'Oh My God, We're In a Cult': New Docuseries Shows the Dark Side of Clothing Brand LuLaRoe (2024)

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At first glance, it’s unclear whether the auditorium — filled with rows of theater-style seating broken up by wide aisles that lead to what appears to be either a stage or an altar — is a place of worship or the largest available conference room at the local Marriott. With the exception of a baby, the audience is a sea of white women wearing brightly colored and in some cases heavily patterned articles of clothing.

Some are standing up at their seats. Others have moved into the aisles. Quite a few have made it up onto the stage. Most are dancing to *NSYNC’s “I Want You Back.”

But this isn’t some type of religious ceremony, or all the chaperones of a junior high mixer enthusiastically shaking it to a song they actually recognize: It’s an event for sales reps working for LuLaRoe, a multi-level marketing (MLM) apparel company that’s the focus of LuLaRich, a new docuseries currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Over four, 45-minute installments, co-directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason expose the dark side of the brand known for colorful leggings available in a dizzying array of prints, offering a glimpse into what went on behind the scenes when the company, founded in 2012, began expanding at an unbelievable — and unsustainable — pace. And based the testimony of several people in the series, as well as one expert Rolling Stone consulted, the way LuLaRoe interacts with past, current, and potential members makes the organization seem like no ordinary MLM (think: Mary Kay, Tupperware) but something dangerously close to a cult.

“One of the universals with destructive mind-control groups, including MLMs, is the deceptive recruiting,” says Steven Hassan, Ph.D., founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, which provides intervention and recovery services for current and former members of cults. “People can’t provide informed consent, and they’re being lied to three different ways: They’re being outright lied to about how much money the person’s making who’s recruiting them, vital information is withheld, and information is also distorted to make it seem more palatable.”

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After founding LuLaRoe, husband-and-wife duo Mark and DeAnne Stidham swiftly amassed a fortune selling women two things: leggings and lies. At LuLaRoe’s peak in 2016, the company reported sales of nearly $2 billion and had close to 80,000 independent retailers pushing their products, Vox reports. But like the clothing they sold, it didn’t take long for their empire to start unraveling at the seams.

Throughout 2017, LuLaRoe’s wide network of sales reps flagged problems including stale inventory that was difficult to unload, a misogynistic company culture, and the company’s abrupt reversal of their refund policy. An assortment of lawsuits soon followed, including complaints of copyright infringement and low-quality products, as well as a class-action lawsuit filed in California accusing the purveyor of stretchy clothing in wacky prints of being a pyramid scheme.

In 2019, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against LuLaRoe on the grounds that it was operating a pyramid scheme that left many of the company’s sales reps with unsold inventory and massive debt. The matter was settled out of court in February 2021, when it was announced that the company would pay $4.75 million to resolve the lawsuit — $4 million of which would go to Washingtonians who lost money as the result of their deceptive business practices and false promises, Ferguson explained in a statement earlier this year.

When it comes to MLMs, there’s so much to unpack — from business models designed to be just different enough from pyramid schemes that they’re legally able to operate, to the strain they place on relationships with family and friends whose inboxes become flooded with invitations to Facebook Live parties where their product-pimping loved ones reveal the latest item that’s changed their life. For anyone who gets sucked into these schemes, says Hassan, it’s clear there’s some element of mind control involved. One former LuLaRoe member goes further in the series, recalling the moment a realization hit her: “Oh my god, we’re in a cult.”

As LuLaRich quickly establishes, Mark and DeAnne Stidham are LuLaRoe. Precariously perched at the very top of the pyramid, the couple make the rules and set the tone for company culture; though, at this point, they have little to do with its day-to-day operations. That’s where their kids come in.

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When Mark and DeAnne got married in 1998, they combined their 11 biological and adopted children from their previous marriages into one family, Brady Bunch-style. From there, the devout Mormons and residents of Corona, California, adopted two more boys and a girl, bringing them to a total of 14 children — two of whom are now married to each other: a fact Mark and DeAnne excitedly share in the documentary (before immediately clarifying that the couple are not biologically related, nor did they grow up under the same roof).

So when LuLaRoe really started taking off, the Stidhams — neither of whom had previously managed or operated a company of this size — did what any parents overwhelmed by their new professional responsibilities would do: installed several of their (for the most part equally inexperienced) children in leadership roles. And the Stidhams’ focus on the family unit didn’t end there: They regularly reminded LuLaRoe sales reps that they were part of their family, too.

But not all families are functional. Some can be harmful — especially when those in the highest-ranking positions manipulate other members for their own gain, and establish themselves as untouchable, infallible leaders who are owed obedience. This is just one example of “malignant narcissism,” a characteristic commonly associated with leaders of destructive mind-control groups.

Though the docuseries offers countless illustrations of the Stidhams engaging in extreme and narcissistic behavior, two in particular stand out. The first occurs when Mark is addressing the crowd at a company event, and in the process of describing his own struggles, compares himself to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism — noting that they were similarly misunderstood.

