I first learned of the “leggings cult” in the small hours of a 2017 winter morning. I was approaching the event horizon of a Facebook black hole when I came across a post that sent shivers down my spine: my former high school English teacher was trying to shill a scam to her hundreds of digital “friends.” But her language wasn’t full of “get rich quick” promises and typos, as if she’d been hacked — it was all this talk of #blessed #bossbabes, accented with more exclamation points than she ever would’ve allowed in my book reports. A grainy selfie showed her holding up a Kate Spade purse, beaming through fire-engine red lips. She’d hashtagged the photo #BecauseOfLuLaRoe. I’d known this woman as a shy, poised 30-something who wore neutral colors and cared a lot about grammar — this chipper new diction and flashy appearance just didn’t feel right. It was like someone had hijacked her brain, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Or… like a cult.
“Do you know what’s up with Ms. Davis? And wtf is LuLaRoe?” I texted a former classmate, who still lived in our hometown. “It’s an MLM,” my friend responded. “Basically a leggings cult.”
This past week, a former member of NXIVM — the self-help cult that infamously branded women — confirmed my old pal’s sentiments: “Omg. Lularoe doc. U see it yet?” Anthony “Nippy” Ames, co-host of the podcast A Little Bit Culty, DMed me. He was referencing LuLaRich, Amazon Prime’s docuseries about the notorious company and its founders, DeAnne and Mark Stidham. “It’s nuts. Same shit [as NXIVM]. Different structure.”
In the years since I first learned about LuLaRoe, multi-level marketing companies (MLMs for short) have become a personal obsession of mine. Network marketing, relationship marketing, direct sales... there are at least a half dozen synonyms for these pay-and-recruit organizations — the fraternal twins of illegal pyramid schemes, which often resemble fanatical fringe religions in the tactics and language they use to recruit members and convince them to stay in the organization. LuLaRoe was one of the organizations that inspired my recent book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, which analyzes the language of “cultish” groups from Scientology to SoulCycle.
It might seem like hyperbole to put LuLaRoe in the same category as a dangerous group like NXIVM — after all, MLM members are not getting their flesh seared with their leaders’ initials, nor are they forced to move to a rural commune in the woods. But “cults” don’t all wear the same cloak, and even so-called “normal” people can find themselves inveigled by one. (Also, let us not forget that NXIVM leader Keith Raniere was a failed MLM leader before he discovered he was better cut out for the self-actualization space and pivoted.) When examined under a microscope, “MLMs are extremely similar to cults,” says Rick Storkan, an Arizona attorney who studies the legality of alternative religions and MLMs. “They recruit participants through the use of false and misleading information. Moreover, they psychologically manipulate their distributors through thought control.”
Existing at the fringes of the dignified labor market, American MLMs number in the hundreds: from Amway, Avon, Mary Kay, and Tupperware to Young Living Essential Oils, Rodan + Fields, Arbonne, Younique, and, of course, LuLaRoe. MLM pitches always follow a similar script, featuring jaunty, uplifting talk of the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to be the “boss babe” you really are and “make a full-time income by #WFH part-time without ever having to leave your kids!” These companies are defined by their business model: Individuals are enlisted to pony up a buy-in fee (LuLaRoe’s started at $5,000) for the privilege to peddle products — essential oils, diet pills, you name it — to their friends and family, while also recruiting new sellers each month (for which they earn special bonuses and commission). These “consultants,” “distributors,” “retailers,” or whatever euphemistic title the company chooses to bestow its members, are emphatically told they’re running their own businesses, but up to 99% of MLMers never make a dime. That’s because all that recruiting, recruiting, recruiting floods the market with too many boss babes; so you wind up with a tiny gaggle of lucky super-sellers who got in early at the top of the pyramid, profiting only at the expense of the screwed-over mass below them. I often make the analogy that an MLM is to a pyramid scheme as a Starbucks Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino is to a milkshake: One is just a gloriﬁed version of the other.
But MLMs aren’t just scams: They are complex, life-consuming organizations with pervasive ideologies and powerful founding leaders whom members come to worship on a spiritual level. The famous University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils deﬁned “cult charisma” as “whenever an individual is understood to be connected with crucial questions of human existence.” To this degree, MLM leaders — who are positioned as enlightened, unquestionable, God-like figures able to fix not only your finances but your whole life — are as inﬂuential as new religious ones. At LuLaRoe, many die-hards came to call their co-founders DeAnne and Mark “Mom” and “Dad.”
