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LuLaRoe founders DeAnne Brady and Mark Stidham.Amazon Studios

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Lauren Heintzman is an assistant art director at The Globe and Mail

If you’re looking for a wild ride you can take from the comfort of your couch, look no further than LuLaRich, Amazon’s new four-part docuseries on multi-level marketing company LuLaRoe.

MLMs abound, selling everything from athleisure clothing and health supplements to makeup and haircare. Surely you too have been approached by that long-lost girlfriend on social media trying to sell you essential oils. In LuLaRoe’s case, the product is leggings with ridiculous prints, and LuLaRich exposes just what happened at the infamous MLM, which brought a legion of women to the brink of losing it all and now faces a mountain of litigation.

These “faux-empowerment” companies, tend to have a few things in common: They generate revenue from a non-salaried workforce who use their own cash to buy and then sell the company’s products and who profit off the recruitment of new “business owners” becoming their “upline” (more on that later). Also in common: They tend to prey on people who like the idea of being their own boss while being part of a bigger community. That part may sound okay, but ultimately, success is reserved for those at the very top.

The doc is fun to watch, but we quickly realize something dark lurks beneath as we learn how founders DeAnne Brady and Mark Stidham grew a multi-billion-dollar company with unpaid labour from thousands of women who ended up buried in debt. It’s hard to tell if Brady and Stidham are truly oblivious to their unethical behaviour, but I don’t see how they weren’t aware that they were making their consultants shell out their own cash for “stinky” leggings that tore like “wet toilet paper.”

Of course, MLMs are not new. Tupperware parties have been a way for women to make income (and socialize) for decades and Mary Kay has been selling cosmetics through distributors for almost as long. It seems like a smart way to get your product in new hands: host a party, have people try your products, and get them to either buy or recruit to sell. It is a model that works – it’s also how LuLaRoe started, and social media allowed them to explode.

And for as long as MLMs have been around, they have targeted women. That mom selling Tupperware in the 50s is now a #mompreneur, #girlboss, #bossbabe all over social media. When recruiting, MLMs use feminism and the concept of “having it all” as a draw. Author Jill Filipovic, featured in the documentary, dives deep into this idea on her blog, writing: “The most interesting part of the LuLaRoe story, and the story of so many MLMs, is the place where American capitalist and consumerist aspiration crashes into our stubborn enforcement of traditional gender roles: how we still fetishize full-time motherhood and consider it the end-all be-all of female ambition, while also living in a nation obsessed with buying, selling, entrepreneurship, and the myth of the self-made (wo)man.”

That’s all problematic enough, but what also troubles me about MLMs is this idea that if you can’t make it work, it’s because you are not dedicated enough, you are not hustling hard enough. It is possible – and so easy! – so there must be something wrong with you if you are unsuccessful. There are plenty of women on social media projecting their success with peppy posts and photos, but what they might not be sharing is how deep in debt they are as they try to keep up appearances and become buried in unsold inventory.

And while it’s true that MLMs can bring like-minded people together, “cult” may be a more appropriate word than “community” (and one that certainly came up during the doc). Among other things we learned: there is no speaking ill of the company, its products or founders. You must sell and recruit a certain amount each month. There is pressure to look a specific way (you may have seen these “huns” on your social media feed), and there might even be suggestions to get weight loss surgery. All your posts must be positive (no drama, unless it sells) and always reference the company in some beneficial way, showing your bonus check or thanking them for indulgences like lavish trips.

In Edward Scissorhands, Avon Lady Peg visits her neighbour and recites her Avon spiel. Her friend replies, “Oh Peg, you know I never buy anything from you.”

“I know,” she replies ruefully. And they go about their day.

This is a passing scene, but there is something deeply upsetting about the idea of thinking of your friends as means to make money, either by selling them overpriced products, or worse, becoming their “upline,” meaning you recruit them and then pocket a portion of their earnings. This is the only way to become truly successful at multi-level marketing and there is always pressure from your upline to recruit more people below you, as it sends money up the triangle (or pyramid).

We want to believe these companies allow women more freedom. But businesses that exploit women for free labour and leave them with debt magnify the worst parts of capitalism.

So while I’m happy to report most “huns” I encounter are, like Peg, relatively harmless, back off when I say I’m not interested and appear to be making it work for themselves – LuLaRich only solidified my idea of what MLMs are really built on: dishonesty and performance, at the expense of exactly who they allegedly benefit, women.

What else we’re thinking about:

If you live in the GTA or Hamilton area, you may have been, like me, hearing the GO Transit ads that glorify commuting. As we get closer to a possible office return, I’m seeing more pieces on the benefits of making the trip to work. But as Anne Helen Peterson writes in her great newsletter, Culture Study, this productive commute is a myth. Most commutes are noisy and cramped, or involve multiple stops. It just takes one cancelled train or uncleared sidewalk to ruin a whole day. Ideally, a commute is a chance to clear your head and provides a buffer space between work and home – I’ve even made this comment in defence of my own commute. But the truth is, you can achieve this at home. Take twenty minutes for some yoga or go on a walk, write in a journal or meditate. All of the good things a commute provides don’t really need to be done while travelling, and the idea that a bus is the best place to decompress is pretty unrealistic.

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