Make Me Smart With Kai and Molly

Annabelle Gurwitch is afraid of the gig economy

Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood May 15, 2017

Kai and Molly sat down this week with actress and author Annabelle Gurwitch to talk about her new essay collection “Wherever You Go, There They Are.”

She talked about “work families”; her father, the grifter; her tribe of theater people; and the sisterhood of freelancers she’s found in the gig economy. Listen to an extended cut from the interview. Then read this excerpt of her experience with multilevel marketing companies and their tendency to prey on the closeness between friends. 


What Price Sisterhood Now?

Someone has traced Wash Me on the windshield of the station wagon that’s parked in the driveway of a single‑story house in a middle‑class neighborhood of Los Angeles. Stickers on the car’s bumper include a peace sign subtly doubling as the letter O in One Earth and an unambiguous Unfuck the World! There’s a poster for a benefit to save Darfur, circa 2009, resting against a pot of what once were daisies on the front porch. Whoever these people are, they seem like people I would know.

I’m here because of an invitation from Funny E‑mail Name. Funny E‑mail Name is one of those cute addresses left over from that time when the arrival of an e‑mail was reason for giddy celebration and novel enough to inspire the Hollywood blockbuster You’ve Got Mail. I was so sure that I’d never forget who’d thought up this hilarious moniker that I neglected to enter their contact information into my address book. Nowadays, I ignore half the e‑mails that clog my inbox, but I couldn’t resist opening this one because the subject line read: Help a Sister Out. In a nutshell, it read: “Most of you know what I’m going through and might even be sick of hearing about it. I’m tired of shaking the can and I am starting my own health and wellness business to raise money for my son’s medical expenses. Please consider doing your shopping with my family.” Above a glossy shot of a young man with gravity‑defying checkbones in a wheelchair were the words “This is my son.” “This is my store” was printed above the logo for a skin care company that rhymes with the words “far gone.” It was signed Love, Cindy.

I can think of a number of Cindys who this might be. There’s a casting director, the former girlfriend of a former boyfriend, two Cindys who were administrators of a theater company I worked with twenty years ago, and four Cindys on my list of Facebook friends whom I can’t remember if I know personally or are friends of friends. But a sister in need? How could I refuse her invitation?

I’m a sucker for the sisterhood. I was one of those girls whose mothers subscribed to Ms. magazine, even if they themselves weren’t living examples of Gloria Steinem’s brand of feminism. Unless she shacks up with Ann Coulter, Steinem will always be my leader, and I’m pleased that signs of sisterly solidarity abound in ways less enervating than leaning in.

I was kicking my antidepressant before trying to get pregnant and my husband was out of town. Nauseous and shaking uncontrollably, I was curled up in the fetal position on the cold bathroom tiles by the time my friend Juel made it over.[1] She fed me soup, got me into the shower, and tucked me into bed. You could call it lean on feminism.

When my son was born with medical problems, my Los Angeles girlfriends pumped milk for him. My sisters have provided shelter, lent jewelry and shoulders to cry on, and made middle‑of‑the‑night fried chicken runs for me. So when Cindy invoked the call to “help a sister out,” she was speaking my language. Whichever Cindy she might have been.

The door opens and Cindy, late fifties, looks familiar but I still can’t place her. She’s got dream catchers hanging from the ceiling and her bookshelves are crammed full of books, a positive sign.[2] A patio leads to a yard with rows of vegetables. When I see chicken coops, I know I’ve never been to this house, because I would have remembered chickens.

Cindy’s sponsor in this new venture is a smartly dressed, square‑shaped matron with matching everything, impeccably manicured nails, and bold sculptural jewelry. She’s an Anna Wintour‑esque blonde who seems a bit out of place in Cindy’s hippy‑dippy abode. She asks the ten or so of us who have answered the call to introduce ourselves. I will come to learn that in the Fargone lingo (as well as that of other multilevel marketing companies), this is something called your WHY. The majority of us have come to support Cindy, but one or two say they’re looking to get into the wellness business. Sponsor Blonde tells us that she is using her business (no one ever calls this a sales job) to fund charitable pursuits. She’s interested in cancer research, and it’s with great pride that she announces that the company’s nutrition line has been endorsed by the Mayo Clinic. We all clap. The Mayo Clinic endorsement is impressive.[3]

Sponsor Blonde launches into an overview of our amazing opportunity to get into the thirty‑four‑billion‑dollar skin care business. It’s an industry, we learn, we are already in.

“Every time we recommend a movie or a product we like, we’re in the network marketing business. The only difference between you and me is that I’m getting a check for recommending products I personally use. It’s the future! Everyone needs toothpaste. Everyone needs shampoo, right?”

