Roberta Blevins initially learned about the leggings through a fellow member of a motherhood-themed Facebook community in the autumn of 2015. They were brightly patterned, buttery soft, and intriguing — clothing that was practical for running around small children, tolerant of changing bodies after delivery, and attractive enough to wear outside the house.
The lady who marketed the leggings said she purchased them wholesale from LuLaRoe and resold them for double the cost.
Blevins was taken aback. LuLaRoe offered an alluring, soothing promise: sign up to be a retailer, and you could run a successful virtual boutique out of your home while still being present for your kids.
She was struggling with the alienation of young motherhood and looking for a way to supplement her family’s income, and LuLaRoe offered an alluring, soothing promise: sign up to be a retailer, and you could run a successful virtual boutique out of your home while still being present for your kids.
She told the Guardian that LuLaRoe appeared to have “this built-in community” where she “knew I could have an instant friendship.” LuLaRoe people joined her to Facebook groups, emailed her, invited her to parties that doubled as fashion sales, and lavished her with support, as Blevins recounts in LuLaRich, a four-part Amazon docuseries about the troubled multi-level marketing business.
Blevins paid $9,000 to become a LuLaRoe consultant in March 2016 and received a starting kit of clothes to sell.
Things went well at first; she was excited about the clothes and earned money selling LuLaRoe on Facebook from her home in the San Diego suburbs. However, due to the company’s focus on hiring new “consultants” — individuals on the “downline” whose start-up expenses were passed up the ranks as “bonus checks,” Blevins soon felt the pressure of the company’s rapid expansion.
By the end of 2016, what had started as a homegrown business selling maxi skirts out of the trunk of a car by two Mormon grandmothers had grown to over $1.3 billion in sales and 60,000 consultants – and was facing lawsuits alleging that LuLaRoe founders Mark and DeAnne Stidham misled retailers and ran a pyramid scheme.
LuLaRich, directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason (makers of Hulu’s Fyre, about the spectacular meltdown of the scammy music festival), spans four episodes and examines the company’s rapid growth, which preyed on millennial, overwhelmingly white women’s sense of purposelessness, repackaged the fallacy of “having it all,” and saddled thousands in debt and broken promises while the company grew at breakneck speed.
According to Furst, the company targeted “middle America millennials who don’t have the same opportunities as their parents, who are facing a lot of different struggles, who are susceptible on one hand to the patriarchal nuclear family structure, but also to the pitch to be a girlboss, to be empowered, and to be a feminist who is selling these leggings.”
Like many of the former LuLaRoe consultants featured in the documentary, Blevins was first enticed by the prospect of operating her own company. The benefits of being a LuLaRoe retailer, not simply a member of a movement, were driven home – being a “boss babe,” “part-time work for full-time pay,” and contributing to family income without having to travel to an office.
“Take your creativity, your passion, your excitement for life, and here’s a place that’s a pure meritocracy,” Mark tells Nason and Furst in the first episode.
“They saw me, and they were like, ‘She’s bubbly, she’s energetic, she knows how to use social media, she’s an asset to moving this forward,’” Blevins said of the “love-bombing” grooming process that persuaded her to join LuLaRoe.
“I was just another walking dollar sign at that point.”
Inconsistencies started to accumulate over time. Mark would start repeating portions from the Book of Mormon when he visited “home office” in Corona, California, or when he attended business events, which were rapidly taking on the air of pop religion festivals (corporate events featured performances by Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry).
“Didn’t you say we sold leggings?” Blevins remembered his thoughts.
“It just struck me as odd.” Blevins got an order that smelled like mildew; quality was sliding, and some leggings were just ugly, with patterns that looked like anatomy around the crotch.
Blevins moved queries up the ladder now that she had many consultants under her belt, “and they would give me an answer that made sense,” she said.
“You seek answers from within the organization. You don’t seek information or get your queries addressed outside of the organization. It has a cultish feel about it.”