Then there’s the fact that Mark and DeAnne agreed to participate in the docuseries at all — sitting for hours of interviews, confident that they would come out the other side smelling like roses. As Mark tells the interviewers roughly six minutes into the first episode, they are there to set the record straight: “We are storytellers — that’s how the business grew. And so it’s exciting to have somebody here that’s interested in the whole story, and an opportunity to share that.” The Stidhams appear to be thoroughly convinced that their contribution to the narrative could only result in them emerging as heroes. And to many members of their LuLaRoe family, they are.

“Mark and DeAnne make you feel special when you’re with them — the way a celebrity makes you feel,” a consultant still with the company explains in the series. Connecting with LuLaRoe members through video messages, live-streamed pep talks, and at the company’s lavish in-person events, the Stidhams, DeAnne in particular, make people feel seen and valued — something that didn’t go unnoticed in an organization designed to appeal to stay-at-home moms.

“These people at the top are portrayed as near godlike figures. They are enlightened beings, and the epitome of good people, just trying to help you,” MLM and pyramid scheme expert Robert FitzPatrick says in the documentary. “That’s the culture of a cult.”

Though plenty of brands have used fake feminism to sell products, LuLaRoe’s “women’s empowerment” recruitment strategy isn’t only disingenuous — it’s damaging. Their approach to attracting new members is based on Mark’s theory of financial success, which he shares in the documentary: “If you want to create incredible wealth, identify an underutilized resource. And there’s an underutilized resource of stay-at-home moms.”

Then it’s time to tap into (or create) those mother-money-makers’ insecurities, getting them to question their value to society and their own families. The former consultants featured in LuLaRich say that the company’s messaging was clear: You may not currently be living up to your fullest potential, but if you’re willing to put in the time, energy, effort, and money to build a business with LuLaRoe, it will result in a massive financial payout. And that’s not all: Being a #BossBabe (one of several cringeworthy hashtags seen in members’ social media posts and referenced by former sales reps throughout the docuseries) would finally give moms the chance, in DeAnne’s words, “to be able to give something to their families, [and] give back to their husband.”

Onboarding costs ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 were financially out of reach for many prospective LuLaRoe consultants, but that was spun as a small price to pay for the independence and prestige of owning your own business, and being able to do it while staying home with your kids. According to several former sales reps and full-time employees interviewed in the series, company leadership encouraged women to do whatever it took to get the money they needed to turn their dream into a reality — including opening new credit cards, taking out loans, even selling their breast milk. (When a LuLaRich producer asks the Stidhams about that last allegation, Mark calls the claims “udderly ridiculous” with a snicker, while DeAnne assumes the role of vaudeville sidekick, pointing at her husband to ensure his wit is on display.)

Not only does LuLaRoe sell the dream of “having it all,” it does so under the guise of “women empowering women.” But harnessing girl power in the context of an MLM — where recruiting new members is the fastest (and often only) way to keep your head above water financially, constantly perpetuating a predatory cycle — is downright sinister. When times get tough, as they inevitably will, LuLaRoe reminds its consultants that they have the support of a fun, vibrant community of women who have faced the same obstacles — an unbreakable sisterhood. This is also part of the company’s recruitment strategy: LuLaRoe social media posts encourage women who want to change their lives to “join the movement.”

“The thing about undue influence, is to understand the influencee and the influencer,” Hassan says. “And the more successful cults will adjust their recruitment and indoctrination to fit their target.”

If this faux-feminism strategy sounds familiar, he adds, it’s because we’ve seen another version of it recently: in the recruitment methods of NXIVM, a cult that engaged in human trafficking while posing as a self-help MLM. “The rap that was being used on the women was that they’re in this women’s empowerment group, and in the meantime, they’re saying they’re slaves, and will do whatever they’re told,” Hassan says. “For me, that’s a really dramatic example of this thing where you’re labeling it one thing that is very positive and attractive, but the behaviour is doing the opposite, which, in [the NXIVM] case, was enslaving people.”

During the rapid growth of LuLaRoe, the Stidhams (DeAnne in particular) presented themselves as the benevolent parents of a constantly growing family, and didn’t hesitate to give their member-children helpful pointers for success, according to multiple former reps featured in LuLaRich. These included weighing in on what the consultants should wear (exclusively LuLaRoe, obviously), how they should do their hair and makeup (trick question: they shouldn’t — that’s a job for professionals), how much they should weigh (f*ck off), and what their marriage should look like (sorry, ladies — hope you weren’t fans of autonomy!).

Even as the “advice” became increasingly extreme — like recommending gastric sleeve surgery performed in Tijuana — members continued to follow it dutifully. “You were so immersed…that if [DeAnne] told me to jump off a cliff, I probably would have,” a former LuLaRoe consultant says in the series.

Through it all, the Stidhams continued to remind LuLaRoe consultants of the tremendous amounts of freedom and personal choice they supposedly had with the company. The best illustration of this comes courtesy of the MLM’s signature leggings. They’re available in seemingly endless colors, prints, and patterns — some of which are highly exclusive — giving members the illusion that the spandex covering their legs was a mark of their individuality, when, at the end of the day, everyone in the room was wearing the same pair of stretchy pants (which may or may not feature a cheeseburger vagin*.)

