“Wealth is a higher power”: Amazon's “LuLaRich” & the ultimate suburban white women "pyramid scheme"

Amazon's "LuLaRich” explores how LuLaRoe used women’s empowerment language as a honey trap to ensnare women

Published September 10, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)

DeAnne and Mark Stidham in "LulaRich" (Amazon Studios)
DeAnne and Mark Stidham in "LulaRich" (Amazon Studios)

Skinny jeans. Facebook albums brimming with family photos. "Girlboss" as a compliment rather than a scathing meme. The mid-2010s were an iconic era — especially for the suburban women and mothers who flooded Facebook with attempts to sell brightly patterned LuLaRoe leggings.

You remember LuLaRoe: a multi-level marketing (MLM) company founded in 2012 by Mark and DeAnne Stidham, a couple who both hail from devout and entrepreneurial Mormon families. 

Amazon Prime documentary series "LuLaRich" shines new light on the company we thought we knew. Directors and executive producers Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason interviewed the charismatic and unapologetically evasive Stidhams, former and current LuLaRoe retailers, and legal experts, as their documentary exposes how LuLaRoe operated as infinitely more than a legging company. 

The company thrived throughout the 2010s, culminating in a reported $2 billion in sales and estimated 80,000, mostly white, female "independent retailers" in 2016. These retailers had been drawn to the company by its promise of helping women "have it all" — make a full-time income on part-time work, selling leggings to other women in your community from the comfort of your living room. This would leave you time to raise your children and cook for your husband. Such a dream life could be yours, for a small $5,000 buy-in fee, LuLaRoe assured them.

Of course, we all know how LuLaRoe's success story ends. The company remains in business, but with a fraction of its retailers, and all as it wades through dozens of lawsuits, including one from the state of Washington

"This company peddled #Girlboss," Nason told Salon. "And all of that was totally a tool for commodifying and ultimately putting women in harm's way in a patriarchal structure, and mirrors our society at large. There's veiled misogyny in this company, about being a woman who can have it all — she can raise her kids and sell leggings from home."

The docuseries outlines how LuLaRoe capitalized on the lack of support systems and equitable opportunities for working women and mothers. It exploited white suburban fantasies about what it means to be a woman who "has it all." Some former LuLaRoe retailers featured even recall how retailers who didn't fit the model of thinness and whiteness embodied by the company were personally encouraged by DeAnne to travel to Mexico for cosmetic surgeries.

Ultimately, "LuLaRich" explores how LuLaRoe used women's empowerment language as a honey trap to ensnare thousands of women and mothers, even as its founders deny allegations that it's a pyramid scheme to this day.

In an interview with Salon, Nason and Furst recount getting Mark and DeAnne to open up, the stigma around the common experience of being victimized by MLMs  and where the company and the documentary subjects are today.

As you were filming, were these lawsuits against LuLaRoe ongoing? How did you get Mark and DeAnne to talk about them?

Jenner Furst: I think our pitch to Mark and DeAnne was, "We're making this story one way or another. We're making this film. Then we come to very big events; you can either tell us your side of the story or you can leave that to others to tell." That strikes at human instinct to want to tell your own story, share your side. They had to straddle a line because many of the things they're saying are part of active lawsuits. At parts of the interview, Mark says his tongue is bleeding because he's biting it so much because he can't speak, or [else] his lawyers will be really upset with him for what he's going to say. That was definitely the elephant in the room.

How did you get Mark and DeAnne to open up, in general? What did it take to establish enough comfort or trust with them?

Julia Willoughby Nason: I think with all our documentaries, we like to show a 360-degree view, so we really explain that to the subjects. To Mark and DeAnne, we said, "We want to hear your side of the story." Because they still have a business up and running, it's in their best interest to get ahead of that narrative. All our interviews are between two and seven hours, or sometimes over years, so we get to know them for a very long time in that way to build trust, and hear them out on a lot of their stuff, not just try to get plot points or allegation points. But we try to understand their backstory, their history, what motivated them to be in the position they're in now.

