We’ve all heard of the big ones: Amway, Avon, Mary Kay, Primerica. Multi-level marketing companies have been around for decades and new ones appear all the time, often fading into oblivion when they fail to catch on.
In 2013, DeAnne and Mark Stidham founded LuLaRoe, a clothing company that virtually exploded overnight when it began welcoming retailers to join their vision. Selling themselves on a mission to empower women — especially moms — LuLaRoe lavished their retailers with trips and praise and giant bonus checks. Thousands joined their ranks, some waiting months for their onboarding to be completed. With a significant buy-in that ran thousands of dollars, women borrowed from family, ran up massive credit card bills, and even sold breast milk to afford the chance to change their lives. And it all came at a price.
And this is where Cori Shepherd Stern (Open Heart) and Blye Pagon Faust (Spotlight) got involved. The award-winning producers of film and television knew they needed to tell the story of the couple who created this billion-dollar sensation and the women who just wanted a piece of the dream. In four 45-minute episodes, their documentary series, LuLaRich, uses interviews, deposition footage, and more to give viewers the full scope of LuLaRoe, how it came to be, and how it got to where it is today. The series was directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason and premiered on Amazon September 10.
I recently spoke with Executive Producers Cori Shepherd Stern and Blye Pagon Faust about LuLaRich, how they assembled their team, and some of the things that surprised them most about LuLaRoe.
Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: This is such a crazy series. People have been talking about it all over Twitter. I want to know right off the bat, how did this story come to you?
Cori Shepherd Stern: I had friends that sold LuLaRoe! I’m from Florida and I had a lot of girlfriends that were trying to keep their families afloat and create a life and everything else by selling LuLaRoe. And I had had other friends that sold makeup or essential oils — you’ve always got that aunt who sells essential oils and is rubbing on your arms or whatever. But when I saw leggings, I was like, wait a minute. Wait, why? I mean, it was so random to me. And I just could not look away. And I told Blye about it, and we started tracking it, and Blye got it instantly. And then we took it to The Cinemart and they instantly got it. And from there, it became what it is.
KP: So really, this whole series started with with the two of you.
CSS: Yes. It started with the two of us, yeah, with me seeing all these moms on social media selling leggings. And then we did a deep dive into it with our team at Story Force. We’re a woman run/woman owned company and it was in our sweet spot, fascinating to us both on the entertainment level, but also on the larger impact level. It was crazy that there were 50 different kinds of cat print leggings, and yet it also spoke to so many issues about women and economics and opportunity and working moms. And that’s the level that Blye was really crucial in seeing the larger picture. I was like cat leggings! Pizza print!
Blye Pagon Faust: You couldn’t look away. I mean, once we started looking into this, you saw all these stories, news articles and local news pieces. And there was no long form deep dive. Nobody had done this 360° story on this company, which look, you could tell there was smoke, and there’s a lot of smoke. And usually where there’s a lot of smoke, there’s a fire and we were right. It was crazy. The more we dug, the more that turned up and to put it together in a way that was digestible and understandable for audiences was really important for us because we just felt like these women needed to be heard. And it seems like it really has struck a chord
KP: How did you go about putting together your team, finding your directors and getting people to agree to appear?
BPF: Once we saw this, Cori and I knew we had to get on it, and literally the only directors that we approached were Jenner [Faust] and Julia [Willoughby Nason]. We knew having seen Fyre Fraud that they would nail this and and so we reached out to them — we’d actually never met before — and they immediately got it, and we were off and running. So it was a combination of their team and our team. We had done a lot of the initial legwork reaching out to potential participants for the documentary and then we worked together with with their team as well to broaden that group of people and get through production. It was a perfect pairing really, truly.
CSS: Yeah, they’ve been amazing. It’s been like one of the most fun, really just good partnerships — rare — that you can imagine.
KP: This is a female-centric story being told by women, which we’re seeing more of now but it’s taken a long time to get here.
CSS: Absolutely it has taken a long time to get here and you know what’s funny is we’ve got a female director and a male director and that combination has been really great. I mean, Jenner is sort of like an honorary woman and that’s been perfect and it is kind of funny, that male/female partnership sort of mirrors DeAnne and Mark, except in a good healthy way, like [Jenner and Julia’s ]dynamic is good. I think Jenner sort of does the opposite where Mark interrupts DeAnne like, ‘Can I answer for you?,’ Jenner is often like, ‘Let’s let Julia answer,’ or Julia will just answer. So it’s been fun.