She’s right about that. Everyone does need toothpaste and shampoo. Now we’re all nodding our heads. The promise of extra income “without affecting our focus on our artistic pursuits” is tantalizing. More clapping.

Sponsor Blonde turns the floor over to Cindy. Cindy is a whiskey‑voiced earth mother, with bare feet, a caftan, a glorious mess of long hair, and those same gravity‑defying cheekbones as the young man in the e‑mail. She wears little makeup and radiates warmth. She tells us her WHY, which includes her son’s motorcycle accident the year before and how hard life is for him, being paralyzed from the waist down, how much effort is involved and how expensive his care is for the family. When she says that work has dried up in nonprofits, I’m able to place her as one of the theater Cindys. She says at her age, late fifties, she doesn’t think it possible that she’ll find full‑time work again. She’s been working as a personal assistant and organizer. We nod in agreement. Everyone in the room is either a freelancer or looking for a midlife reinvention. We share her economic insecurity. She’s so genuinely unaffected, she admits to not really knowing what she’s doing with Fargone, but she’s using the “yummy” anti‑aging creams and swears that the food supplements are keeping her son alive.

Sponsor Blonde tops her moving endorsement with the news that Cindy, who has been in the business less than two months, is already moving up to the next level, where she’ll get even higher commissions on everything we purchase, and is poised to get all kinds of great benefits, including a free white Mercedes.[4]

“I am?” Cindy asks.

“Yes!” says Sponsor Blonde. “The health and wellness business is booming and Cindy’s success is assured because everybody needs toothpaste and shampoo.” Even more clapping. It’s very intoxicating in a “You go, girl” way.

One of the women, already a customer, shares that she keeps a bag of Fargone caramel snacks in her purse. They are delicious, she tells us, but she wants to know how many she can safely take per day. Sponsor Blonde fields the question of caramel snack dosage with a practiced authority that suggests she is prescribing a course of antibiotics.

“As part of your healthy diet, you should keep them in your purse and take five or six daily as quick pick‑me‑ups.”

I do a quick Google search of the snack’s ingredients on my phone and find I have to agree with Dr. Blonde. Candy really does provide a quick pick‑me‑up.[5]

We’re invited to check out the products catalogue and Sponsor Blonde breezes through an enticing but completely confusing set of commission percentages that represent the financial freedom we will enjoy as we attain various levels within the company. For a multilevel marketing company, it’s a relatively inexpensive buy‑in, with a $79 annual fee to become a consultant, but both the company and consultants recommend that you personally try everything, so most will end up investing more. One attendee says she’s ready to sign up and plunks down $1,300 for the anti‑aging line on the spot.

The Fargone name seems familiar, but I can’t figure out why, so I ask Cindy how she got connected to the biz. Sponsor Blonde and Blondie’s sponsor, a dynamo of the local Fargone ranks with an impressive array of university degrees, got wind of her son’s condition and they took the time to meet with her at a bar on New Year’s Day, no less. Cindy was touched by their concern and offer to help.

Me too, I want to help too. But the last thing I need is another product. I carefully stretch thimbleful applications of a less expensive skin care line that I purchase from Karen, another local mom and a licensed aesthetician, who works out of her converted garage/studio. I’ve been a customer for seven years, and Karen’s income supports her middle schooler and her husband, who is working on his contractor’s license. I buy toothpaste and shampoo from Anonymous Sales Associate with Chalky Pink Lipstick at my local CVS, and she might have children and a husband with a fledgling business to support as well. But when Cindy’s son wheels by, pokes his head in, and sheepishly waves, I feel compelled to buy a product, and not the cheapest one like I planned before showing up.

When I go home, I check out the company website. “The Fargone family is made up of thousands of individuals working to make their dreams come true.” There’ s no mistaking that message: we’re in this together. The site features testimonials from consultants. Their WHYs are variations of needing to make money and craving flexible hours. Former nurses and teachers testify to all the quality time they have with their families now that Fargone has freed them from the yoke of their former employment. It sounds ideal, except when you stop to consider what the world would look like if everyone followed this model. We’d all be spending quality time homeschooling our children and learning how to perform appendectomies in our kitchens because schools and hospitals would be completely understaffed.[6]

Then I realize why the Fargone name sounds familiar. Sure enough, I’ve got a flyer with the company logo, a colorful mash‑up of a daisy chain and the McDonald’s logo, crumpled up in my purse.[7] Earlier in the week, I saw a play and went for drinks afterward with Lara, one of the actresses, and her cheering posse, all members of her “downline.” That’s multilevel marketing lingo for Lara’s “team,” people she’s recruited to sell the products and from whose earnings she collects a percentage. The flyer is an invitation to an introductory meet‑up at a private club in Beverly Hills. I’d stuffed it into my purse and completely forgotten about it. That’s two friends in one week inviting me to join up.

