By now, you’ve heard that the reign of the girlboss is over. As a number of female industry leaders exit their roles for perpetuating toxic work environments and some even face trial in federal court for alleged fraud and conspiracy, the liberal assumption that women operating capitalist structures can radically transform corporate culture and enhance the lives of average working women is slowly being put to rest.
As with any cultural object that’s lost its shine, it’s instinctual to want to retrace the steps that brought us to this unified place of fatigue and skepticism. Recently, authors, journalists and filmmakers have participated in this exercise to varying results—and sometimes inadvertently—illustrating the universal persuasion of wealth and power and skewering the shallow rewards of representational politics. Today, Amazon delivers the latest entry into this canon, a four-part docuseries called LuLaRich that doesn’t so much focus on the rise and fall of one singular girlboss but portrays the ease and effectiveness of selling this empowerment fantasy to a particular subset of millennial women.
Ripe for serialization in our scammer-obsessed times, LuLaRich tells the story of billion-dollar fashion retailer LuLaRoe—not to be confused with Lululemon, Lulus or Laila Rowe—a multi-level marketing company known primarily for its mammoth collection of flashy, patterned leggings and, since 2017, defective clothing, a series of lawsuits, and charges from the state of Washington that they operated as a pyramid scheme. In 1988, Utah native DeAnne Stidham began selling dresses she bought at the local swap meet, hosting Tupperware-like parties in her home. After 20-plus years of re-selling dresses, she and her second husband Mark started a maxi-dress business that went viral on Facebook and connected them with the first woman to buy into their stock, installing the MLM or direct-sales business model and launching LuLaRoe in 2013.
After experiencing a few years of high demand, lucrative bonus checks and employee perks, LuLaRoe’s earliest and most senior saleswomen began experiencing the company’s downsides. From receiving poorly designed and even moldy clothing they couldn’t return to paying out-of-pocket expenses to attend mandatory conferences, the American dream they bought into for hundreds of thousands of dollars was slipping away, prompting the mobilization of aggrieved employees on Facebook and the company’s inevitable fall from grace.
Much like their approach to the 2019 documentary Fyre Fraud, LuLaRich’s’ co-directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason construct a fascinating but familiar tale utilizing an assortment of baffling testimonies from former LuLaRoe retailers, employees and members of the Stidham family who served in executive roles, insights from cultural and business experts, pop culture clips, deposition footage and a central interview with DeAnne and Mark, whose megachurch-pastor charisma and startling Mormon values (they gleefully share that two of their children, who are not biologically related, are married) will certainly memorialize them alongside the Joe Exotics and Billy McFarlands that have captured the nation’s attention over the past two years.
Viewers who aren’t privy to the LuLaRoe story but enjoy the subgenre of scammer documentaries will immediately recognize if not predict many of the series’ farcical beats and devices, particularly in the cartoonishly bro-y character of the company’s former event coordinator Sam Schultz, the celebrity cameos, and the cultish portrayal of the business. By the time we learn that DeAnne was pressuring women to fly to Tijuana to get weight-loss surgery, it feels like the only logical direction the increasingly whacky series could go in. Additionally, the series’ visual cues can sometimes feel heavy-handed. I’m not sure the audience needs a pan on a Barbie doll as Jill Filipovic reads from the how-to book DeAnne’s mother authored on being a traditionally feminine woman. Do we really need to see a clip of Charlie and Grandpa Joe singing “(I’ve Got A) Golden Ticket” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory after Schultz uses the metaphor of a golden ticket?
While LuLaRich tells an adequately compelling story about the predatory, absorbing nature of MLMs, it’s less adept at analyzing the paradoxes of the demographic they successfully lure into their networks—religious, middle-class white women and stay-at-home mothers, particularly military wives and Mormon women in Utah where there are the most MLMs per capita. Women in traditional marriages where their primary role is child-rearing are more susceptible to joining MLMs because their flexibility allows them to work from home.
Likewise, the docuseries exposes how LuLaRoe’s marketing deployed slogan-y pop-feminist language and the image of the “boss babe” to recruit mothers and wives while underhandedly promoting a politically conservative message about women’s obligation to their families. Essentially, the company told women “she can have it all” while implying that “she” should want her family the most.
Journalist Jill Filipovic, whose presence mostly made me wonder why no Black, female culture writers were approached to speak on this subject, tersely remarks that the fashion company sold a “white vision” of motherhood and the work-life balance, as LuLaRoe-sponsored social media posts of white, heterosexual couples and their children posing in their front yards appear on screen. However, the series stops short of explaining how these women’s relationship to the workforce and their family dynamics differ from the realities of women who are lower-class and non-white, particularly Black women, who, historically, have always had to work while raising children. Two employees of color point out the company’s lack of diversity (former onboarder LaShae Kimbrough, who’s Black, shares a particularly funny tidbit about declining the company’s cruise because of the overwhelming amount of white people), but the directors don’t provide any real context as to why the company attracted the demographic that it did.
LuLaRich may not garner as much fanfare as Fyre Fraud—it’s about leggings, after all—but it will certainly attract culturally-minded individuals interested in the intersections of religion, feminism, capitalism, athleisure, and white womanhood. Although it could be more rigorous in its analysis of these colliding cultural events, it manages to tell a gripping story that will have you laughing and screenshotting dialogue for memes until you’re completely washed over by frustration and disappointment at the end.