In September 2021, over Labor Day weekend, I sat on a beach chair in Cancún watching dozens of adults participate in a belly flop contest in a resort pool. It didn’t make much sense to me, but everyone flopping seemed to be having a blast.
Held in Cancún’s Zona Hotelera, a strip of beachfront property filled with luxury resorts, the party was made up of people who had come from all over the US because of LuLaRoe, a multilevel marketing clothing company that I have been covering for more than four years. This was the first time I had ever been to a LuLaRoe event in person. The belly flop contest was just one activity for the day, which was filled with networking events, a pool float race, and optional experiences like shopping and fishing.
When I first wrote about the company back in 2017, LuLaRoe was a hot brand known for its “buttery, soft leggings,” which had taken off like wildfire in middle America despite the company barely making a name for itself in the fashion world. Within just a few years, LuLaRoe was reportedly a billion-dollar company, and had made social media influencers out of its founder, DeAnne Stidham, her husband, Mark, and their extended family.
Since then, though, LuLaRoe has been beset by endless drama. It has faced multiple class action lawsuits from both its retailers and its customers; a settlement with the attorney general of Washington, after the state accused the company of running a pyramid scheme; and a pending $49 million lawsuit from its former supplier. Over the years, I have spoken with dozens of women who thought they could make full-time pay for part-time work with LuLaRoe, only to lose tens of thousands of dollars instead. Some women told me they even filed for bankruptcy. Many said their experience with LuLaRoe left them with shattered dreams, lost confidence, and strained relationships.
But even in the wake of these stories, LuLaRoe is still operational. That it’s still attracting people to the brand might be the most surprising part of this MLM’s story.
The events in Cancún were part of LuLaRoe’s "D.R.E.A.M." trip, an incentive it hosts annually for its top sellers. These events function as part vacation, part tent revival for LuLaRoe’s most loyal. Retailers get to enjoy days of relaxing, partying, and excursions (sold separately), and also attend presentations from business leaders and company networking events. The company has previously hosted cruises for the trip — retailers who attended told me they got an all-inclusive stay on the ship but paid their own travel there. After its 2020 cruise was canceled due to COVID-19, LuLaRoe announced the 2021 trip would be on land. Retailers were put up in two adjoining hotels, the JW Marriott (the supposedly nicer hotel that seemed to be hosting the top-tier sellers, as well as the Stidham family) and the Marriott, where I stayed.
According to a company disclaimer that LuLaRoe included on all of its Instagram posts about the trip, 724 of its retailers, or roughly 4%, qualified to attend the festivities in Cancún. (During my time there, I saw hundreds of women and men donning LuLaRoe flooding the hotels.) That means that despite the deluge of bad press, lawsuits, and former retailers consistently trash-talking the company online, there are still approximately 18,000 women and men who sell LuLaRoe.
I had ended up in Cancún because the producers of a documentary based on an article I wrote about the company in 2020 wanted to get a sense of what LuLaRoe was like today. So they traveled to Cancún and brought me along as a consulting producer. After speaking with production, we decided I should not approach any of the sellers for interviews until the last day I was there. When I did get the go-ahead to start interviewing retailers, I approached a handful of women, all of whom declined. Shortly after, Justin Lyon, LuLaRoe’s chief marketing officer and DeAnne’s son-in-law, emailed the production team asking that we stop approaching them. We agreed, and so I was unable to speak directly with any of the retailers on the trip.
Thus, I spent most of my time in Cancún observing the events, rather than actively reporting. Luckily, there was a lot to observe. We arrived on Wednesday, Sept. 1, before most of the retailers began arriving on Thursday. From Thursday to Friday, it seemed that with every passing hour the hotel became more packed with LuLaRoe retailers and their plus-ones. Soon, huge lines of LuLaRoe sellers began to stretch down the lobby, all of them clad in colorful leggings, neon visors, and other swag. They filled the pools, shops, and restaurants. Everywhere I looked, middle-aged women and men clad in bright colors surrounded me (a member of the production crew was later told that despite producers’ attempts to remain discreet and approach people slowly for interviews, we stuck out like sore thumbs because we weren’t wearing LuLaRoe).
The main events were held from Friday through Sunday. The hotels put up huge cardboard signs welcoming retailers to the weekend, and even a big LuLaRoe logo to pose in front of (I took a selfie too, of course). Televisions outside conference rooms in the lobbies showed the day’s schedule for D.R.E.A.M. attendees (belly flop included) as well as a list of activities the retailers and their guests could purchase for an additional fee (swim with dolphins for $170, golf for $240). I learned on social media that some lucky retailers were even handed a Willy Wonka–esque card on Thursday, inviting them to dinner with DeAnne and Mark at one of the hotel’s restaurants.