KP: How did it come about that Mark and DeAnne agreed to do this? Was it difficult to get them on board?
BPF: We reached out, we asked and they said yes. And I think they felt like they had their story and their truth to tell and wanted to do that. So it was it actually quite uncomplicated.
KP: It seems like they really think they’re completely justified in everything that happened. Was that the impression that you had?
BPF: Yes, for sure. I think they will say publicly that they have done nothing wrong and that they believe that they were running a legitimate business and that they were empowering women, which again is what, perhaps, they really, truly believe that to their core. Maybe they’re saying it, who will ever know, but I think the the facts and the other testimony and interviews from everybody involved speaks for itself.
KP: How involved were the two of you in the day to day production?
BPF: We were all working totally seamlessly with Cinemart. There were a number of people that we’d already been in contact with, but then we worked with Cinemart as we started to build this out to identify other potential participants, and then worked with both teams in terms of figuring out who those people were, reaching out to them, having conversations with them, getting them on board, and dealing with the logistics to actually get them to show up. It was difficult along the way. There were a lot of people who were scared about coming on camera and ultimately some who spoke to us off the record and gave us information and leads but did not want to appear for various different reasons. Some people were scared of legal repercussions, others were afraid of being dragged back into the bullying ring and just didn’t want to be a part of that but were happy to help behind the scenes. So it really was a collective effort. There were a lot of us working on this to try and pull it all together.
KP: As you were hearing the stories from all these folks that were involved — men and women — what were some of the most surprising elements to you?
CSS: I think for me one of the most surprising elements was the fact that the product was being sent in such a terrible state. When we would say, ‘What’s up with that?’ and someone from the office would say, ‘Well yeah, it was just sitting in the parking lot getting wet every day.’ And that to me was, like this is your product! It’s sitting in the parking lot?
And then the other thing of course is sort of infamous: that the accounting was being run off of Google Sheets. Which, we have a small company and we run everything off of Google Sheets, but we have to be super careful not to delete someone else’s line. To run a huge company off of Google Sheets was insane.
BPF: It was surprising in a good way, or maybe it wasn’t surprising but it was validating in a good way, is once you start talking to everybody, the stories all matched. They all lined up. Because sometimes you’re thinking people could be emotionally invested and there might be things that are a little bit hyperbolic and all that, but no. The stories just lined up like clockwork. So I think we really felt so excited that we had gotten to what we believe to be the real truth.
KP: I remember a couple years ago first hearing about a billion dollar lawsuit against LuLaRoe and thinking, ‘That’s ridiculous. It’s not a billion dollar company.’ And then I found out it was. How do you think this happened? When it comes down to it, how were they able to to do what they did so effectively?
CSS: Really I think a big piece of it is that we are so starved for community, moms in this country especially, women in this country are so starved for community. When you’re working at home — and I mean now everything is weird and different because we are all online — but I think at that moment, to be part of something that felt larger and exciting and you could be part of a group and you were all moving together with purpose. Human beings need purpose and we need community. And those two things, they had purpose and community and felt like they were all driving towards achievable goals and they were doing it in service of their family. So it had all of these little hooks that would of course appeal to the audience that it appealed to. People can look at it and be like, ‘Oh, those silly white women,’ but really, at its core, it offered purpose, opportunity, and something for your family’s survival and that’s why they were able to do it.
BPF: And you know, those billions of dollars were not off of end user consumer sales but on the retailers, on the women buying in on their wholesale orders.
CSS: When you think about those billions of dollars and the huge checks that certain people were cashing, that didn’t represent leggings. That represented someone who went to their in-laws, who took their 401k, who got a bank loan, who sold breast milk, whatever it was. That was entry level. That was to get onboarded. That’s what that represented. It didn’t represent, ‘Wow they’re a billion dollar company, they sold a billion dollars worth of leggings.’ No.
For me personally, like a real origin of this is when I was a kid, my mom was a single mom, and she signed up for a multi-level marketing company and got a giant, pink suitcase full of makeup, and borrowed money to do it — money we did not have to pay back — and she thought, ‘I love this product, I love makeup, I could do this, I’ll get to stay home with my kids.’ I had younger brothers. And you know, that suitcase sat in the closet — not because she didn’t try, she tried — but because there was this constant you’ve got to buy more, you’ve got to do this, and she was under so much pressure. And that suitcase sat in the closet for years. It was like a pink suitcase of shame in the closet and it wrecked her self esteem. It wrecked her belief in herself as a business person. And she had been a business person before this, she had run her own small business and it was successful. But after that, she never opened or ran another business again. She felt like a failure. And she took a series of jobs that did not move her ahead necessarily.