Hassan says this herd mindset is common in cults. “As human beings, we’re very influenced by authority figures we think are legitimate, and by people we identify with,” he explains. “So the social conformity piece is a powerful psychological principle that [MLMs] are appealing to. It’s the other people in the cult that are creating the peer group. And people want to fit in, so they’re going to be copying and mirroring each other — while still being told that they’re being unique.”

Like any manipulative leaders worth their salt, Mark and DeAnne Stidham weren’t content influencing just some aspects of LuLaRoe members’ lives — according to the docuseries, they wanted total control, to the point where their consultants were entirely financially dependent on the company.

As former sales reps explain, once they had a successful business up and running, the company made it clear that their next goal should be “retiring” their husbands. That’s not a euphemism for getting rid of them so the women could run off to form a matriarchal society where all waistbands are elastic. The idea, on the surface, is to provide your husband with the financial freedom to quit his job, so he can stay at home and help you grow your business. What it really means is that women should step back from the business they worked so hard to build, and relinquish all control to their husbands.

At that stage, the household would be entirely dependent on LuLaRoe as its sole source of income, likely being in such extreme debt that walking away wasn’t a possibility. This is strikingly similar to the cult-leader tactic of making members so reliant on the group that they believe they have no other viable options. And while deceptive mind-control groups are better known for forcing members to cut ties with loved ones, some situations call for a different approach. “It’s a common pattern to get members who are recruited into a cult to manipulate their family, their friends, pressure them to join, lie to them, and manipulate them in any way, shape, or form,” Hassan explains.

This brings us to another classic cult-like policy the Stidhams wholeheartedly endorse: that women should be submissive to men. And when LuLaRoe consultants found it challenging to conform to this outdated patriarchal family structure, DeAnne was poised and ready to walk them through it, according to several former reps featured in the documentary. First, there are basics, otherwise known as “The Four Suggested Don’ts” of interacting with your husband: Don’t talk to him “man to man,” don’t “mother” him, don’t have “better ideas” than his, and don’t admire other men’s qualities. (These useful tips make a cameo in the docuseries in what appears to be a PowerPoint slide — though it’s unclear whether the graphic on the screen was created for LuLaRich, or one of DeAnne’s presentations.)

For those who still weren’t fully on board with their new submissive role in their marriage, DeAnne had some reading recommendations; specifically, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, as well as The Secret Power of Femininity: The Art of Attracting, Winning, and Keeping the Right Man for You — a 1969 guide for young women, written by Maurine and Elbert Startup — otherwise known as DeAnne’s parents (and yes, her original last name was Startup).

Like her parents, DeAnne had no shortage of advice for women confused about their place in society and their marriage, according to the former LuLaRoe consultants interviewed in the docuseries. This included showing your husband “The Three Magic As” of appreciation, acceptance, and admiration; and understanding that “women can be strong, but there’s a time to let him be your hero.” DeAnne clarified that there’s something in it for the ladies, too: “All you have to do as a woman is just get on your knees for five minutes a day and please your husband, and then your husband will buy you whatever you want,” a former LuLaRoe consultant recalls DeAnne telling her.

But being the leader of a multibillion-dollar life-destroying MLM does have its ups and downs. This is especially the case when those in the lower levels of the pyramid begin to voice grievances: like when LuLaRoe sales reps started receiving shipments of subpar leggings, including ones that arrived soaking wet or moldy, full of holes or tears, and/or with a stench one former consultant described as a “dead fart.”

Instead of offering assistance, the Stidhams took the position that nothing was wrong with the leggings, and that consultants would be held financially responsible for any inventory they received — with Mark going as far as to say in a video message to sales reps that LuLaRoe had “the highest quality control in the industry.”

The blatant gaslighting is also straight out of the cult playbook, according to Hassan. “The goal is to make the person seem crazy in order to take advantage of them,” he says. “The way I look at gaslighting-type techniques, it’s really about undermining a person’s ability to think for themselves, by getting them to be less confident about their experiences, thoughts, feelings. It’s a state of confusion that mind-controllers love to create, inculcate, and exacerbate.”

Though LuLaRoe didn’t respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment, the company posted a statement on their website on September 9th, the day before LuLaRich premiered, saying that their “mission is and will continue to be, centered around helping women all over the world feel beautiful, confident, and worthy of the dreams they set out to achieve.”

And while it doesn’t directly address LuLaRich or any allegations made by former consultants, the company says that its “business model has empowered tens of thousands of Independent Fashion Retailers to build their own businesses,” adding that their success is influenced by their “individual capacity, business experience, market conditions, expertise, and motivation.” And, that “as with any business, results will vary.”

'Oh My God, We're In a Cult': New Docuseries Shows the Dark Side of Clothing Brand LuLaRoe (2024)
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