Jackie, a New Jersey public-school teacher, lost every stream of income she had in June. Zoom school was out for the summer. The yoga teaching positions and acting jobs she would usually take to cover her bills had dried up. She needed to pay rent. Then it appeared in her Facebook Messenger in-box: “Hey, hun …”
Or “Hey, girl,” or “Hey, babe,” or a similarly girlish greeting from a high-school friend inviting Jackie to a virtual Facebook “party” to learn about Zyia, an activewear brand (pronounced zai-uh) and multilevel-marketing company. Two Zyia reps at the party told attendees how great it was not just to wear the clothes but to sell them. Reps received discounts and commissions. It was a fun way to interact with other women and make friends. It seemed like a perfect way to get by.
Jackie, whose real name is being withheld at her request, purchased a starter kit with five pieces of activewear and a $100 Ziya gift card for $295 — before taxes and shipping. She would get a 20 percent commission on anything she sold; her “uplines,” the two reps who recruited her, would each get a commission on what she bought. Jackie quickly did well as a Zyia rep, selling a lot of clothes to yoga students who followed her on social media.
Then Jackie started to wake up to intensely cheery text messages from her uplines. She had never been interested in building a team of her own “downlines,” that is, recruiting Zyia reps in a ladder under her, but her uplines were relentless. “They were super-passive-aggressive,” she says. “If they saw something on your page, they would take a screenshot and send it to you with this long voice memo about what you did wrong. If I hadn’t hit my goal yet for the month, I would get messages like ‘You need to press harder.’ ‘I know life is busy.’ ‘Look at me, I’m a stay-at-home mom.’ ‘I’m about to give birth.’”
“It got nastier and nastier,” Jackie says, as she sold and bought less. Her dog had gotten sick, and she was having trouble consolidating her credit-card debt — she had maxed it out buying Zyia products. Though the company does not require reps to buy and keep excess stock, a selling point in recruiting, Jackie still had spent a lot, buying $200 gift cards so she could host parties and giveaways for customers, and she was expected to regularly buy and model new items. When Jackie opened up about feeling overwhelmed in a group chat with her Zyia team, her uplines scolded her for “being negative.” Jackie was done. “I don’t want to feel pressured. I don’t want to be made to feel like I’m a failure,” she told her uplines, then blocked them on social media. “They kept being like, ‘Zyia’s a sisterhood,’” she says. “No, it’s not.”
Where most observers saw devastation in the 5 million American women who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and the 2.1 million who left the workforce entirely, multilevel marketing companies saw potential recruits. MLMs have historically been female-dominated. The Direct Selling Association, a trade organization of MLMs, estimates that 74 percent of the 16 million Americans involved in direct selling are women, which is why detractors have taken to calling participants “huns,” a nod to the sororityspeak reps encourage their recruits to emulate. The canonical MLMs, cosmetics companies Mary Kay and Avon, sell products targeted to women in a feminized marketplace; Mary Kay top sellers famously get a pink Cadillac. Now, women-oriented MLMs have expanded to activewear, essential oils, candles, jewelry, shakes, sex toys, and shampoo. The highest among their ranks have seamlessly integrated marketing tactics into “girlboss” and “momtrepreneur” trends on Instagram, bragging about “retiring from corporate” at 25 and posing behind orange-tinted filters, with giant checks, on private jets, popping Champagne corks.
Though COVID-19 initially restricted the face-to-face events and parties participants rely on to meet new customers, reps across the country soon realized they had the perfect pandemic-ready pitch to scores of women losing work. Top sellers emphasized how stay-at-home mothers, students, and the unemployed could “be their own boss” from their phones. According to one study by an independent researcher, the Consumer Awareness Institute, less than one percent of MLM participants actually make a profit.