I’d always associated these schemes with bored housewives peddling Mary Kay cosmetics to their neighbors for mad money in the mid‑twentieth century. But it makes sense that this model has made it to Hollywood. Productions now shoot in far‑flung cities where producers hire cheaper crews and local performers in supporting roles, leaving actors and crew members who for decades earned solidly middle‑class wages, not to mention the dry cleaners, caterers, gardeners, and even dog walkers that depend on their trickle‑down dollars, in the dust.

Over lunch, I ask my inner circle if they’ve been recruited. Mishna, an actress, says she’s been bombarded with exhortations to host parties for friends’ multilevel marketing launches. Barbara, a designer, has been deluged with invitations to attend trunk parties for Cabi, an MLM (acronym for “multilevel marketing”) clothing line. Kendall, a writer, is dodging calls from someone who wants her to come to a Stella and Dot—yet another MLM company— costume jewelry trunk party.

“One of the selling points is that you get a big discount on costume jewelry, but how much costume jewelry does one person need?” Kendall asks.

“But if someone makes the product themselves, that’s different,” Mishna adds. “I’m more likely to spend money.”

“Me too,” I agree, “but are we punishing people for not being crafty?”

“I was given the hard sell by a friend who told me I need to be using the Fargone lipsticks because I’m ingesting chemicals with the brand I wear,” Kendall tells us. “Meanwhile, she’s got a face full of fillers and Botox.”

“Okay, but what if she had a job at a department store and was selling to strangers—is that better or worse?” I ask.

No one has an answer.

Christine, who works at a nonprofit, tells of an out‑of‑touch acquaintance who kept suggesting they catch up. Plans were eventually made, but when she showed up for what she thought was a dinner date, she was handed a sign‑in sheet. It was a recruiting party for Nerium, another skin care product MLM. She gets nervous now when she hears from someone who wants to “catch up.”

At the same time, each of us has been feeling so pinched that we’ve given an MLM real consideration. Mishna is making ends meet by renting out her home on Airbnb. When a good offer comes in, she and her partner, daughter, and two dogs move into a lower‑priced short‑term rental and pocket the difference.

These franchapreneurial opportunities[8] are not just sweeping through my Hollywood‑adjacent community; over 18 million people are working in multilevel marketing in the U.S. alone, up from 15.6 million in 2011. Women make up 78 percent of the sales force, so MLMs know who they are marketing to. Network marketing, as it’s also referred to, is experiencing a resurgence in what’s being called the gig economy. Women over fifty have some of the highest rates of underemployment in the U.S., so coupled with the ability to cast a wide net on social media, it’s a perfect storm.

I’m so shaken by this window into the fragility of both the economy and the sisterhood that I e‑mail former labor secretary Robert Reich, who is a friend, to ask if he is worried about the trend.

“The gig economy plays a role here. It’s all a rip‑off, as far as I can tell. Have you looked at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk? We’re back to the piecework of the late nineteenth century.”

Reading his e‑mail, I realize that I have very limited personal experience with the gig economy, other than being an Uber customer. I thought I was in the gig economy, but as I earn my living in something I’ve trained to do, I’m technically a freelancer. The gig economy generally refers to juggling part‑time jobs as an independent contractor, often in unrelated fields, and I’ve never even heard of Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The Turk is a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace where employers, referred to as “requesters,” advertise to workers, called “providers.” The tasks to be performed are called HITs, Human Intelligence Tasks, and are primarily writing product descriptions or transcription services. Turk is named for a chess‑playing “computer machine.” It was an elaborate hoax designed to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria in the late eighteenth century, in which a human chess master hid inside a contraption—sort of a precursor to the IBM Deep Blue challenge matches.

Providers test into a ratings system to qualify for the highest‑paying jobs. Whatever else you’ve done in your life counts for nothing in this system. It is essentially an equal playing field open for workers around the globe, which means you’re competing for jobs with people whose expectation of wages might be significantly lower than yours. Another way to move up in the system is to do jobs in exchange for ratings—essentially a stint in the world’s most unglamorous, faceless, soul‑sucking internship program. Here is an example of the kind of employment an entry‑level provider can vie for: filling out a survey on the People’s Party of Spain’s position on minimum wage. The estimated time in which to complete the task is one hour. The compensation: three dollars.[9]

Out of the 656,848 HITs advertised, one of the few I am qualified to even apply for is a transcription gig. Thinking I am one clever provider, I decide to cut out the middleman and go straight to the website of Speechpad; that’s the requester. The rates are exactly the same as the ones advertised on Amazon. Oh, well. There is a project requiring the transcription of twenty‑two minutes of audio. The time allotted is two hours and five minutes, and the pay is 25 cents a minute with no overtime. That translates into an hourly wage of roughly fifteen dollars, provided that you can complete the task in the time allotted.

