It’s hard to know where to begin when discussing Amazon’s new docuseries, “LuLaRich.” There’s a lot to unpack.

The four-part story, released this month, delves into the history-to-date of LuLaRoe, a multilevel marketing company founded in 2013 that sells women’s clothing — and which, at its zenith, was a dominant cultural force. The tale is largely told through a series of interviews with LuLaRoe founder DeAnne Stidham, her business partner and husband, Mark, several former and current employees, and a few industry experts.

The finished product is half cautionary tale, half roller coaster ride — were it mathematically possible for roller coasters to consist mostly of dips, that is. But the overarching point of “LuLaRich,” one revisited repeatedly throughout the miniseries, is the firm’s strategic, focused effort to bring on women, and mothers in particular — economically vulnerable populations likely looking for quick, needed cash — as sellers for the company.

LuLaRoe’s multilevel marketing structure means that sellers earn income both by serving as product vendors, and by receiving commissions and bonuses for onboarding others. As “LuLaRich” reveals, the bonus checks for recruiting new sellers outclipped workers’ sales earnings by tens of thousands of dollars, incentivizing them to onboard first, and sell later. In pursuit of that larger payday, LuLaRoe employees were encouraged to make frequent use of then-popular “girl boss” vernacular in their recruitment tools — “#WomenEmpoweringWomen” reads one sample seller post shared in the first episode; #BossBabe reads another — while touting a company line about reported opportunities to earn “full-time pay for part-time work.” 

In hindsight, the move seems downright insidious — the docuseries states that, while some did profit, over 100 sellers have filed for bankruptcy since 2016. Others, meanwhile, shared personal stories of having to sell the cars, homes and more they purchased while working at LuLaRoe to reconcile their company-related debts. Research reveals that such losses are the norm at these companies — a Consumer Awareness Institute report from 2017 revealed that 99 percent of multilevel marketers lose money due to their involvement.

Yet DeAnne Stidham still claims to be a champion of working moms, and even bakes that principle into her company’s lore. In the series’ first installment, she paints a pre-startup story of herself as a stressed mother of 14 children struggling to make ends meet, who ultimately grew a multibillion-dollar business that started from the trunk of her car. It’s humble, wholesome, even compelling stuff — and when combined with a once-beloved product, it made women want to sign on in droves. 

Former sellers like Lauren Covey Carson, Stella Lemberg and Roberta Blevins all have their own onboarding stories, they told filmmakers, which involve encountering the company’s products online or at local parties before wanting to try selling the skirts, leggings and more themselves.They all wanted to “join the movement,” a phrase another former seller, Ashleigh Lautaha, says was also often used to bring new folks on — to be part of this rapidly growing community of “boss babes.”

But the reality for most was, as noted, a far cry from the financial empowerment they were promised.

For starters, the buy-in cost for getting LuLaRoe products for their individual “stores” hovers between $4,000 and $10,000. Women were reportedly encouraged to take on debt, solicit friends-and-family contributions or even sell breast milk to scrape together that money. 

But when the company grew too large, too quickly to handle itself properly, and the quality of the clothing waned as a result, sellers found themselves with bills left to pay, products that couldn’t possibly sell, and a leadership team that was, according to the docuseries, less than sympathetic. Many were economically hurt, if not ruined, as a result. And others reported having little to no time for their families when all was said and done, despite that “part-time work” promise — some even saw their marriages end in the fallout.

Beyond the financial burden, women sellers reported feeling betrayed — not to mention, guilty — when the bottom was pulled out from under the majority of the women involved. “Knowing my part in this, and knowing that I got a lot of women into this company, is something that took me a really long time to not have pain and tears over,” Blevins admits in the series’ finale. 

Jill Filipovic, an author and lawyer brought in to contextualize the LuLaRoe story, points out during her interview the confluence of external factors that egged on the company’s meteoric rise: social media’s growing popularity, a boom in athleisure sales (and in leggings in particular, one of LuLaRoe’s most popular offerings), surging income inequality — and perhaps most important of all, the growth of a generation of women more highly educated than its predecessors that still struggled for career advancement due to continuing to bear the majority of their households’ familial duties.

LuLaRoe was also growing in the era of “lean in,” an ideology born of a so-named book written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She espoused a go-get-’em attitude for women looking to get ahead — and placed the onus on women themselves to get out from under what she perceived to be internalized lowered expectations. It was a modern, gendered twist on the old adage of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” — which critics, and eventually Sandberg herself, note didn’t take into account the experiences of less privileged women.

And firms like LuLaRoe appeared to take full advantage of this perfect storm, to the detriment of the very women they allegedly sought to uplift.

When we reported on multilevel marketing companies earlier this year, we found that 60 percent of all American sellers were women. And indeed, women are more interested than ever in an entrepreneurial lifestyle, in pursuit of personal and professional autonomy — to be the “girl bosses” they want to see. 

In a seeming bid to make themselves more appealing to this audience, LuLaRoe and other similar companies dress themselves up as feminist havens, then emphasize the alleged chance to make significant income while working flexible hours — which would, of course, appeal to a demographic that bears the brunt of unpaid home labor and caregiving duties, be they otherwise employed or not. Women are also bigger users of those now-ubiquitous social media platforms, making them easier to reach, and easier to galvanize into action.

Still, the Stidhams are sticking to denials of any wrongdoing, despite scores of online testimonials to the contrary — and the fact that this particular story of LuLaRoe’s shocking growth and subsequent decline is interspersed with footage of top company officials being deposed as part of a civil lawsuit brought forth by the state of Washington against them. This past February, LuLaRoe settled that particular suit for $4.75 million. But since 2016, over 50 lawsuits have been filed against the company in all.

For the time being, LuLaRoe and other companies like it, including dietary supplement company Herbalife and essential oils seller doTerra, are still alive. Some are thriving, even — last year, Herbalife reported $5.54 billion in revenue. And LuLaRoe continues to market itself as a place where women are “creating freedom through fashion” by starting “your own business with the flexibility to reach your goals on your schedule.” (Emphasis, theirs.)

One needn’t look far for proof of their ongoing success — we’ve all seen the posts on our Facebook and Instagram feeds extolling the virtues of these products, and the supposed opportunities that come with selling them. And plenty of us (myself included, in the interest of full disclosure) have made the admittedly lazy jokes about the girls we knew from our school days logging on to sell these wares en masse — and to encourage anyone reading to sell alongside them.

But as I binge-watched “LuLaRich” with my son sleeping in the next room, I found myself far more sympathetic to those who sign on — and far more understanding of how one would be lured in with promises of making monthly, five-figure bonus checks by putting in a little work between the playdates and meal prep. Especially now, when our shared economic situation is more dire than ever due to the Covid-19 pandemic — another burden women are disproportionately carrying, while also continuing to manage their households. 

That parroted promise of “full-time income for part-time work” is probably more appealing than ever, to a population that’s more vulnerable than ever. But as Blevins pointed out, the boss-babe dream “seemed too good to be true — and it was.”

“LuLaRich” is presently available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

(Featured Image by Filmbetrachter from Pixabay.)