So I think that when we think about this billion dollar business, that’s what we’re talking about. That when they cashed those big checks, they were cashing other people’s dreams and self esteem.
KP: Does it surprise you that there that this company is still there, and that there are women still involved in it and excited about it?
BPF: Yes. For us, obviously we’re not here to make a business judgment, but in general, is it? Yes. And based on the information that’s out there, and based on their history and what’s happened to women who’ve been part of it, it is surprising. They’ve definitely they’ve lowered their buy-in significantly. And they actually did that during the pandemic, when people were captive in their homes and they were looking for alternative sources of income. And so it was an opportunity for people who were struggling over the last year and a half during the pandemic. It still is an enticing possibility for people who might not know better to jump into something like this. And especially when the buy-in was lowered. It made it easier for more people to do it initially.
KP: What have been some of the responses you’ve gotten that have been particularly meaningful to you?
BPF: There’s been a number of former retailers, who’ve reached out to us now and said, ‘Thank you so much. If you ever do a follow up, call us, we’d love to be a part of it. We have so much more to share, we have so many more stories.’ So for us, that’s been one of the most gratifying things, knowing that people are feeling heard in their truth. We actually experienced that with Spotlight too. It’s one of those things where, when the movie came out, there were so many survivors who reached out to us and said, ‘I have never told anyone, but this happened to me, I was so ashamed. I thought I was alone.’ It feels like there’s a lot of similarity here where women were so ashamed if they could not succeed in this scheme. And now seeing that their story was not unique. It was very, very much a familiar pattern. I think they feel empowered, emboldened, and are more willing to come forward and share their stories as well.
CSS: That was very well put. It’s been gratifying to see the women reach out and say, ‘Yeah, I felt so ashamed and now I understand.’ And my own mom. My mom called me. I was worried about telling the story about my mom because she’s still so ashamed. And then she saw the docuseries and she did not realize that it was the system, it wasn’t her. That’s still in their head, they think, ‘I’ve got all these leggings, this is my fault. This is on me.” It’s not. And yeah, that’s been the most gratifying piece of all of this.
KP: What did working on this series mean for you personally?
BPF: It’s just the idea when there’s people out there who have been wronged, and are desperately trying to seek a right to that wrong, and people aren’t listening for whatever reason, I think that galvanizes us in wanting to do something where we can help them and that we can get people who are the decision-makers and people who can make a difference in their lives or, help them get back what they’ve lost. That to us, it gets us really excited. And I think with this, it seems like we are going to be able to have that opportunity. So that’s cool.
CSS: And then yeah, for me, the personal side of it, like it feels like ‘Yeah!’ I hope this puts a dent in predatory companies for future women and men, for future families. And then I think too, this is the first production out of this company that Blye and I started together, Story Force, and it’s really gratifying to see it strike a nerve and to know that this early vision that we had of what we could do if we combined forces and were able to go after stories that had impact and meaning and were commercial and fun and entertaining, that is a very narrow bullseye that we were trying to hit and we’re so excited that it feels very gratifying to know that at every step along the way, from the choice of story to the choice of partners and directors who were able to see this through, down to this amazing experience we’ve had with Amazon, our choice of buyers. Beginning to end it just feels good after toiling in the fields to think, ‘Oh we did it! Yay!’ And people are getting it and it’s providing a lot of entertainment and meaning to other people. So that is feels really, really good.
KP: How does it feel for you now that you’ve spent so many years on a project and then it’s done and it’s out and you’re moving on to the next?
BPF: Oh, well we’re not done with this yet. There’s a lot more life for this. Not only just in terms of its release and entertainment-wise and eyeballs and people watching it, but also continued impact and conversations about other potential ways that we can continue to tell the story. So we’re not done with this and it goes on for a long time. We’ll continue to very much be a part of it, and then there’s a lots of other things that we’re working on too. A lot of them that have some great crossover. So no, it never quite feels like it’s ever totally totally over.
CSS: Yeah, never. It just keeps going. You’re like, ‘Am I done?’ No, I’m not.