I sign up for the online qualifying test. First, I slog through a lengthy set of instructions illustrating acceptable standards of every imaginable configuration of grammar. It includes a collection of the most provocative grouping of sentences I’ve seen in one place. I am not making these up:

Felix was a lonely, young boy. Not lonelier than I am as I sit here at my “workstation.”

Merchant owes vendor 13,656,000. If you’ve ever wondered what incites others to want to overthrow a government or turn to a life of crime, I can offer some insight. I feel stirrings of violence as I try to calculate how many hours of work at 25 cents a minute I’d have to make to earn 13,656,000. It’s simply irresponsible to include a number that ginormous on a practice test for low‑wage providers.

Fifty-one percent of people voted but only six percent were counted. The instructions warn over and over that you are not to contact Speechpad’s clients, but I am willing to risk my 25 cents a minute to find out what election these percentages were culled from, who collected this statistic, and how the “requesting” organization feels about what appears to be a documented case of voter fraud.

I start transcribing my five‑sentence test paragraph, estimated to take two minutes, at nine p.m. I’m not a millennial, so I have trouble working the link and the sound keeps cutting out, and it takes me about ten minutes to get the playback to work. I play the text over and over. It’s challenging to focus my brain on a subject I am unfamiliar with, some kind of technical description of a telescope. Here is my transcription:

The James Web [How many B’s?] Space Telescope is a project of NASA, the space agency [Is there another NASA? Do I really need to include “the space agency”?], with international cooperation from the European and Canadian space agencies. [Had to listen to that three times; is there really a Canadian space agency? With Trudeau in office, who’d want to leave the planet? LOL.] James Webb features a 21 feet diameter SOME‑ THING and a primary mirror that will orbit the planet in tandem from a perch of SOMEWHERE at SOME DISTANCE for SOME AMOUNT OF TIME at an ASTRONOMICAL COST. [Can I just put that, because it’s kind of funny, right?]

At 9:36 p.m., I submit my sample, and in less than the time it takes for me to hit the submit button, I get rejected for a 25‑cent‑a‑minute gig.

But the majority of people who are doing this work live in countries where the money they are being paid is much more valuable, right? But no. The latest published numbers indicate that 80 percent of HITs were performed in America. A little searching on the Web leads me to Krazy Coupon Lady’s blog site. This blogger claims to have earned $26.80 by completing a HIT in two hours. She calculates anticipated earnings of $800 a week, but it’s such a fragmented way to earn a living, I’m dubious. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she was Coupon Lady before her two‑hour tenure at the Mechanical Turk drove her crazy with a capital K.

After less than an hour of “piecework,” I feel ready to hit up my friends, neighbors, and entire social network to try to sell them my spleen.

That’s when a Far‑bomb goes off in my own home. First, my friend Yvonne shows up to my holiday potluck with her new BFF. Tiny in stature, her new BFF turns out to be the local bigwig who tag‑teamed with Sponsor Blonde to recruit Cindy on New Year’s Day. She’s enlisted both Yvonne and Becky, yet another of my inner circle of girlfriends. The Diminutive Dynamo brought a tub of Fargone face cream to the potluck, which is a lovely offering, but it doesn’t make a great dip for crudités. Still, she might become my new BFF, because she generously invites me to her home to attend a presentation for a college counseling service.

During the presentation, she serves Fargone Fizz, a flavored “energy” drink mix whose taste evokes a remembrance of sodas past. The packaging is helpfully placed well within the guests’ view.[10] Her dining room china cabinet displays the entire Fargone line, which feels a bit like a hard sell, but I’m charmed by her gracious inclusion of me into her parenting community, impressed by her elegant home, her refined bone structure and stylish wardrobe. Why do I have to be such a killjoy? She just wants to support her friends, which I seem to be one of now, and the college adviser proves to be invaluable to our son’s college application process.

A few days later, I am at the weekly exercise class that I attend with Becky, the other new recruit. I quiz her about her Fargone experience. She’s someone whose integrity I admire, and if she can do it, maybe I can too. She is a singer who teaches yoga, but neither of those is providing a steady income for her anymore.

“I really need the money,” she gushes. “There’s always somewhere to go and I’ve met so many spectacular women.”

