LuLaRoe: the company is synonymous with social media multilevel marketing and colorful printed leggings. For many people who signed on to hawk the product to their friends and family on social media, LuLaRoe was a pyramid scheme that didn’t pan out as promised. Earlier this year, founders DeAnne and Mark Stidham agreed to pay over $4 million to settle a lawsuit brought against LuLaRoe by the Washington State attorney general.
“Fyre Fraud” directors Jenner Furst and Julia Nason unravel the LuLaRoe story in “LuLaRich,” a new four-part docuseries for Amazon. Here, the co-directors discuss their experience making the documentary, and make a case for colorful leggings as an entry into discussing larger issues of misogyny within society.
WWD: When did you start working on the documentary and what was your starting place, what drew you to this topic?
Jenner Furst: We’re always looking for stories that are able to explore the zeitgeist through characters and through a story that was seen in the news, but had so much more to it. Story Force — Blye Faust and Cori Shepherd Stern — brought us this story. We were trying to find something to work on, and it was immediate. I think we were talking about it for about three seconds and both parties believed that this would be a really amazing, entertaining, funny, wacky thing — but also an important piece of content to re-examine and bring to the world. So it started then, and that was only like 14 months ago, just to give you a sense of how quickly we move, and we all mobilized behind these stories. So to be premiering with such an impactful premium event is really all thanks to Amazon for believing in the series and helping us get it done so quickly.
WWD: What was your familiarity with LuLaRoe coming onboard the project?
Julia Nason: I didn’t personally know about the drama of the company. I had seen some of their logos, the tag, and some [products] in secondhand thrift stores because they didn’t have stores. So that’s how I really knew about the brand. I recognized the pyramid shape logo.
J.F.: It’s not a world that I’m traversing a lot. But one Google search and it was immediately fascinating. And we’ve since learned of so many other people we know of who were associated with the brand in one way or another. So I think although it wasn’t right in front of me, once we started digging in, it felt very ubiquitous to our lives.
WWD: Did you start work on the documentary by doing research about the brand and what was going on, or did you start by talking to people? What was your process for getting into the storytelling?
J.N.: It’s a combination of researching and talking to people directly. We had a huge dossier of research materials going into this. Story Force brought in a huge amount of pre-production research and a lot of firsthand communication with people who were retailers and people who worked for the company in different ways. It runs the gamut in terms of how we build out these documentaries from the start. Usually we come in with a huge Excel doc with everybody’s connections to the piece, and then we curate and whittle it down to some core voices within that — that embody the bigger picture message, but without so many talking heads. We really like to be intimate with our characters and the ones that we decide to work with and bring to the series on screen.
J.F.: People have this impression about filmmaking that you go into research and then pre-production and then production and post-production. And for us, with these types of premium events, we go into everything all at once. So we’re beginning post-production simultaneously by bringing in all the archival, studying the archival, using the archival to inform some of our interview questions. We’re scheduling interviews with significant sources right in the beginning. We interviewed Mark and DeAnne within a couple months of deciding to pursue the project. And all of our initial interviews are used, in a sense, as research. They’re long, they’re conversational. We’re trying to cover as much as possible. And we do that approach with many of our sources. It’s a full steam ahead methodology that we use for all of our films.
The Washington State attorney general was still actively prosecuting LuLaRoe, so we were communicating with their office and going through foyer requests all from Day One. It was a very dynamic process.
WWD: DeAnne and Mark were the first people you interviewed. What was your process for getting them onboard, and was there any reluctance on their end?
J.F.: We were very straight and we were very direct. We said, look, we’re making this film and you’re either going to be in it, or you’re not going to be in it. And if you’re in it, there’s an opportunity for your point of view, your story, your backstory, your values to be communicated and part of the story. And if you’re not in it, that would be left to other people. And I think that piques a lot of people’s [attention]. It’s almost like a human instinct to want to be able to tell their own story and not have someone else tell their story. And then you have the reality that they’re still in business. So if you’re still in business and you are claiming that you are a legitimate business, then you should have nothing to hide.