LuLaRich takes a bird’s eye view of what Blevins couldn’t see at the time through interviews with former and current consultants, employees, and even Mark and DeAnne themselves: the company, allegedly designed to make money not on clothing but through the unsustainable recruitment of new members, was collapsing under its own weight. LuLaRoe was patented in 2013 by Mark and DeAnne, who married in 1998 and staffed it with members of their vast extended family.
From 2015 to 2016, the business increased its revenues from $70 million to over a billion dollars in only 14 months. The earnings for individuals that joined early in the business and grew their down lines into the thousands were incredible: several in the series claim to have gotten monthly bonus cheques ranging from $20,000 to $70,000.
Meanwhile, most LuLaRoe consultants were struggling to make ends meet, having been pushed to go on debt and being stuck with products they couldn’t sell. With a surplus on the market of LuLaRoe consultants, most collapsed under the weight.
“Many people lost their marriages, their lives were in shambles, and people were selling breast milk to cover startup costs – are you kidding me?” LaShae Kimbrough Benson, who began as an administrative assistant at the company’s headquarters in 2015, told the Guardian.
“People were taking out loans and doing all sorts of things. And [Mark and DeAnne] were well aware of it.”
According to experts featured in the series, such as Robert FitzPatrick, author of Ponzinomics: The Untold Story of Multi-Level Marketing, the lopsided margins were by design of multi-level marketing companies – essentially, pyramid schemes legal under the guise of selling a product rather than membership – Legal MLMs have to have a repurchase policy, and restrict purchasing additional inventory until merchants have sold 70 percent and have at least 10 new consumers. LuLaRoe, according to Benson and several former workers, went far over the boundary.
“We always had a quota to hit,” said Benson, who ultimately worked for the “onboarding” team for new members.
The Stidhams insist that LuLaRoe, which is still in operation (though starting costs have dropped by 90% and the commission structure has changed), was never a ponzi scheme, but rather a meritocracy based on personal work and character. The couple agreed to an initial interview with the filmmakers to discuss the company’s origin story and their entrepreneurial values while maintaining a traditional family structure; however, they declined a second interview to specifically address claims made against the company in 50 lawsuits filed since 2016, as well as some of the company’s more outrageous corporate culture.
“We continue to bring greater focus to our mission of improving lives and strengthening families through the principles of entrepreneurship while continuing to educate small business owners about the opportunities found in personal responsibility and individual choice,” the company said at the end of the series.
The declaration is a “dual-edged sword of personal responsibility,” according to Furst. “That’s what the MLMs thrive on in the first place: it’s your fault if you don’t succeed.”
Over the course of 2017, Blevins felt the stigma as she started to lose confidence in the business. The last straw was joining a Facebook support group for ex-LuLaRoe consultants, where she “got every single thing I had ever complained about, every single question I had answered,” she claimed.
She wept as she went through the comments.
“There’s a process of grief that you go through when you leave an MLM,” said Blevins, who left LuLaRoe in September 2017 and now campaigns against MLMs via her own podcast. “There was a lot of excommunication, harassment, and people telling me I was crazy or saying things like, ‘You’re going to ruin your life by leaving.’”
The internal urge to remain silent and avoid “negativity” was something that plagued many women who participated in the series, according to co-director Julia Willoughby Nason. “There was just a lot of behind-the-scenes peer pressure, bullying, and blowback that these women had already experienced, and I think they were very afraid of the repercussions if they were going to have a platform like a multi-part docu-series,” she said.
LuLaRoe agreed to pay the state of Washington $4.75 million in February to resolve a consumer protection complaint filed in 2019 claiming the business ran a pyramid scheme that made “unfair and deceptive misrepresentations regarding the profitability” of being a retailer.
According to Furst, LuLaRich’s collection of first-person testimony is a “invitation, tacitly, to attorney generals across the country to do what Washington did, protect their consumers.” Meanwhile, on a website that sells “creating freedom through fashion” over a single button: “Join LuLaRoe,” the business nevertheless offers a “community of lasting love and fellowship.”