I need money. I like to go places. I am always looking to meet more spectacular women. I know very few people who wouldn’t agree.

MLMs know how isolating the gig economy is and have been happy to step in to fill the gap. Daria M. Brezinski, PhD, a practicing psychologist and former marketing director for a multilevel marketing magazine, echoed this sentiment in a interview: “Multilevel marketing companies are successful because they help people satisfy a number of important human needs, ‘I’m doing this because I’m meeting amazing people . . . making so many connections . . . and I feel so good about myself.’” Amen to that, sister Brezinski. Every picture on the Fargone site features smiling women locking arms, toasting each other in convivial groupings in pastoral settings. A few men dot the landscape, but it’s mainly sisters helping sisters.[11]

Becky is a closer friend than Cindy, so I feel like I have to order something from her. I order a mud mask that costs six times what I paid for the one I already own. I stop for coffee on my way home and I’m stunned to see Cindy’s son wheeling down the sidewalk across the street from the coffee shop. I’m sure he doesn’t recognize me, but my face is burning with shame and I avert my eyes. My ordering from Becky is stealing money from his care. I’m also cheating Karen’s family out of my business. And the Fargone products I bought mean lower revenues for CVS. It’s a tiny drop in the bucket, but what if everyone in my neighborhood switches over? That could impact Anonymous Sales Associate with Chalky Pink Lipstick’s ability to earn a living, and even those whose WHYs are unknown to us need toothpaste and shampoo, right?

Later in the week, I hear that another friend, Morgan, has joined Cindy’s downline. Cindy’s son is in a wheelchair, but Morgan has Parkinson’s and she’s a rung closer to my inner circle. If anything, I should be purchasing from Morgan, although Anonymous Sales Associate could be putting on that chalky lipstick to cover up some horribly disfiguring skin condition.

I meet up with Morgan and I’m shocked to see how much her condition has deteriorated since I saw her last. She’s in constant motion, her spine twisting, and even her speech is difficult to understand.

“Do you really think that Fargone is a good fit, honey?” I ask.

“I’m so lonely.”

She describes how there are calls to listen to and support groups, and Sponsor Blonde has been so encouraging; she’s accompanying her to meet prospects for coffee dates.

“You should really check out that Beverly Hills soiree,” she tells me.

When I walk into the Beverly Hills Country Club, the room is buzzing with a Bel Air-spirational vibe. Everyone is dressed to the nines. It’s a heady combination of social and business networking that you don’t often get as a freelancer.[12] I’ve come as Becky’s guest and I try to ingratiate myself into a group that is worshipfully hovering around Becky’s sponsor.

As each woman shares WHY she is here, I learn that we are schoolteachers, psychologists, physical therapists, and artists. No one is looking to underwrite an expensive coke habit or spa vacation; a good three‑quarters of us are saddled with student loans.

A fragile, birdlike figure, Carly, gazes reverentially as Becky’s sponsor, No‑Nonsense Networker, presents her WHY. No‑Nonsense announces that she’s not interested in being in the skin care business, and that’s convenient, because the real money isn’t in selling products, it’s in building that downline. She also wants a “willable” business that she can leave to her young children should anything happen to her.[13] Carly is completely enthralled by No‑Nonsense. Carly is in her early twenties, recently dropped out of community college, and is struggling.

“It’s my second go‑round with Fargone,” she says. “My family wasn’t supportive of me, but this time it’s going to be different.”

“What will make a difference this time?” I ask gingerly.

“I turned my life over to the care of Jesus Christ. Jesus is my business partner now.”[14]

I’m not a biblical scholar, but I vaguely recall Jesus instructing his followers to eschew material possessions, which presumably includes exfoliating scrubs. I pray Carly has deep pockets and I wish that she’d go back to school, where Jesus could be her study partner, but I don’t say anything and neither does No‑Nonsense or anyone else.

A few of the assembled have hit high sales levels and are being anointed national vice presidents tonight, to rousing applause and cheering. “This is so much better than making some CEO rich” (a line I’ve also heard repeatedly), someone next to me gushes. I lean over and whisper, “Yes, but I’m sure that Fargone’s CEO really, really hopes we will make a ton of dough, but we don’t have to worry about her if we don’t, because unlike everyone here, she’s a salaried employee.” In fact, not a single one of the company’s executives or board of directors has come up through the sales force, so you’re not actually a national vice president of anything but your own sales team, but I just think that part.

Another shiny, happy person steps ups and announces to tremendous applause, “It’s hard to believe that only a year ago, we were just a few and now there are over two hundred of us here tonight!” I want to say, “Do you think someone will mention how great it is for them because they got in early, but that there are so many of us only underscores how hard it’s going to be to start out in a market that might be oversaturated?” but I’m afraid I might get lynched.

