True Crime Tuesdays: LulaRich
Critique of capitalism9
Buttery, buttery leggings8
Helen Archer | On 23, Nov 2021
This four-part documentary, detailing the rise and relative demise of the billion-dollar multi-level marketing operation LuLaRoe, begins with a montage of people singing its praises. One woman says of her time there that she “almost felt like a real housewife”. It’s a direct reference to the wildly successful Bravo franchise fronted by Andy Cohen, and ironic considering that in a recent episode of the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, set in the heart of the Mormon community, cast member Jen Shah was arrested by Homeland Security for her part in an alleged pyramid scheme.
The Real Housewives lifestyle is what LuLaRoe sold to the women who signed up in their droves in the hopes of achieving the American Dream, by way of selling maxi skirts and “buttery, buttery” leggings. The Amazon Original series is directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, who were behind the documentary Fyre Fraud, a recounting of the very public disaster that saw wannabe festival-goers spend a small fortune for tickets to the Fyre Festival, only to find themselves stuck on an island with no infrastructure and no immediate way out. With LuLaRoe, we have another case of what is described here as “catastrophic growth” and, as with the organisers of the Fyre Festival, the founders overpromised and underdelivered. What separates the two is that LuLaRoe bakes this structural failure into its business model – which is to say, this was the plan all along. It is the nature of multi-level marketing, a concept that is the very essence of capitalism, whereby the few at the very top prosper at the expense of the vast majority underneath them.
LuLaRoe began as a direct sales company, set up by DeAnne Brady – who reveals here, in a you-couldn’t-make-it-up aside, that her maiden name is Startup. DeAnne explains that she began by selling printed skirts from her car boot, before meeting her husband, Mark Stidham, and upscaling the operation, eventually making a million dollars a day via their “management scheme”. They are interviewed in their bright headquarters in Corona, California – which is the first indication that, despite the documentary sporadically cutting to their depositions, they have managed to extricate themselves from their legal woes relatively unscathed.
Marketing itself as an easy way to make money from home while also having time to spend with your family, there was a cult-like aspect to LuLaRoe, exacerbated by Mark’s Mormon sermonising. Modern-day social media feminism was tapped into, as the sellers traded in #empowerment and #bossbabe catchphrases, even as the company was deeply rooted in the patriarchy and the concept of the nuclear family. The women it appealed to were overwhelmingly white, and those near the top found themselves badgered to spend big bucks to maintain the image of a successful lifestyle. One interviewee tells of the pressure she was put under to get a gastric sleeve by DeAnne’s favoured Tijuana-based surgeon.
The real money to be made was in the bonuses paid out for recruiting others. Hopefuls would pay up around $10k for their first consignments of leggings. The buzz was such that this initial outlay would be a guarantee of many more riches to come, and people were getting themselves into debt in order to sign up. Things started to go drastically wrong when unsatisfactory products were being shipped to clients – mouldy, sodden leggings which had been stored in the car park of the head office, with designs featuring random prints that accentuated the crotch area. It’s only when those higher up began to suffer – and also saw the people they themselves had recruited suffering – that the whole endeavour started to collapse in on itself.
The real joy of the documentary lies in the anecdotes and asides of the various ex-“mentors”, sellers, office staff and designers who are featured. From the revelation that two of the kids from their absurdly huge family ended up marrying each other to Mark talking over DeAnne to answer a question about sexism, the founders can’t help but tell on themselves. Meanwhile, the sheer charisma and sardonic humour of other interviewees tempers the subject. Whether it’s one of the very few Black employees talking about her dread of going on a LuLaRoe cruise – “Being on a boat with a whole bunch of white people like that … I’ll just pass. I’ll see y’all when y’all get back” – or another talking ruefully about boycotting the music of Kelly Clarkson because she performed a private concert for the company, the series is rich with significant pop-cultural detail.
One slight niggle with the documentary is that the breezy style somewhat masks the real misery endured by the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Most of the interviewees were the higher-ups, who turned large profits in their short time within the athleisure industry, even as they eventually lost both financially and personally. As with the Showtime series On Becoming a God in Central Florida, it’s all sunlight and laughter on the surface, disguising the real darkness at its core. But it’s a small criticism of a series that lifts the lid on high-profit scams and the perils of late-stage capitalism, and the type of documentary we’ll doubtless see a lot more of in coming times, as bubbles burst and American dreams turn to nightmares.
LulaRich is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.