If, hypothetically, I were looking for solid ground on which to build my pyramid scheme, leggings would not be top of list. They would sit somewhere between protein powder and skin care in the “market saturated” section. Pretty much every major retailer sells leggings. They are available at every price point, in a wide range of materials, and for a wide range of functions — working out! going out! making TikToks of your butt! just being comfy! — so what would my hook even be? But maybe this inability to think outside my own couch is why I will never get ahead in scamming.
These are a few thoughts that shuffled through my head as I embarked on LuLaRich, a new Amazon docuseries about leggings that ruin lives. At first this struck me as an implausible proposition, but I had never heard of LuLaRoe, a multilevel-marketing company that rocketed to a $2 billion valuation on the currency of its exuberantly patterned loungewear. Targeting stay-at-home moms, typically of the white, Christian persuasion, LuLaRoe allegedly sold the same dream to legions of women: You really can Have It All — more time with the kids, more money, more independence — and without ever leaving the house. It’s the same “Hey, hun” lure MLMs often cast to reel in recruits, but LuLaRich takes us on a dizzying climb up the scaffolding behind the charade. We are talking about a racket run on elastic pants in loud, violently colored prints, and the women who sold whole freezers full of breast milk to join it. Over four episodes, the calamity keeps spiraling, uncovering new layers of misogyny and deception the farther down filmmakers dig. I could not look away.
Few of the people interviewed reported making meaningful money as LuLaRoe retailers; many said they worked around the clock to break even at best, or voluntarily took a loss to get out of the business. One said she declared bankruptcy. With MLMs, it’s often the case that only the people at the very top profit. But scores of civil litigants, and even Washington State prosecutors who sued, and subsequently settled with, LuLaRoe in 2019, say pyramid scheme would be a more accurate descriptor. LuLaRoe required its consultants to pay exorbitant buy-in fees, ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 for a starter pack of inventory, which they then were to sell through their own personal shops. But for much of the company’s run, each consultant’s purchase of new items triggered a commission for the person who recruited them, regardless of whether or not any of the clothing ended up selling. All that cash zipping up the line reportedly created tens of thousands of dollars in monthly bonuses for some managers, at least during the boom years. (LuLaRoe has since changed its policies, and adjusted its start-up fee to $499.) But when you have one group’s investments paying into another group’s pockets, you also have a pyramid scheme, and you have broken the law.
The brains behind LuLaRoe — DeAnne Startup Brady Stidham (Startup is her actual maiden name) and her second husband, Mark Stidham — emphatically deny any illegal activity. They insist, throughout the course of a lengthy interview, that they only ever intended to empower women to be strong independent business ladies. This is the foundation of DeAnne’s lore: Herself a formerly “struggling mother” of 14, she birthed LuLaRoe out of her trunk, ca. 2013, selling wholesale dresses and homemade maxi skirts at private home parties. Now, she and Mark — a pink and blustery man who seems to sweat snake oil — preside over LuLaRoe with iron fists, according to the defected Boss Babes (to borrow corporate jargon) who went on the record for LuLaRich.
DeAnne, our She-EO, looks like bridesmaid font incarnate, hair dyed the color of butter and sprayed into stiff mermaid waves. She favors bold costume jewelry and telegraphs a threatening enthusiasm; acquaintances describe her as charismatic, excitable, and above all, chaotic. As a Startup, DeAnne is, per BuzzFeed, “Mormon royalty.” She is descended (distantly) from the first American to make a filled candy bar and directly from the woman who authored The Secret Power of Femininity, a handbook for husband hunting that touts the following mantra for singles: “I am just a helpless woman at the mercy of you big, strong men.” DeAnne apparently rolled this attitude over into the LuLaRoe ethos. In the documentary, defectors recalled DeAnne suggesting they fellate their husbands daily to secure a healthy leggings allowance. Mark’s explanation behind the business model seems similarly revealing: “If you want to create incredible wealth, identify an underutilized resource. And you know what? There is an underutilized resource of stay-at-home moms.”
The LuLaRoe look occupies a very specific aesthetic niche. Think crowds of suburban white women numbering in the thousands, all draped in spacious jersey and (in many cases) sporting haircuts that beg to speak to your manager, letting loose at a Kelly Clarkson concert — an actual scene that features in LuLaRich. Departed employees say that DeAnne pressured her favorite consultants into getting discount gastric-bypass surgery in Tijuana, from a doctor with whom she had seemingly cut a deal. (DeAnne denies boosting the surgeries as a side hustle, explaining she was simply happy to pass along her secret to anyone who marveled at her skinniness.) On a more regular basis, she allegedly encouraged leaders to dump money into manicures, blowouts, designer accessories, and expensive vacations, pushing them to post about every positive experience with LuLaRoe hashtags, presumably to appeal to new recruits.
Per the documentary, the reality of the LuLaRoe lifestyle was not so shiny. The company filled orders with limited-run prints at random, sometimes lending Facebook Live unboxings — the bulk of sellers apparently worked via Facebook Live — the flavor of a cattle auction, so frenzied was popular pursuit of certain designs. But as a retailer, whether you scored a coveted floral or a labial-looking hamburger print was utterly unpredictable. When you found your shop deluged with product that no one wanted, the only hope at turning a profit lay in buying more clothing, and working longer hours to move it. Many people blew their savings and took out new credit cards chasing the carrot LuLaRoe dangled, with leadership’s active encouragement. That is, until the other shoe dropped.
Around 2016, sellers began complaining that leggings arrived wet, moldy, disintegrating, or reeking of a putrid stench that left their houses smelling like “dead farts,” to quote one ex-consultant. Interviewees maintain that corporate largely denied having sold them rancid stock, but one fun thing about LuLaRich is how eager ex-employees seem to expose managerial hypocrisy. In one scene, Mark insists that any inability to move inventory boiled down to laziness; in another, an employee recalls regularly walking past a parking lot heaped with presale clothing, left exposed to the elements because the ballooning company had no place to store it.
Big brazen cons are popular investigative fare these days, and the arc from Champagne on corporate jets to fraud investigations is a popular one post–Fyre Fest. Actually, LuLaRich comes to you from the same people who brought you Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, and while LuLaRoe doesn’t provide quite the same level of jaw-dropping audacity that Billy McFarland and Ja Rule did, it’s full of bananas asides (for example: DeAnne and Mark chatting about the marriage of their two children to one another) that feel too rich to process. And then there’s the allegation that this entire enterprise lost people their homes, catalyzed divorces, drove wedges between families — all in the pursuit of cartoonish leggings. The thing that haunts me is, somehow, they’re still going.