And I think that was the aura that they gave: we have nothing to hide. We may have done something wrong, but we didn’t seek to do wrong. And we’re still here. We’re still selling leggings, and we still think this is a great opportunity for families across the country. So I think that created a perfect storm for a great interview, because there’s a dissonance between that point of view and the facts that were on the table.
WWD: How did that interview inform the direction of the rest of the documentary and what other voices you wanted to include?
J.F.: We knew we were going to be casting a lot of other people and that we were never going to stop at Mark and DeAnne. We felt that in order to tell a 360-degree story, regardless of whether people are labeled villains or bad guys or crooks or whatever the parlance is about someone’s role in something, we believe that they should be part of the story and we should hear from them. That said, we were seeking in a sense archetypes for every type of experience in LuLaRoe: someone who did well, someone who’s still selling, someone who was on the bottom, someone who was in the middle, someone who saw it from the outside and wanted to change what was happening and wanted to fight against it. Attorneys, people who worked in the home office. Our most beloved character is Derryl Trujillo, who was just a low-level customer service employee who felt the deepest moral quandary imaginable just showing up to work every day, and vividly described that to us and also to many other people who found community together after this thing fell apart.
J.N.: Interviewing the founders, that’s the one thing that I had in my mind: what would the founders say about all of these complaints and all of this distress? So having the opportunity to ask them directly what they would say helped me really understand the tone of the series and understand the intimacy behind this brand and the whole lifestyle and world behind it. And that really cultivated the aesthetic of the show in terms of being this wild kooky crazy circus, with bright primary colors and ’90s prints and throwbacks to Backstreet Boys. And “Fyre Fraud,” which is one of our other films, really set the tone for me to have that intimate experience, to speak with the founders directly.
WWD: On the topic of what would the founders think, have they seen the completed documentary yet? Have you shown it to them?
J.N.: We have not shown it to them. We’ve spoken directly about their concerns and what they want to portray for themselves, and it makes sense — they have a business. So we’ve been open with them, back and forth. But in recent times, since we continued to produce this, we haven’t been as close and in touch except through email.
J.F.: Ultimately, we stated very clearly that our intention was to tell the truth and that we are dedicated to exposing the truth, and that would involve how you see the truth, and how other people see the truth. And the invitation was to tell us your side of the story. And then since this is your company, and since you two have formed it and worked so hard on it, we’re going to give you an opportunity to respond to all the allegations. And in many ways that is standard operating procedure in any journalistic project, especially when there’s a lot of remarks that are damning. And we did that, and that was the interview they declined. They sent a very buttoned-up PR statement in response to multiple pages of allegations. But we believe we did our part, and we offered them an opportunity to share their version of the story. And what the viewer sees is what they gave.
WWD: Social media obviously plays such a big part in their company [LuLaRoe], specifically Facebook. To what extent did you guys utilize Facebook in your process of making the documentary and finding sources?
J.N.: We used social media a lot. We used Facebook in particular; there’s a group called the defectors on Facebook. That is a huge group of people, former retailers that have gathered together for years to out bad practices of the company and how they feel personally wronged. So that defectors group was a huge source of research for us. And we interviewed Becca Peters, who is a big part of the defectors group and all the inner workings of that. People became obsessed with unpacking what really happened in this company on that platform.
J.F.: It’s an interesting paradox and sort of ironic that the tool used to recruit, seduce and enroll families around the country was social media. And just like with “Fyre Fraud,” it was also what was their undoing. And I think that there’s this dual-edged sword that we’re living with now, where social media has this corrupting corrosive quality to it by selling a dream by seducing people into a false reality. And on the flip side, it’s one of the most potent tools for justice in the 21st century. I think we told a story that unfolds and represents both of those realities.