The difficulty of earning a sustainable income in an already crowded market is noted on the website, buried deep in the legalese that governs a consultancy with the company; however, none of the consultants I speak to have read the impenetrable agreement. But then, has anyone ever read their phone company’s terms of usage? I’m positive that everyone there has the best intentions of uplifting the sisterhood and the few straggler gentlemen in their ranks. I’m sure many of the consultants genuinely love the products as well. I also feel confident that the actual leadership at the company, as well as other MLMs, are grateful they don’t need to offer health insurance, paid maternal leave, or the kind of severance packages that would typically go along with a national vice presidency of a multinational corporation.

A select group including No‑Nonsense and Diminutive Dynamo are lavished with praise and rewarded with designer purses and David Yurman jewelry. “Next month, we’ll be having a Mercedes presentation for Unintelligible Name!” The tacit acceptance that these are the trappings of female success turns my stomach in the same way that I found Mel Gibson nauseating in the movie What Women Want, and that was even before he referred to a female cop as Sugar Tits.[15] But I’m alone in this sentiment, because the crowd gets whipped into a frenzy of allegiance to Fargone and to network marketing in general.

“We’re in a thirty‑four‑billion‑dollar business!” crows one of the golden ones.[16]

The newly appointed national vice president Diminutive Dynamo spots me in the crowd. As she moves toward me, fixing me with a determined look, it’s clear she’s heard through the grapevine that I’ve been asking the wrong questions. The only question we’re supposed to ask is, “How soon can I get started?” She all but demands I exit the premises with a stern, “What. Are. You. Doing. Here?” I laugh nervously but quickly head for the door. I can still hear the roar of the crowd as I hop into my car.

“You’re in business for yourself, but you’re never in it by yourself,” touts the Fargone website, but only if you’re the kind of per‑ son who shows promising results and thrills at the mention of cruises and Hawaiian vacations. Okay, I admit it, the Hawaii trip does sound appealing.

Why do I have to ask so many questions? Why did I have to find out that only 13 percent of consultants in the U.S. are making money on a monthly basis and the average annual income of 59 percent of consultants is $674[17]? I want to believe. I want to be an Agent Mulder, but I’m a natural‑born Scully.

I’m reminded of the olestra potato chip introduced by Frito‑Lay in 1996. I was intrigued but never ran out and bought a bag. It promised to be a chip that didn’t make you fat, but wouldn’t you know it, there was an unexpected downside: anal leakage. A protest was mounted when it was taken off the market. Protesters argued that everyone should get to decide for themselves if they want to wear Depends while scarfing down chips. So guess what? Frito‑Lay reintroduced the chips a few years ago under a different name. Most people didn’t even notice it has the olestra and it’s a big seller. Clearly, I don’t understand marketing or sales.[18]

In the case of Fargone, it helps if you have a well‑appointed home, good‑looking spouse and offspring, and enviable wardrobe. It doesn’t matter if those things are the vestiges of a former career; it’s an aspirational lifestyle business, which is why the women in my circle who are succeeding are doing so by promoting Fargone with FOMO‑inducing pictures and updates on their social media feeds.[19] One of the presenters at the Beverly Hills event, a dapper British gentleman, told us he liked that he could be his “authentic self,” but I suspect that Cindy’s genuineness may not translate into a white Mercedes anytime soon. She has so much on her plate with her son’s health care that she can’t keep up with all of the outreach required, and “owning a business” starts looking a lot like “shaking the can.” At Cindy’s launch Sponsor Blonde said we could reap the rewards of a forty‑hour workweek if we put in ten hours and out‑ sourced the other thirty hours to three other teammates. But the recorded coaching calls I listen in on exhort consultants to text and call at least three people a day, get their product in front of thirty people a month, attend Impact Training workshops (which carry a fee), try as many products as they can (there are no free samples), offer samples to their kids’ coaches and teachers (you could go broke investing in these outreach tools), keep samples in their car to give away to open‑minded strangers (it must be nice for Fargone to get all of this free advertising), and above all, build relationships. “Date your prospects slowly,” they advise. “Take them for coffee dates.” (Let’s assume you are paying for them.) “Attend launches, throw parties, throw more parties, go DEEP and WIDE.”[20]

It sounds tiring, so it’s not a surprise when Cindy’s next e‑mail announces that she is EXHAUSTED and isn’t there anything we can please, please order so she can get to the next level and qualify for a Caribbean cruise? She reminds us that the wellness business is BOOMING and it’s just that she has dropped the ball: “I suck at it, but what if I told you that I could show you a way to earn big bucks?” I wouldn’t believe you, I think to myself, feeling pangs of something I learn is referred to as “compassion fatigue” in marketing speak.

