Recruits trust the women who onboard them. They trust in the example of their seeming happiness and success—public and social media demonstrations of which are very much encouraged—and by extension they trust what the company tells them: that LuLaRoe’s designs are original (they’re not, as the documentary expands on) or that Mary Kay doesn’t test on animals (they do). At the root of all this pain is good faith effort in the service of a white, middle-class ideology that belongs to the starched skirts of Mad Men more than it does 2021. But by the end of LuLaRich, it becomes increasingly obvious that the underlying ideology of the domestic, ever-positive businesswoman hasn’t even been dented. It emerges intact out of the rubble of thousands of women’s lives.

-Alison Lanier


Photos: Screenshots From YouTube 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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