Furst: And I think trust is earned. We are seeking to tell real, authentic stories, and if you look at LuLaRoe and "LuLaRich," we give Mark and DeAnne an opportunity to tell us where they came from. They were the only people telling us where they came from, what their childhoods were like, what was impactful to them. We approached that with all of our subjects — we don't believe that people just materialize as owners of a multi-level marketing company. You have to come from somewhere. That's the humanistic approach, to understand that no matter who they are.

As you learned more about their childhoods and backgrounds, did more of their story start to make sense to you?

Nason: I think so. They come from families of Latter-day Saints, so they have huge lineages, siblings. Their family structure is everybody works in the business together, so that made a lot of sense in terms of why their whole family worked at the top-levels of LuLaRoe and were mostly men. It also made sense that Mark and DeAnne had histories working at companies like multi-level marketing companies. There was a thread of entrepreneurship that really drew from their past to their present day.

Furst: I think why we ask questions about people's childhoods is the stories that are selected and retold are emblematic. Mark and DeAnne both told stories about money. For DeAnne, it was her mother raining down bills from the top of the stairs, and the fervor with which she told that story was like an immediate window into her soul. And similarly, the only time Mark ever cried in the interview is when his dad lost his job, and he was offered a job in the coal mine making $400 a month, and he turned it down. Mark said there's nothing more depressing than knowing what you're going to make for the rest of your life. 

Those two stories from childhood are so emblematic of the idea that money, prestige, wealth is a higher power. It's something to seek and pursue for all of your days. Even in the LDS Church, you're more revered, more faithful the more money you give back. Well, to give more money you have to make more money. That in itself almost lends to this religiosity of success and opulence, that somehow it's all tied in to God. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Were there concerns about giving Mark and DeAnne a platform given their long history of deception? How did you toe that line?

Nason: That's always the case, in terms of what side the filmmakers are on. We keep a very neutral side, we want the audience to ultimately come to their own conclusion about what happened in this story. It is a delicate balance in terms of how anyone we interview is edited and curated.

Furst: I think we presented a very balanced portrait, one in which if you are believers in LuLaRoe, you can listen to your founders expound messages of optimism and hope and opportunity. And if you've been hurt by the brand, you can listen to those who articulate why it was fraudulent to them. That's up to the viewer to decide what resonates with you the most. That's what makes documentaries like this so powerful. 

Ultimately, what's been presented is now in the viewers' hands. LuLaRoe is still in business. You can buy their leggings, you can boycott their leggings, you can talk about the series and other multi-level marketing companies your friends are involved in, and ask questions about them. The attorneys general for 49 other states could do what Washington did and try to protect their consumers. So it's for us to present that in a package that's a funny, exciting adventure from top to bottom. But stories like this are sticky and they have more substance than just entertainment.

There's often stigma around getting caught in MLMs of any kind. How did you get subjects who were victimized to share so much with you?

Nason: I think the victims, or the people who got hurt by joining this company, we talked a lot about being bullied and peer-pressured, and the shame that comes along with being taken advantage of. The people that spoke in the documentary were very courageous to show their vulnerability so other people can hopefully come forward too, to see they're not alone. Because when people are hurt, there's a sense of deep isolation that makes their hurt become unimaginable until they can find others who share the same abuses with them. I would hope people would be inspired to build up the courage and strength to share their similar experiences.

What was it like interviewing the subject or subjects who remain involved with LuLaRoe? What did they know about the documentary, and was it harder to get them to open up?

Furst: I actually found Jill Drehmer to be an open book. Her story is inspirational. In no way do we seek to portray her as anything other than what we believe she is, which is a really hardworking woman who has provided amazing opportunities for her family and continues to work hard. One thing Jill said that resonates is, if LuLaRoe did something wrong, that means every single multi-level marketing company that's ever existed did something wrong, and she unknowingly has repeated the thesis of our documentary, the ultimate real question to our viewers and legislators. 

[LuLaRoe] may have been condoned or legal in some way, but even if it is, is this all we have? Is this really the best opportunity for people to get out of poverty? Is this the only good chance of being able to have abundance in your life? It seems like in order for you to win, countless other people have to lose. Is that who we are as a people? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves.

A documentary about a legging company went to some pretty unexpected places. "LuLaRich" shows that race and catering to white suburban fantasies were clearly integral to the LuLaRoe strategy. How willing were interviewees to talk about this?