WWD: Was there anything that particularly surprised you over the course of making the film? Were there any ideas you had coming in that were proven false through filming and talking to people?
J.N.: What surprised me is similar to the dichotomy of social media being the driver of the success of the business and the fall of the business at the same time. I was surprised that so many families, and in particular women, were taken advantage of in this patriarchal misogynistic system of selling the dream of “a woman can have everything” and the cheap pop-feminist language of Girl Boss. They were affected by this deeply, and lost their homes and were not empowered in the end. This was not empowerment for women, which it claimed it was.
When [some women] were asked what they thought about patriarchy, a lot of them had problems with that question. Problems in terms of, they didn’t know the definition of it — that’s not a problem, that’s actually a conversation. It was shocking to me that you can have so much awareness over something that so deeply touches you or traumatizes you, and then when it’s brought out of your narrative of what happened to you, and looked at from a different perspective — through a systemic lens of patriarchy and misogyny — it was interesting to me that felt like a third rail to some women, to answer the question about misogyny and patriarchy when they were deeply affected by it.
J.F.: One of the most interesting questions we ask in an interview is “define the patriarchy.” And a lot of times people will squirm and say, well, I didn’t know the interview was going here. The fragility around misogyny and patriarchy is shocking. One of the most laughable moments is right in the trailer, when we asked DeAnne to talk about the empowerment of women and Mark goes, “can I answer this?” Right there, that’s the humorous, laughable embodiment of the crux of this story. Women can’t have it all, and we should be talking more about that.
J.N.: That’s why it’s a dark comedy. It’s a comedy because we want people to relate to it, but then we also want people to try to be vulnerable and understand how they specifically play a role in condoning systemic misogyny for themselves. And women do it, too – I do it, too.
J.F.: And all systems, it isn’t just patriarchy or misogyny. We don’t believe in bad guys and villains. If we made films that just were about pin the tail on the donkey, and this person’s to blame for everything that ever happened, that’d be a pretty shallow story in the context of a documentary. For us, it always leads back to a bigger system. And then the stickiest part of it is, it all sticks onto us. We’re all part of it.
What’s exciting for us is that every film is an opportunity to expand our own knowledge. We never walk into a film assuming we understand the answer to the central question. In fact, we think the central question is what makes the film so interesting. And that’s what viewers ultimately are left with: is multilevel marketing cool? Is this something that I should be doing? If my sister or cousin gets involved in this, should I be saying congrats or watch out? And I think it’s that question and straddling that line that makes content like this so interesting.
WWD: Did you guys end up answering that question for yourselves?
J.N.: It’s definitely “walk with caution.” I think it’s a complicated question because a lot of our country is actually a mirror of multilevel marketing. It’s like saying: just have a start-up. That’s not multilevel marketing, but it kind of is, you know what I mean?
J.F.: I think to a certain extent that multilevel marketing represents the worst of free market capitalism, because you just have to worry about what you’re selling and selling it well and getting other people to buy it, and the rest of it is everyone else’s problem. I think that creates a lot of different issues. One is that some people are not built and educated to be great salespeople; it’s just not what their talent is. And they’re sold the idea that they can be great at something that maybe they can’t actually be good at. And then the flip side is, I don’t think anything that requires a majority of people who take part in it to lose for you to win is a positive thing. I think that we present that story very clearly.
You can say what you will about LuLaRoe, but LuLaRoe is not the first and will not be the last multilevel marketing company. And I think that the answer to whether or not this is viable is about who’s buying and selling it.
It’s not for us to deliver justice in this system. At this point, it’s for our lawmakers and others to defend the least among us. I think that most of our stories are about the least among us and people who don’t have power and influence, who are seduced by power and influence or taken advantage of by power and endurance, and who ultimately are voiceless until films like this get made and everybody sees their story. It’s an honor to make films like that — especially ones that are funny, because there’s no better way to start being fascinated about something than to have it lead with a joke.
But the joke is ultimately on us.