MLMs aim to take control of your clothes, your weight, your marriage, your social media posts, and how you spend every waking hour of your day. “If anything was positive in your life, it was always because of LuLaRoe,” an ex-member says on LuLaRich. If you got a new haircut, a car, a house, a Kate Spade handbag, you were obligated to proclaim it was #BecauseOfLuLaRoe — lest DeAnne harass you as a disappointing representative of the company and an ingrate. In practically every infamous cult, followers are conditioned to express nonstop gratitude to their leaders, enforcing the message they owe their lives to these charismatic figures, even if their lives objectively suck. (In Jonestown, for instance, Jim Jones required followers to give him daily thanks for good food and work, even though labor on the compound was backbreaking and food was scarce.)
To stay in power, cult leaders are motivated to discourage dissent and questioning wherever possible; isolating followers from outsiders and encouraging conformity help do that. This is why leaders of groups from Heaven’s Gate to 3HO (the Kundalini Yoga “cult”) to Rajneeshpuram (who were featured on Netflix’s Wild Wild Country) to LuLaRoe manipulate followers into leaving their regular jobs, dressing alike, going on specific diets, and speaking a common language that only insiders can understand. Sure, the uniform of a LuLaRoe member might be a pair of French bulldog-patterned leggings and blonde highlights rather than a white robe and shaved head, and their love-bombing vocabulary may include hashtags and “girlboss” instead of glossolalia and “the next evolutionary level above human,” but the psychological effects are quite similar. Ex-LuLaRoe recruits alleged that they were pressured to convince their husbands to quit their jobs so that they would be all in on the company, making it harder to walk away (#RetireYourHusband, senior members would grin). Others spoke of being coerced into weight loss surgery to conform to LuLaRoe’s white, slim, traditionally feminine beauty standard. And everyone, no exceptions, was conditioned to be obsessed with the leggings — to worship at the altar of the pairs with ultra-desirable prints and patterns, known as “unicorns.” To wear, live, and breathe all things LuLaRoe.
LuLaRoe followers are pumped with proverbs to ingrain the feeling that this isn’t just business, it’s church: “Join the movement,” “One big family,” “We are connected,” “You are never alone,” “sisterhood,” and endless talk of “blessings,” “blessed to be part of the community,” “helping families, blessing lives.” You can recognize that a group is creeping into sinister cult territory when the promise at hand (which, of course, can’t be fulfilled) is that this community alone holds the keys to paradise, not just here on earth but for all of eternity, while every poor soul on the outside is doomed.
Emotionally charged us-vs.-them labels and mantras burn this lofty message into followers’ brains: For example, Scientologists are on what they call the “Bridge to Total Freedom,” while outsiders are “SPs” (suppressive persons), and 3HO members are on a “high vibration,” while everyone else is on a “low vibration” and doomed to be an “old soul” (someone who reincarnates life after life and never gets it right) forever. Heaven’s Gaters were “students of the Kingdom of Heaven” and “recipients of the gift of recognition,” whereas mainstream Christians belonged to a “Luciferian program” and “counterfeit God.” The vocabulary is different from group to group, but the sky-high stakes are the same: Give your life to us, and you’ll be eternally healthy, wealthy, enlightened, LuLaFamous. Disobey, and expect everlasting misery.
Compounding this sense of religiosity are MLMs’ conferences: annual or twice-annual blowouts that are considered mandatory for success, yet cost an arm and a leg to attend and are more akin to evangelical tent revivals than business seminars. LuLaRoe’s “Leadership Events” read like a cross between a megachurch service, a Tony Robbins conference, and a Katy Perry concert (in fact, Katy Perry was once paid millions to perform at a LuLaRoe shebang).
Like most MLMs, LuLaRoe’s recruits are mostly white, non-working wives and mothers (like Ms. Davis, who struck up with LuLaRoe after quitting teaching). This demographic has been the industry’s target since the dawn of modern direct sales in the 1940s. At that time, droves of women who’d held jobs during WWII were driven back into the home after their husbands returned from war; having lost the sense of community and purpose they derived from employment, they sought something to fill the void. Enter: MLMs, whose advertising has always riffed on whatever “female empowerment” buzzwords were trendy at the time. While midcentury direct sales recruitment language promised that Tupperware was “the best thing that’s happened to women since they got the vote!” in the age of social media, it plays on the faux-inspirational lingo of what I like to call “Pinterest feminism.”