Nason: In all our work, we try to look at systems of oppression and corrosion and power structures, so with this series, this is a really important topic to us. What was shocking or somewhat surprising to me was, a lot of the people we interviewed that were hurt or affected by this company in negative ways mentioned that this company peddled women's empowerment. Even retailers like Ashley, who made a lot of money from LuLaRoe, on the outside she had it all, but it was a shallow basin. She lost a lot, like her marriage. 

What was surprising to me as the director of this, asking questions to women who have been hurt by these systems of patriarchy and misogyny, when we asked them, "What do you feel about patriarchy? About this misogynistic structure?" There was a recoiling to respond to these questions. Even to the men who study pyramid schemes and structures and understand this is a "women's empowerment"-specific business, it almost felt like they were insulted to even be asked the question of whether LuLaRoe was a patriarchal system. It's like they don't know the definition of it, or they're repulsed to even be asked this question. It's very interesting that this is the subject matter we're focusing on, and people have been deeply affected by, but they can't pin the tail on the donkey on it. There's a stitch missing.

Furst: They can't even define "what is patriarchy." All of a sudden, they go blank, and they answer, and get angry that there was a question they weren't prepared for. That's what's so fascinating. That's why ["LuLaRich"] is so fascinating, because it's comedic, and it's a whacky journey down the rabbit hole of leggings and patterns and crazy stuff. But you change the news channel, look what's happening in Texas [the abortion ban] — it's all related. Doing a series like this is exciting because there's a story, there's characters, there's a bigger zeitgeist that we're all living and feeling in this moment. And this series showcases that in a unique way.

What do you think the success of LuLaRoe in those years says about the lack of options for women and mothers trying to make an income? What if anything do you think has changed since the mid-2010s?

Furst: Well I think it's a sad statement about opportunity in this country, if for women to be empowered, someone needs to be committing a crime. Basically, what's been revealed is there was a set of years in which LuLaRoe was not honoring protocols that multi-level marketing companies should be honoring to protect consumers. That was the time of the explosive growth, or as Mark called it, catastrophic growth. It's a sad statement for our economy, our society, if for a company that touted women's empowerment to blow up, something had to be criminal. That requires a second look.

Where are Mark and DeAnne, the company, and the subjects you spoke with since finishing the documentary? How much has changed to your knowledge since you stopped filming?

Furst: Conveniently for LuLaRoe, there's been a right-sizing, that the company can't sustain the way it was, but now it has fewer members. So, members are able to sell more successfully because they're not competing with so many people in their area or around the country for selling merchandise. I would say you can go to their website, and they're in business. You can look to enroll, they've lowered their enrollment cost by almost 90%, from $5,000 to under $500. That is very telling as to where they're at.

As far as Mark and DeAnne go, we're not in touch with them, we're not friends. We don't continue to communicate with them after the interview or after we sent them a list of allegations we're giving them a chance to respond to. But the way the series ends is our impression of the way that things keep going. The band marches on. DeAnne, when we asked her about the future in that interview, she just kept going. It was like this stream of consciousness pitch for, I don't even know what. That is her gift, she's got the gift of gab, and it would be hard to believe even if they were held accountable, DeAnne and Mark wouldn't go and start another business someday.

Are there any other multi-level marketing schemes you think you'd want to shine a light on in the future? Did you feel LuLaRoe was pretty emblematic of most of these companies?

Furst: I think sadly, if you've seen one you've seen them all. It's just a different product. I'm sure there are multi-level marketing companies really looking to be as fair as possible. I think for us, every film is like a master's class. For us, this film was a master's thesis in multi-level marketing that helped us understand the system, and every film we have in development is another opportunity to learn something about the human condition and the zeitgeist, and we'll leave it to other filmmakers. If there is a great multi-level marketing company story that someone knows about you can contact our website, but I don't know if it's for us at this point after this incredible story about LuLaRoe.

The four-part docuseries "LuLaRich" is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

MORE FROM Kylie Cheung

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amazon Documentary Jenner Furst Julia Willoughby Nason Lularich Lularoe Mlm Pyramid Scheme Tv