I’m not the sister I aspire to be. I’m stretched thin. My sisterhood already includes Wendi, who’s going through chemo; Liz, who needs meals delivered as she recovers from surgery; and Toni, who would like help in writing a book proposal. Cindy is going to have to go deeper and wider, but doesn’t everyone need toothpaste and shampoo?

Over the next months, I check in with Cindy and inquire how it’s going. She’s not sure exactly how much she is making because she’s a “terrible bookkeeper,” and it’s her own fault, her son has been doing poorly and she hasn’t been able to focus on the business. She tells me her sponsors couldn’t be more supportive. But there was no meet‑up at the local bar this New Year’s Day to celebrate the anniversary of her induction into the Fargone sisterhood. Her friend who bought $1,300 of products? She stopped returning her phone calls. Carly’s church is sending her to Wales, which might be, untapped territory—at least I hope so, for her sake, because when I inquire if she’s moved up any levels, I get no response, and it seems unlikely that if the news was good, it wouldn’t be shared. Morgan had two friends hang up on her with the admonition to never call them again. After amiably assisting at several outreach coffees, Sponsor Blonde seemed frustrated by her lack of progress and Morgan feels she let her down. She’s embarrassed to call for more support and is using the products she invested in herself. The money I spent on products is a loss I can afford to absorb, but for Morgan, the three hundred she spent is going to hurt this month.

It breaks my heart to hear my girlfriends say it’s their fault that they aren’t doing better in the biz. None of them wants to accept or acknowledge that the odds are against them. An officially sanctioned Fargone video advises, “Instead of asking yourself what if it doesn’t work, ask yourself what if it does?” If it doesn’t work, you’re not doing it right, is the unspoken message. This is another example of that dark side of positive thinking that Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in her book Bright‑Sided and part of the insidious flatness of our brave new Internet world, where facts seem fungible. I fully expect to be having a conversation one day soon and have someone say, “Gravity? Oh, that doesn’t work for me.”

“It’s the future.” I heard that over and over, because every consultant recites the same talking points.[21] Actually, it’s the past. It’s not just the long line of Tupperware, Mary Kay, and Xocai chocolate network sales forces. My great‑grandfather, the peddler who sold pots and pans from a swaybacked mule traveling from shtetl to shtetl? He sold to customers culled from his network of family and friends, only he didn’t need to convince anyone else to load up a mule and hit the road. “The future” is being pioneered by Grace Choi, a thirty‑year‑old techie who has innovated a 3‑D printer that will allow you to make your own customized cosmetic products at home, which should retire that old phrase “I can’t believe they discontinued my favorite lipstick!” But until that time, “social sales,” as Sponsor Blonde referred to it, is our inescapable present.

What price sisterhood now? I wonder, mentally bastardizing the most quoted line from George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara, when I learn that the Fargone sisterhood has made more money off of me than I’d even realized. Five percent of the college counseling fee I ponied up after attending the presentation at Diminutive Dynamo’s home was commissionable. I thought that I was attending a gathering of local parents, peers, friends, even. My father shared some of his hard‑won poker wisdom with me once: “If you look around a room and you don’t know who the mark is, you’re the mark.” Not only was I the mark, I was encouraged to invite other parents as well, so I was both a mark and a shill. This blurring of the lines between friendship and business is symptomatic of how we’re able to connect with more people, but we’re left with shallower relationships. But Diminutive Dynamo is probably close to two hundred in the hierarchy of my acquaintances, and I’m surely way outside of her Dunbar’s number.

In the late 1990s, Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, posited a theory that, given our neocortex size, humans can only comfortably maintain stable interpersonal relationships with between one hundred and two hundred fifty people at most. You have people on the periphery who include past relationships, colleagues, people you grew up with, and people you do business with. You can switch people into closer connection, but you can’t expect real friendships with more than Dunbar’s number. I made the mistake of thinking that my sisterhood was deeper and wider than it was. “The only difference between you and me is that when I recommend something I use, I get a check,” Sponsor Blonde said, untroubled by the monetizing of social capital, but it depresses me. How long before I am inviting acquaintances to catch up over coffee when what I really want is to sell them skin care products that I may or may not actually use, because I will never be able to be honest again? Who will answer my call on that inevitable day when I need to ditch my current antidepressant for a more powerful remedy? If only I had a stronger constitution. The consultants shall inherit the earth.