For MLM sellers, the group becomes their new site of community, ritual, and purpose. There’s a reason why dozens of MLMs are Christian or Mormon-affiliated (including LuLaRoe, whose founders often spouted verses from the Book of Mormon at their “Vision” events): To be a born-and-bred missionary — to share the “good news” of a “life-changing opportunity” with everyone you know — is exactly the skill needed if you have any hope of meeting those monthly recruitment “goals.”
Religious or not, we Americans are all brought up in a culture founded on the Protestant capitalist values that MLMs grossly exploit: individualism, ambition, progress, and meritocracy — the notion that those who succeed in life really deserve it and those who don’t simply didn’t work hard enough. Dating back to 19th century books like The Prince and the Pauper all the way to (often problematic) self-help hits like Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Wash Your Face, we’re all taught from birth to aspire to a rags-to-riches story. Living in a society imbued by the prosperity gospel — the idea that heavenly blessings and monetary #blessings are inherently linked — you really don’t have to be all that gullible to buy the American-Dream-on-steroids that MLMs are selling. To MLMers, the word “entrepreneur” represents not just a career but a “morally superior way of being in the economy,” says Nicole Woolsey Biggart, a UC Davis sociologist and author of Charismatic Capitalism: Direct Selling Organizations in America. To this degree, the direct sales industry is a strategic and consistent assault on the American spirit itself.
Juxtaposed with all the glamour and faux inspiration, MLMs gaslight you into believing that if you follow their “ﬂawless” plan and don’t succeed, there is simply something wrong with you. “Always, there are many others in a very similar situation, experiencing very similar circumstances, who are managing to achieve success and happiness despite those circumstances,” reads a slide of LuLaRoe literature featured in LuLaRich. This rhetoric conditions you to think that if you’re not swimming in cash, it’s not the company’s fault — it’s yours. You didn’t have enough faith or perseverance to unlock your potential and earn what should’ve been yours for the taking. So what if your shipment of leggings showed up defective? If you were really a #bossbabe, you’d make it work and sell them anyway. In NXIVM, if you were skeptical of, or hurt by, a certain ritual (like being forced to sleep on the floor as “penance” for breaking a protocol Raniere put in place), that was considered a “limiting belief” (in LuLaRoe, the equivalent was called a “victim mindset”). In my research for Cultish, I learned that any healthy, legitimate group will be transparent about its membership requirements and stand up to scrutiny — NXIVM didn’t, and neither did LuLaRoe.
Let’s say you start to feel prickles of doubt that the company isn’t all that was promised — that your low bank account and closet full of paper-thin bumblebee leggings no one wants are now speaking louder than your LuLaRoe “Mom” and “Dad.” The MLM has put measures in place to ensure that leaving isn’t easy. At this point, you’ve likely developed deeply emotional, codependent bonds with other members. You text with them all day. You’re in secret Facebook groups together. And they’re all counting on you to make money. If you give up now, they’ll tell you, you’ll disappoint your family and your “family.” You’ll disappoint God. You won’t be a #bossbabe anymore. You’ll be nothing. (And if you talk about your experience in the company later, you might even get a cease-and-desist.) It’s psychological warfare.
We tend to hold preconceived notions that cult followers are desperate, disturbed, or intellectually deficient, but why would a cult want someone like that? Cults desire outgoing, bright, optimistic people with lots of friends to recruit and money to burn, and importantly, who possess enough faith that when things inevitably turn sour, they won’t break down right away. It’s not stupidity that makes people vulnerable to MLMs like LuLaRoe; instead, it’s a breed of optimism that comes more naturally to people who’ve been taught that the American Dream was made for them — like PTA moms with sunshine-y faces and saucer-like blue eyes, who believe white men in suits when they say their business is a “pure meritocracy,” and that those who work hard enough will undoubtedly succeed.
“We’re not in the clothing business, we’re in the people business,” Mark Stidham told the lens in an early episode of LuLaRich, his eyes crinkling. “If you’re happy and confident you can sell anything.” Cult memberships included.