The One Thing That Shocked Me About LulaRoe

As a Mormon mother, I'd gotten used to being sold MLMs. I didn't think I could be shocked anymore! I was wrong.

The One Thing That Shocked Me About LulaRoe

I watched LuLaRich over the weekend. I found the story compelling, but ultimately lacking substance. Kind of like an MLM sales pitch!

Any MLM doc that doesn't talk about 
1. Who starts doing the childcare once the primary caregiver starts repping 
2. The manufacturing of the product
3. How MLMs prey on communities that AREN'T white women
4. How we're all exploiting unpaid labor
is not really an MLM documentary

— Meg Conley (@_megconley) September 14, 2021

Today, I got to do a Q&A with Anne Helen Petersen on her newsletter, Culture Study. We discuss a lot of the stuff LuLaRich left out.

Here's AHP at the top of her newsletter,

"If the documentary producers had done a little more homework, they would’ve figured out that they should’ve talked to her, too. Meg Conley is doing some of the smartest and most challenging writing on intersection of women, home, money, and care. She is an exquisite writer, constantly surprising me with the turns and clarity of her prose. She also grew up in the Mormon church — and, even more specific to LuLaRoe, grew up in the same circles as its founders. (Did Meg own one of the dresses Deanne sold in her early days? What did Deanne smell like? SCROLL TO FIND OUT!)

There’s so much the documentary refuses or neglects or doesn’t even realize it should explore: the history of Mormonism, the intersection of that history with the prosperity gospel, the way Americans are taught to conceive of and compensate the work of the so-called domestic sphere…..not to mention race, what was going on with manufacturing, body image, and how Facebook and Facebook Live in particular facilitated the expansion."

We cover all of this and a little bit more. It was a real joy to sit with AHP and dig into some of my obsessions. It felt great to unleash some of my anger. But it was also a little scary. When I discuss how pyramid shaped America is, I am forced to remember that I am part of that pyramid. I am in a lot of downlines, but a lot of people are in my downlines too. I knew that Culture Study was a place that could handle my joy, anger and shame.

Just head on over here to read it, okay?

Something I love about AHP's newsletter is her ability to hold a lot of hard things at once. Nuance is a word that gets kicked around a lot and so I won't say Culture Study is nuanced. Instead, I'll say that AHP has the ability to take every story and hold every angle up to the light. One angle will cast rainbows, another shadow, but always because of her work I can see a story more clearly. After you've read our Q&A, consider subscribing to Culture Study so you can see more clearly too. Her recent piece Against Kids Sports is still bouncing around my head and heart.

And now, a few thoughts I didn't squeeze into our interview, including the one thing that really shocked me about LuLaRoe. That shock is followed by a Reading List of Sorrow and Rage, Meg on Motherhood and Economics Edition.

Most women I know have The Story about MLMs. The Story is different for all of us. Sometimes The Story is triumphant, sometimes it’s tragic. Often it’s funny. We pull out The Story whenever the subject of MLMs comes up. It’s our evidence for what we believe. Some of us believe they are good, some of us do not.

I believe, ultimately, that MLMs are bad. Not just bad, they are predatory. What do they prey on? Our need for community in a time hostile to communion.  Our desire to have a meaning in a country where money makes meaning. Our hope for a work culture that makes room for caretaking, even though no one seems to believe caretaking is work. And of course, MLMs don’t just prey on women like me. They help women like me prey on one another.

The Story for me is one about grief oil. When I was 28, my dad died. When I try to explain the loss to people, even years later, I can’t quite find the words. I tell them it’s like when a book loses its narrator. His death is so many blank lines. I had two young children when he died. The morning after his death, I tried not to fall down onto the driveway while I lifted my daughters into their carseats. We had to go out to my mom’s house. She’d called me crying and then hung up in the middle of the wracking. We were on our way to her to make sure she was all right.

She offered to sell me some DoTerra essential oil that helped with grief.

I was buckling up my two year old, when I realized there was someone standing behind me. It was my neighbor. An older woman who attended church with me. She said she’d heard about my dad and was so sorry. That was kind. And then she offered to sell me some DoTerra essential oil that helped with grief. That was not kind. I don’t really remember how I refused. I do remember she was still in front of my house as I pulled out of the driveway.

Her palms were full of oil and her help was costly. A cursed anointing.

I was a young mom experiencing tremendous loss. A primary caretaker with a partner who did not get bereavement leave. I was alone with my children and that loss. I was used to isolation as a stay-at-home mom but this version of it was profound. Historically, that moment was when a community of women would step in with open palms to help freely. And truly, many other women from my community, my church and neighborhood, did step in and help. But when this woman from my community stepped in, her palms were full of oil and her help was costly. A cursed anointing. She wasn't the first and she wasn't the last.

My story is not good, but I don't judge the women who tell good stories. MLMs do initially provide a sense of purpose and a community. There were plenty of times when I was alone in my early motherhood, when I envied my friends going full-tilt with the latest MLM. They seemed happy. That was often more than I could say for myself.

I’ve been checking in on the whole LuLaRoe thing since the first time a dear cousin hosted a LuLaRoe party in those halcyon legging days. When I went to the party, it felt like I was witnessing the rise of some sort of MLM 2.0. Everything seemed so different from the usual MLM routine, I didn’t realize LuLaRoe was an MLM until I asked.

When I asked about the business model, I found the sales pitch.

There wasn’t really a sales pitch. Those buttery soft leggings and patterns sold themselves. (Everyone is hard on the patterns, but life had been pretty hard on some the women I saw picking through them. Maybe they just wanted to have some fun.) The inventory was all right there. No one had to fill out an order sheet while pressured by the gaze of a rep and party host. But then, when I asked about the business model, I found the sales pitch. The retailer started by saying it wasn’t an MLM, it was an opportunity to own your own business. That’s when I knew it must be an MLM. And it wasn't really any different.