I observed two things while in Cancún that really struck at the core of what makes LuLaRoe so appealing to the people who join it. The company has always marketed itself as a way for women, especially stay-at-home moms, to become “fashion entrepreneurs,” working remotely and making a good salary while keeping precious time with their families. “Start your own business with the flexibility to reach your goals on your schedule,” its website currently reads. Many of the women I have spoken to over the years described their initial interest as being based on these principles, of wanting to contribute to their family’s bottom line without putting their kids in daycare.
All of this to say, the average LuLaRoe retailer is not someone who goes on resort vacations to the Caribbean. For them, and for most people in general, going on a trip like this is a semi-rare opportunity, and the excitement in the air was palpable. The first few days in Cancún, I spent a lot of time flipping through Instagram, looking at the hashtags for the trip, including #becauseofLuLaRoe, which retailers use to denote the benefits of their LuLaRoe business. I’ve spent years looking at Instagram posts from women who have attributed new homes, new cars, the adoption of a child, and more to LuLaRoe.
Scrolling through the photos again, I was struck by the genuine gratitude shown by the women who were promoting the brand. One post in particular, from a retailer named Liz Dotts, really got me. Beside a photo of herself gazing into the breathtakingly blue water from an infinity pool, she explained that the trip was the first time she and her husband have been able to vacation together since their honeymoon.
“Life is always chaotic for us: teaching, kids, Lularoe. Sometimes I wonder why we do it all. And then things like this happen and I realize it is all worth it. We are blessed to be here and have time to reconnect as a couple,” she wrote.
The second observation I had came to me when I was enjoying a buffet dinner at a hotel restaurant. Again, it was impossible to avoid the LuLaRoe crowd, so every meal I had was a chance to watch retailers whether I meant to or not. That night, my table was between two different pairs of women. The first duo were quiet but seemed excited to be there, talking to each other softly with a glow of happiness from a new, fun experience.
The second duo, dressed in matching LuLaRoe shirts that seemed to be homemade, were much more outgoing, traveling to multiple tables to chitchat or say hello before finally settling in with their meals. Soon, though, they were socializing again, this time starting a conversation with the quieter duo, asking the women where they were from (Michigan) and how they were enjoying Cancún. The social duo quickly abandoned their food to engross themselves in more conversation. Their voices became louder and louder as they connected, with bursts of laughter and excitement that filled the room.
Watching the exchange, I surmised that the social women had spotted the quieter ones, and decided to make them feel welcome and relaxed among the LuLaRoe community. Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about the interaction. How nice must it be, I thought, to go on a trip like this and be so accepted. I can think of so many people in my life, especially women, who would be attracted to that kind of support network. How good would it feel to go on a trip to a magical place and find a community willing to embrace you with open arms?
Seeing how these women interacted, while surrounded by the same beauty, I felt like for the first time I could truly understand on an emotional level why they joined the business. I can’t imagine getting to go to such a beautiful place with free accommodations and the satisfaction of believing that it is due to your own hard work. It must be thrilling and incredibly empowering. Of course they are grateful and feel blessed to be a part of LuLaRoe. Who wouldn’t be?
At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of Katie Willis, a former retailer whose experience with the company moved me so much I made her the centerpiece of my feature story on LuLaRoe. Willis told me that she shared similar posts on her 2017 LuLaRoe incentive cruise to the Caribbean, while behind the scenes she was miserable and losing money. I don’t want to imply any of these people are having a similar experience, but it just made me think about how Instagram can sometimes blur the messy truth of MLMs. There are still women like Liz Dotts in the company, but there are also people like Katie Willis. How can we, and the retailers, make sense of this reality?
Now, don’t get it twisted. I’m not saying my mind has been changed on LuLaRoe. Quite the opposite. What this trip taught me is that MLMs are so much more than a “business opportunity,” and that’s what makes them so painful for those who fail. LuLaRoe isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a community. It’s a way to treat your spouse and yourself to a needed respite, it’s a way to make friends, and it’s a way to feel like you belong.
But the sad truth is the dream LuLaRoe is selling is toxic. According to the FTC, only 1% of MLM participants ever make a profit. What I have learned, though, is that there is so much more they can lose than just money.
Some participants not only lose cash, they also lose a piece of themselves. The experience of swimming in an ocean that was a color they had never seen before in real life, alongside their spouse on a trip they could finally enjoy. The experience of being welcomed by a group of bubbly women and finally feeling like they belong. The experience of feeling like they were part of something bigger than themselves. And of finally having a bigger purpose. These are the kinds of losses that also make MLMs so harmful to those who buy into them.
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