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Book ‘Hey, Hun’ exposes the ugly side of multilevel marketing

The day Emily Paulson was awarded her new Lexus — gleaming white, topped with a big red bow and a vanity plate reading FREECAR — she was surrounded by more than 100 women with their iPhones aloft, eagerly snapping photos. Later, they would post them to social media with tags like #liveyourdreams, #successstartshere and #bossbabe.

She had reached the upper echelons of popular beauty and skincare company as a direct-sales consultant: selling the products, but also the lifestyle, to other women.

Emily was making making tens of thousands of dollars a month, frequently traveling to conventions across the country and seen as the model success story by the other consultants photographing her and hoping to be just like her.

The company car, however, wasn’t exactly free. Paulson was responsible for the down payment, title and registration. She had shelled out nearly $10,000 of her own money for the party’s catering, alcohol and an Instagrammable donut truck.

And minutes after she pulled off that giant red bow and drove away, Emily was arrested for driving under the influence.

Emily Paulson with a white Lexus wrapped in a pink bow
Paulson showed off the Lexus she “earned” from selling so much — but she actually had to put down the down payment herself.
Courtesy of Emily Paulson

For Paulson, now 43, that Instagram-versus-reality situation is why she wrote the book “Hey, Hun: Sales, Sisterhood, Supremacy, and the other Lies Behind Multilevel Marketing“ (Row House Publishing, out now).

“There are a lot of people out there who feel embarrassed at being a part of multilevel marketing, who feel controlled and who feel it was their fault that they got caught up in this, but they aren’t talking about it,” Paulson told The Post. “This is why I had to write the book.”

And while the DUI episode was the impetus she needed to get sober, it wasn’t the impetus she needed to quit Rejuvinat — the fake name she gives her MLM employer in the book.

In a weird way, the DUI only increased Paulson’s motivation for selling success.

Rodan + Fields product line
Rodan + Fields is one of the popular direct-sales brands of today.

“When you get a DUI, it’s expensive, and some extra money sure sounds good,” Paulson writes. “When your friends shun you for the antics you pulled while drunk, an ostensibly accepting community meets a key need!”

It was only once Paulson attempted to sell while sober that she noticed just how much alcohol had fueled her MLM success.

There were the endless open bars at sales parties and conventions — not to mention the glasses of wine drunk as she scrolled endlessly through her phone, texting her team, liking and commenting on other consultant’s posts, and coaxing former coworkers, classmates and neighbors to purchase products.

Selling products to your acquaintances is a retail strategy known as direct sales, which makes up a $40.5 billion industry in the US (up from $29.9 billion in 2012) and involves some 6.7 million people, according to the Direct Selling Education Foundation.

Emily Paulson's image on a giant video screen facing an audience
Paulson regularly traveled the country promoting the brand and her success at conventions.
Courtesy of Emily Paulson

Multilevel marketing, or MLM, is a method of direct sales that not only rewards commissions on product sales, but also provides commission when people are recruited into the business, forming a downline.

Among the household MLM names are legacy brands like Tupperware, Avon and Mary Kay, while contemporary brands — regularly promoted on social media include — include Rodan + Fields (skincare products), doTerra (essential oils)  and Scentsy (wickless candles).

The most infamous example may be the leggings brand Lularoe, as exemplified in the scathing 2021 Amazon Prime documentary “Lularich” which exposed how some women lost their homes, savings and marriages.

Women's legs clad in LulaRoe leggings
The documentary “LulaRich” exposed shocking stories about the MLM leggings brand LulaRoe.

The more distributors on a consultant’s team, the more revenue they make.

“Most people have friends or relatives who will buy something from you,” Paulson explained. “But you’ll only get a few cents, maybe, of that $20 purchase. And you can’t keep expecting them to buy.”

Where the real money comes from is then getting those initial buyers to become part of your team, selling to their own networks. “Really, the products are just a way to get you into the company,” Paulson said. 

Multilevel marketing is legal, but this structure gets compared to Ponzi schemes because the people at the top make the most money, limiting the amount people who join later can make.

Emily Paulson holding shopping bags
Paulson started in the MLM game because she was bored as a stay-at-home mom of five in Seattle.
Courtesy of Emily Paulson

“There’s this illusion that if you work hard, the sky’s the limit. You hear all these stories, ‘I was so sad, now I’m so happy.’ But they’re a lie. And they’re not giving any of the real story,” Paulson said.

When she got her start, Paulson was simultaneously bored and exhausted as a stay-at-home mom of five in Seattle. She had given up work as a chemist when she had her first child, and her husband made a good living for their growing family.

When a friend asked her to sell, she jumped at the chance. She had always been good at selling things — her casual comments on social media advising on the best boots, vacuums or skincare products often resulted in friends purchasing her recommendations — and the idea of getting free products and being paid for conversations she was already having seemed too good to be true. 

“MLMs will really make themselves fit whatever ails you,” Paulson said. “It seems like the total package. Money, friends, trips, escape. The products felt right, and there was wine. It just preyed on the hope I had that things could be different or better.”

Assortment of colorful Tupperware lids
Tupperware is a direct sales legacy brand but earlier this year was hit with rumors of closure.

And at first, Paulson’s life did seem shinier, sparklier, better.

Within one year in the company, she was making $4,000 a month. At five years, she was making $40,000 a month.

But so many people in her downline were barely breaking even, if not losing money. And Paulson is quick to admit that her success looked better on paper than reality.

While the company would offer a $1,000 stipend for hosting events, she, like other reps, often supplemented to present an illusion of success.

Dressing up and looking glamorous at events was expected — it wasn’t uncommon for Paulson to spend $250 or more on a brand new outfit, and she was expected to go to every event sponsored by the consultants within her team.

Emily Paulson sitting cross-legged on the floor
Paulson said MLMs have a lack of financial transparency.
Emily Paulson / Miranda Kelton Photography

After six years, Paulson qualified as part of Rejuvinat’s million dollar club, she writes, “$1 million divided over that time is an average of $166,000 a year … but after taxes and expenses, cut that in half, and you have around an $80,000 income.”

Paulson believes that the lack of financial transparency is a dirty secret that harms women the most. Because her husband did well, Paulson had the resources to spend money on inventory, host events and cover the down payment on her “free” car. But many women did not, and Paulson feels MLMs prey on the most vulnerable people, including minority women.

The financial buy-in, she explains in the book, helps create a culture of supremacy within the organizations.

“Race, sexual orientation, economics and many other factors influence our lives, yet they are absent in the MLM space,” she writes. “This is no mistake; men didn’t start MLMs to empower women of all backgrounds. They started them to get rich.”

Cover of the book "Hey, Hun," by Emily Paulson
“Hey, Hun,” Paulson’s book, is out now.
Row House Publishing

Paulson also adds that, while diversity is discussed in MLMs, she didn’t witness any way in which diversity, equity and inclusion was thoughtfully discussed, and that the shades in the makeup line she sold only had one color — midnight beige — made for darker skin.

According to statistics from the Direct Selling Education Association, 83% of direct sellers are white; only 9% are Black, and 3% Asian.

“This is a system that upholds supremacy,” Paulson said.

Today, she lives in Bend, Oregon, and works as a sober coach for women. While she would have counted her fellow Rejuvinat consultants as some of her closest friends a few years ago, Paulson said she no longer talks with them.

She has words of wisdom for anyone approached by a “friend” selling a product.

“You think you’re supporting a friend by buying a product. But you’re really keeping them roped into this insular world or system,” Paulson said. “And very few dollars are going into her pocket.”