I thanked her for her time and then went home to do my own research. (See what I did there?! I am laughing in bed as I type this right now.)

I wasn’t really shocked when I saw the company was started by a woman from my childhood. I didn’t remember ever meeting her second husband, Mark Stidham. He’s the co-founder of LulaRoe. But I was not even a little surprised to discover my husband knew him. Mark Stidham is Riley’s dad’s cousin. In the documentary, Mark tells a story about how his dad, Bud, loathed the idea of working for a set wage. My husband used to go to Bud’s house all the time as a kid.

At some point I got used to finding some level of connection to the latest well-known Mormon fraudster

Basically, the Mormon world is so small it’s a wonder any Mormons get into multilevel marketing - we run out of people to sell to so quickly! I wasn’t surprised we knew DeAnne and Mark because at some point I got used to always finding some level of connection to the latest well-known Mormon fraudster. The worst kind of downline. It’s depressing! But true!  (I’ve also met LuLaRich's Sammy! Of Katy Perry booking and fake pot farm fame! We used to get pie shakes at his cafe. Wild.)

The thing that did shock me as I did my research? The minimum order required to become a LuLaRoe retailer. At the time, I was a part-time buyer for a small clothing boutique owned by my mom. She gave me the job because Riley was in school and we had a baby. We couldn't afford the childcare required by traditional jobs. This one had flexibility, I could take my baby to work with me. A lack of options for caretakers sometimes leads to weird things. I was ummm not good at being a buyer. 

I ordered our inventory online and at wholesale clothing trade shows. I knew very little about the fashion industry, but I knew a lot about minimum orders. Vendors with LuLaRoe’s brand recognition and low price points never required anything close to $5k minimum order. The brands with high minimum orders were more exclusive and, along with many other tactics, used a high minimum order to stayexclusive.

LulaRoe's minimum order requirement was particularly nefarious. It made LuLaRoe feel exclusive.

LulaRoe's minimum order requirement was particularly nefarious. Of course, it’s a wild amount of money to ask people without access to capital to invest. I think that was covered pretty clearly in LuLaRich. But what they seemed to miss is what a persuasive argument for LuLaRoe that high minimum order could be. It made LuLaRoe feel exclusive. Those moms were willing to sell their breast milk, mortgage their homes, go into credit card debt to fund that minimum order because it was such a maximum requirement.

A retailer’s success depended on their ability to dilute even perceived exclusivity with ever expanding downlines.

Aren’t we told over and over again that if we work harder, think bigger, do what others are not willing to do, we will be successful? Just funding the initial investment in LuLaRoe required all those things. And so wasn’t success guaranteed before those boxes of leggings even shipped? Of course, LuLaRoe wasn’t exclusive! A retailer’s success depended on their ability to dilute even perceived exclusivity with ever expanding downlines. The market became saturated with bad product and desperate representatives.

I shouldn't have been shocked by the minimum that extracted the maximum. It was a great marketing ploy.

(Let's get back to why exclusivity sells another day, huh?)

Everything about American motherhood costs.

I see a lot of culture writers and business experts shaking their heads at the women who were willing to spend $5,000 on leggings. They can’t imagine what could justify that cost. And here, I laugh again! Because everything about American motherhood costs. Many of us spent more than $5k on the two days we spent in the hospital having our babies. In the state I live in, the average cost of childcare is $1277 a month. In the city I live in, it’s higher. Gaps in our employment due to caretaking cost us dearly, and the effects remain over the entire course of our careers. Caretaking full-time costs us our own social security benefits, economic empowerment, and community. You know what else is costly if you’re an American mother? Pandemics!

Women didn’t drop out of the workforce, they were pushed.

Millions of women have had to drop out of the workforce since the pandemic started. Married women with children dropped out because neither their offices nor their partners were willing to support them. Single mothers dropped out because there was no social safety net to hold them or their children up. Yeah, the babies fall with the moms! Every conversation about mothers is also a conversation about children. And also! I hate that term “dropped out”. Women didn’t drop out of the workforce, they were pushed. Can someone who is better at numbers than me calculate the cost of millions of stalled careers, heaving sobs, evictions, and empty cupboards?

A high cost is one of the only things mothers in America can count on.

Every take from an “expert” about how foolish these women were to pay the high cost of LuLaRoe made my head ignite and burn until I was left with nothing but cinder on my shoulders. A high cost is one of the only things mothers in America can count on.

Which leads me to my Reading List of Sorrow and Rage, Meg on Motherhood and Economics Edition. These essays have all gone viral over the past 18 months. Which is depressing, honestly. Because I wish they didn’t resonate. 

By Design : I like Gabrielle Blair's description of this piece, "It starts with eat-the-rich vibes and then goes DEEP into the history of kitchen design and how it intersects with sexism, racism, communism and more."

My Mother Risked it All in the Beanie Baby Bubble : She was a Mormon homemaker who just wanted to take part in the market economy. Then it all came crashing down.

Motherhood in America is a Multilevel Marketing Scheme : "Motherhood in America is a scam.We’re told if we work hard enough, raise our children well, and faithfully support the American dream, then we’ll end up on top.No one ever mentions how the hierarchy of success is shaped like a pyramid.A few mothers get to the top. They give TED Talks and write self-help books.But mostly, we’re the cracking base of a condemned structure."

Mommies of Instagram : These women weren’t being paid to be caretakers or community builders. They were being paid for their online depiction of that labor.

America Doesn't Care About Mothers : I finally understand help is not coming.