Lori, a mother of four from Oregon, began working as a distributor for Paparazzi, a jewelry MLM, in 2018. Paparazzi sells its reps pieces of jewelry for $2.75, which they sell to customers for $5. As with many MLMs, however, it was nearly impossible to make any real profit by selling jewelry to customers, according to Lori. To reach a status called “Life of the Party,” which comes with access to exclusive jewelry releases and other perks, reps must buy enough stock to routinely host parties and giveaways. Anything she made was going back into Paparazzi. The best way to actually make money, Lori realized, was to recruit saleswomen and receive commission from their sales. By becoming an “executive director,” with 67 women on her team buying stock under her, she was able to bring in about $800 a month.
“When we started going on lockdown, they pushed crazy, crazy hard,” says Lori of her uplines. “People reached ranks that they’d never dreamt of reaching before because of recruiting.” By the summer, higher-ups in group chats said the company had seen 400 percent growth. Lori says May was her team’s best month ever. But the practices she was using to make that money felt increasingly predatory.
“You have women that are close to suicide because they’re in the middle of a pandemic. Their family doesn’t have any money, and they’ve spent money they didn’t really have to try and make a difference,” Lori says of her last few months at Paparazzi, which she quit in September 2020. She says her uplines encouraged her to push potential recruits to use their stimulus checks to invest in joining Paparazzi. (Other MLM reps did the same across social media.) On Instagram, deft saleswomen, hawking vitamins and water bottles and nail-polish strips, showed how $1,200 could turn into a “small business.” One coach with Beachbody, an MLM that offers workouts and shakes, shared a training video in which she explained techniques to close sales with potential recruits who say they can’t afford to join.
Andrea, 29, a commercial photographer in South Florida, joined Mary Kay in March when she was forced to shutter her business. Her son is immunocompromised, and she was terrified to leave the house. She was initially recruited by a friend who had just joined Mary Kay to pay her own bills. Though she was told she could start with only a $30 investment, Andrea eventually spent $200 after more-senior reps told her she would need more product to get off the ground quicker. It was all of her savings.
“It became very clear that the focus is not the products,” Andrea says. Recruitment was. She, and the women her reps wanted her to recruit in turn, were the real Mary Kay product. When Andrea wanted to throw a “pampering session” of samples for a friend who had recently lost her house, higher-ups insisted on attending via Zoom and spoke about how “healing” it would be for the woman to join Mary Kay. Andrea was appalled. She felt pressure to perform a kind of “sob story” when selling, she says, about how much Mary Kay had helped her and how much it would help others. In reality, her Mary Kay business made her only about $100 a month. She was encouraged to post gushingly about her executive director’s new car, a Mary Kay perk, that isn’t actually free. Mary Kay takes care of lease payments only if reps continue to hit their sales targets. When Andrea told her uplines she was struggling to make a profit, they said she was not entrepreneurial enough. She lasted three months before quitting. She just gave away the unsold lipsticks that had been sitting around her house since June.
Anti-MLM message boards are inundated with posters concerned for their out-of-work mothers, sisters, cousins, and friends who have spent money on a business in which they are unlikely to make any. They describe how armies of huns have flooded job boards and LinkedIn. Companies don’t disclose recruiting numbers, but a Direct Selling Association survey in June claimed 59 percent of MLMs reported their profits had improved. Income-disclosure reports, where they have been made, reveal that those profits are not evenly distributed: Monat, a hair-and-wellness MLM that is being sued by women who say its products make their hair fall out, reported in 2019 that the average “market partner” makes $119 a year. Only the top 0.11 percent of partners make an income over $40,000.. A typical “independent consultant” at Arbonne, a cosmetics MLM, makes between $120 and $502 a year. In spite of that dismal math, consultants continue to say working in these businesses can change women’s lives. Many of those consultants are probably still waiting for their own to change underneath the “free car” hashtag. Even supposedly successful reps routinely celebrate paydays on Instagram with posts about how their checks will go toward paying down their student loans and credit-card debt.
There’s another reason women are especially vulnerable to MLM recruitment during the pandemic. MLMs promise a web of beautiful new friends and supporters in dreamy, cursive script. Saleswomen call themselves mentors, their recruits sisters, and their team a family. “People were buying not because they had the money to buy,” says Lori of her pandemic haul, her best months ever, “but because they needed the connection with people.”