How did a leggings company that began in a family home ascend to billion-dollar growth, then burn out as fast as it started?
That’s the story a new Amazon docuseries, “LuLaRich,” tells about LuLaRoe, the multilevel marketing (MLM) company known for its “buttery-soft” printed leggings. LuLaRoe recruited tens of thousands of women, many of them moms, to proselytize their mission of “blessing lives” and market a “boss babe” lifestyle. It was founded by a married couple, DeAnne and Mark Stidham, in 2012.
“(LuLaRoe) was tailored to and sold to a lot of women who are stay-at-home mothers (which is) a very isolating experience in this country, unfortunately,” said Julia Willoughby Nason, who co-directed the series with Jenner Furst. “People are so attracted to joining the company because they get to have friends, they get to have a community, and at the same time, they can have autonomy and make an income.”
LuLaRoe’s prints were each a limited run and distributed to salespeople at random, causing a demand for rare and popular designs. Credit: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
But after growing at an unfathomable pace — from $70 million in retail sales at the end of 2015 to $1.3 billion just over a year later — there was a well-publicized exodus of consultants. The company was dogged by reports of declining quality, smelly leggings and bizarre prints that were phallic or yonic in nature.
The MLM structure of LuLaRoe came under fire, as well — new recruits had to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 for their “start-up” package to sell leggings, and many had trouble selling them, while others ended up declaring bankruptcy, according to “LuLaRich.” Meanwhile, established consultants said they made hefty bonuses for bringing in newbies. (One of the top consultants made $51,000 off of recruitment in a single month, she said in the series.)
A ‘seductive’ offering
In addition to interviewing a number of former LuLaRoe employees, the directors sat down with the Stidhams, who were eager to share their side of the story. They spoke at length about their childhoods, their Mormon faith, and the entrepreneurial spirit they were raised with, highlighting DeAnne’s history flipping dresses from swap meets for thousands of dollars. During the series, the pair maintain that their business is not a pyramid scheme, that LuLaRoe consultants always made money primarily off of selling the products, and that there have never been significant issues with the quality of their products.
Top LuLaRoe consultants said they made tens of thousands of dollars each month in recruitment bonuses. Credit: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
“We did not have a huge problem with wet leggings. We didn’t have a huge problem with damaged leggings and products,” Mark said in “LuLaRich.” “We had a huge social media problem. And we had a lot of noise over very little actual issue(s).”
They also refute some of the more unsettling claims about the pressurized culture of the company — including that some women were selling their breast milk to pay for the start-up fee (“udderly ridiculous,” Mark said with a laugh) and others were encouraged to get gastric sleeve surgeries in Tijuana to lose weight. (DeAnne said she only offered the information when asked.)
Ultimately, the series is a candid and often surreal look at what Willoughby Nason called the “seduction” of the company, the husband and wife who founded it, and the variables that made LuLaRoe a phenomenon of this particular decade, like the advent of new social media features such as Facebook Live.
“The cult of personality that’s fed through social media is so emblematic of how this company grew astronomically,” Willoughby Nason said.
Furst agreed, saying that social media and MLMs are “made for each other.”
“Prior to that, you know, these MLMs needed to go door to door and you had to have a human connection with either your Tupperware or your makeup or…Herbalife,” he explained. “I think that with social media, the doors are wide open all day.”
Add to Queue: MLM mania
The first season of “The Dream” podcast explored the uneasy world of multilevel marketing companies, speaking with the people who participated about the vision they were sold and the reality that followed.
Last year’s HBO docuseries on NXIVM delved into the inner workings of a MLM company where the marketing of personal and professional development seminars belied the dangerous cult that formed in its innermost circle.
This book by Scott Wapner detailed the battles between Wall Street investors Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman and Herbalife, the MLM company at the center of their fight.
John Oliver takes on MLMs with his typical disarming style, examining companies including Mary Kay, Rodan + Fields and Nu Skin to ask whether “they seem a bit pyramid shaped.”
Kirsten Dunst stars in this (sadly canceled) dark comedy about a woman, Krystal Stubbs, who leaves her job as a water park staffer in the 1990s to move up the ranks of the fictional MLM Founders American Merchandise.
Top image: DeAnne and Mark Stidham in “LuLaRich”