“Creating freedom through fashion” are the words splashed across the homepage of LuLaRoe, the multilevel marketing (MLM) and apparel company that peddles more than just colorfully patterned leggings—it also sells a lifestyle. At least, that’s how it recruited more than 80,000 “consultants,” almost all of them women, who paid thousands of dollars to become part of the company, lured by the opportunity to work from home, support their families, and still have quality time with their kids. “Join the movement,” the company said. “Be your own boss.” But as the documentary LuLaRich makes clear, the come-on more often landed women in debt. In 2016, the company generated more than $2 billion in sales; while the top 0.01 percent of its workers made over $150,000 in bonuses, more than two thirds made nothing.
But LuLaRich, available for streaming on Amazon, doesn’t just retrace familiar dangers about MLMs, a “business model” that has for decades been subject to scrutiny. It also examines what motivates women to participate in businesses that consistently fail to deliver on their promises. The company succeeded by exploiting women’s precarious economic circumstances and leveraging cultural expectations around mothering. And though currently plagued by lawsuits contending it ran a pyramid scheme, LuLaRoe is still operating today.
Much of what LuLaRoe sold to women isn’t new. Earlier iterations of MLMs—Tupperware, Amway––shaped their brand to attract homemakers as sellers (“consultants”) by promoting the role as flexible and part-time. But LuLaRoe and other new MLMs have updated this message with tropes of the “girl boss,” casting employment opportunities as “part-time work for full-time pay” that empower women to become entrepreneurs while still fulfilling traditional domestic responsibilities. Mark Stidham and DeAnne Brady, the Latter-day Saint couple behind LuLaRoe, positioned it as a “family organization,” different from corporate organizations in its embrace of family values, and distinct from unpaid domestic labor in that it could be an income source. As Sophie Gilbert observed in the Atlantic last September, LuLaRoe exploited a “structural societal failure” by claiming to have the solution for mothers struggling with work-life balance. LuLaRoe encourages women to assume responsibility for achieving this balance by appealing to ubiquitous American cultural ideals of self-reliance and rugged individualism. It does nothing to acknowledge the structural societal issues that put women in such a position in the first place.
LuLaRoe’s message clearly resonated: the consultants featured in LuLaRich explain how their own struggles balancing parenthood and professional careers led them to the company. One, Courtney Harwood, had been working in “corporate America” but worried that she was missing milestones as her kids grew up. She could not afford not to work, so she joined LuLaRoe hoping that “I could make what I was making––if not more––working less and spending more time with them.” Other consultants, like Ashleigh Lautaha, were stay-at-home mothers who wanted to find paid work but either could not afford or did not want to give up their childcare responsibilities. Lautaha explains that it “really resonated” with her that LuLaRoe would allow her to continue to “be a mom” and change the financial future for her family. Another, Roberta Blevins, hoped to achieve “the dream” to “be at home with my kids and make money.”
While the structure of MLMs may suggest the possibility of balancing stay-at-home parenthood with professional life, they are not profitable for most women who join. LuLaRoe claimed that selling inventory at “pop-up” events hosted in women’s own homes would earn them full-time income. Lautaha recalls that women were attracted to LuLaRoe because of the “energy” and social environment at pop-ups—seeing women similar to themselves making money from home by leveraging their personal networks. For Lautaha, pop-ups were more important for networking than they were for sales; she could recruit a new retailer, which earned her more money in bonus checks than she could make selling the products themselves. Though pop-ups seemed to be selling leggings, they were actually selling the MLM myth of social and financial empowerment.