A few weeks later, I make an appointment for a facial. Karen’s garden, normally verdant, looks a bit ragged, and the curtains are drawn in her husband’s home office, aka the guest bedroom of the house. Is her husband sleeping during the day? Could it be that her marriage is in trouble? Has his business gone belly‑up? Maybe her WHY is more urgent than I realized? I quickly shut that train of thought down. The last thing I want to know is another WHY. I prefer to remain blissfully unaware and enjoy what is a completely satisfactory business transaction, hoping she’ll go both deep and wide as she exfoliates my face.

My mother is making the great leap backward.   


[1] Bonobo chimpanzee females leave home and form societies based on sororal bonds. It sounds like a painful gum disease, but it’s a model for human sisterhood. Like our bonobo cousins, and like many of my female friends, Juel and I met long after we left home. Unlike our bonobo cousins, I’ve never turned a twig into a French tickler, but I admire their inventiveness.

[2] Books have been replaced by wicker and rattan decorative balls in many homes. What the hell do they signify, other than a great way to measure how much dust is in your air?

[3] Fargone specifically forbids consultants to say this. The Mayo Clinic is mentioned on the site, but there’s no endorsement; however, you can find consultants’ blogs touting this claim all over the Internet.

[4] Later I will learn that Fargone offers an eight‑hundred‑dollar monthly Mercedes car allowance as a sales bonus, but you lease or buy it in your own name, so if you miss your sales number or quit the biz, tough titties, you still have to pony up for the car.

[5] Each Fit Chew (the size of a typical Tootsie Roll) contains four grams of sugar, which is roughly a teaspoon of sugar. They contain brown rice syrup, dried cane syrup, sugar, and palm oil, which, according to a study featured on NPR, raises LDL cholesterol—that’s the bad kind.

[6] Not to diminish the real need to fix problems in these workplaces and relieve people from crushing student debt.

[7] I don’t need to point out the irony in the daisy‑chainish logo, do I?

[8] There’s a lot of controversy over whether it’s entrepreneurial, which is what MLMs like to say about themselves, or whether this is akin to opening a franchise; hence the term “franchapreneur.”

[9] I am now wary of the report I recently heard on the BBC about Spain’s economy improving.

[10] Like many products advertised as “energy drinks,” one of the reasons it provides “energy” is that it contains caffeine.

[11] Sara Horowitz, founder of the not‑for‑profit Freelancers Union, knows the loneliness of the gig economy. What started as an organizing tool for health insurance now offers meet‑ups and drinks nights for connecting with other freelancers. Membership in the FU is free.

[12] The good feeling in the air is for real. A recent study at UCLA showed that when groups of women get together it releases oxytocin, which is a stress reducer; the same hormone is not triggered in male groupings.

[13] Fargone’s website makes it clear that only heirs over eighteen can inherit your business, but I doubt that she’s aware that what she’s saying is a partial truth at best.

[14] There’s been some pushback on MLMs in churches. Amanda Edmondson of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, says in Christianity Today: “If we aren’t careful, people can quickly become an opportunity for our financial gain instead of a brother or sister in Christ.”

[15] In that movie, he develops telepathic powers that allow him to bond with women by cloyingly saying things like, “Let’s take this relationship slow.”

[16] Showbiz, like cosmetics, is also a thirty‑four‑billion‑dollar industry, but that doesn’t mean you and I are going to see any of it. I prefer the showbiz anti‑recruitment ethos—even the most successful people will go to any lengths to try to talk you out of getting into the biz.

[17] According to my read of a 2015 compensation chart laden with squishy language suggesting that only consultants who earn every month are factored into averages, so the possibility exists that some sister made $34 billion during one month and then sailed off into the sunset. (Retail profits are also excluded from compensation.)

[18] I’ve received messages on Facebook from women offering sponsorship in It Works, a weight‑loss body wrap; Terra essential oils; Rodan + Fields; Nerium; and a company whose name couldn’t be revealed unless I made a phone date with a complete stranger to hear the pitch.

[19] The Fargone grapevine touts success stories like a former bus driver who is now a millionaire. None of those who repeated this example recognized this as marketing and not a vetted news story.

[20] “Deep and wide” is marketing speak. Go deep into your phone book, hitting up family and friends and their contacts, then people you’ve lost touch with. “Going wide” means networking with people in regions that are less saturated: fresh territory.

[21] I also heard the word “yummy” used to describe face creams by many consultants. I’d never heard that word used in that context, but it may explain why a consultant brought face cream to my potluck. Fargone consultants are encouraged to stick to the scripts that are circulated among them.

Adapted from “WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE THEY ARE,” copyright (c) 2017 Annabelle Gurwitch, with permission from Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Random House.

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