Teen Moms, Pyramid Schemes, and Social Media

On last week’s episode of Teen Mom 2, we saw Leah Messer get introduced to the multilevel marketing scheme (“MLM”) that has been flooding her followers’ Instagram feeds all year. The (obviously staged) scene shows Leah working out at the YWCA with her friend Liz, who recruits her into LipSense, an MLM company that sells lipstick. Liz assures Leah that “with the social media following you have… I think this could be big. You and I could build a team.”

With the way MLMs function, it’s no wonder Liz’s pupils turned into giant dollar signs as she recruited someone with Leah’s social media numbers. These type of companies, such as LipSense, LuLaRoe, and ItWorks!, involve the sale of products directly from a distributor, such as Leah, who independently markets and sells these products online. The distributor sometimes makes money from sales, but almost always makes far more money when they get others to become distributors. Any distributor who signs up through Leah is in her “downline”, and Leah receives commission from their sales and recruitment efforts. Leah profits within the “upline” of her recruits, as does YWCA Liz, and whoever signed her up, and so on. So if you’re one of the very few at the top of the pyramid, with people below you making sales and recruiting their own downline, you might make money. If you’re at the bottom, you will lose money, likely stockpiling products to boost your discount and maintain the minimum inventory while trying to make sales on social media.


If the compensation details seem a bit complicated, that’s because it is deliberately complicated to make it more difficult to sniff out the scam. Check out the documentary Betting On Zero, which is about the enormous predatory MLM company Herbalife, to see this convoluted scheme in action.

While this is the first time we have seen a Teen Mom join an MLM on the show, LipSense is not the first MLM product they have hawked on social media. Leah herself used to be a Mary Kay salesperson, all four of the TM2 girls were into Scentsy at one time, and now Kail has her own LipSense hustle. Perhaps the most notorious Teen Mom pyramid schemer is Mackenzie (Douthit) McKee from Teen Mom 3. Remember her?

Pregnant Mackenzie McKee

I know you remember her

Mackenzie entered the MLM world when TM3 got the ax, hawking Kyani and a wannabe Fitbit watch. A Type I diabetic, Mac claimed the watch somehow monitored her blood sugar so she didn’t have to check it anymore (I’m unsure whether this was before or after she blacked out behind the wheel due to blood sugar levels and totaled her brand new car). When Mac got word that fans were accusing her of peddling a pyramid scheme, she went on a SnapChat rant saying that anyone who works for a company with multiple levels of management is also a part of a “Triangle”, therefore “Everything’s a triangle!” Clearly shapes and birth control are not her thing.

I am disappointed that MLMs have weaseled their way onto our episodes when we’re already bombarded with them within the boundaries of social media. More than likely, if you have any kind of presence online, you see sales pitches for AN AMAZING BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY!! from acquaintances who might consider themselves “entrepreneurs” or “small business owners”. Just when you’re about to be impressed with how far they’ve come since getting all C’s in high school, you realize that they’re just trying to sell you a $60 Ace Bandage for your stomach that supposedly makes you lose weight because of some magical goo and vaguely natural-sounding ingredients.

Here’s an actual conversation I had with an “ItWorks!” peddling Facebook friend:


She’ll get me that science any day now. Can’t wait.

These “small business owners” are just pushing product in an attempt to make money and rise in the ranks of the pyramid triangle. Advertising an opportunity to work from home selling women’s products makes it obvious that MLMs target stay-at-home moms, most of whom don’t have the benefit of a Teen Mom’s social media following and are very, very likely to lose money. Some MLMs allow distributors to have an online store so they don’t have to rely entirely on social media, but it will cost them a few hundred dollars. In the meantime, these distributors may be losing friends and damaging familial relationships when people get tired of being targeted by the increasingly desperate sales pitch.

Since Leah’s “business” is being touted on MTV, I’m sure she was hoping to get a boost in her downline. So I decided to become a next-level Teen Mom fangirl & email Leah pretending to be a potential customer who was also interested in becoming a distributor. I asked specifically about start-up costs and how to have a successful LipSense business. The latter, she ignored:

LipSense email Leah Messer

She was so sweet & nice in between all the copied & pasted bullshit.

A $55 startup fee is pretty typical when looking at the startup fees of other triangles. But this $55 would get me absolutely nothing but membership; I would still have to purchase product to sell. Leah told me I would get 20-50% off, but she also mentions that the discount is contingent on how much I’m buying. Until I grow my “business” to the point that I’m buying enough product to boost my discount (which could take years, or never happen), I’m paying $55 just for the ability to purchase their lipstick for a mere 20% off retail. If the lipstick is $25, and I buy it at 80% and then turn around and sell it at full price, I’m making $5 per lipstick sale. And that’s ONLY  If I manage to find someone to buy my bunk product at the retail price, which is a tough sell when you can google “LipSense sale” and see a market saturated with distributors who are discounting their product in an attempt to move it.

My intention here is not to specifically pick on Leah’s MLM du jour – many, many of these awful companies have made a handful of swindlers VERY wealthy off of the ignorance and desperation of poorer people. The government agency in charge of identifying pyramid schemes – the Federal Trade Commission –seems rather laissez-faire about the whole thing, and doesn’t provide specifics about what makes a pyramid scheme illegal, stating “If the money you make is based on your sales to the public, it may be a legitimate multilevel marketing plan. If the money you make is based on the number of people you recruit and your sales to them, it’s probably not. It could be a pyramid scheme.” With language like “may be”, “probably”, and “could be”, it’s clear that we are lacking laws and official regulations to protect the public from these predatory business practices.

So the next time the MacKenzie McKee of your hometown tries to pitch you some product from their AMAZING BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY, shut it down. Tell them thanks, but no thanks, and maybe send them a link to John Oliver’s incredible piece about MLMs. Or do the subtly-bitchy Lana Lyse thing and ask them specific questions about the legitimacy of the product which you know they cannot answer (as seen above). Even better, send them a link to this article, and then have them send the link to three friends, and then their three friends can send it to three friends, and so on and so forth until I have a downline and can put “Small Business Owner/Entrepreneur” on my LinkedIn account.

For more information about these harmful companies, I recommend checking out PyramidSchemeAlert.com and PinkTruth.com.

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  1. Hairstyles of the Rich & Alnost Fanous says:

    First of all, thank you for explaining “Everything’s a triangle!” I have seen it before and had no context for it.

    My friend was a Lularoe consultant and she told me she had to put up $6000 to start her business. She did it for close to a year and she never made enough for that investment. And she tried, oh boy did she try. She was constantly promoting her shop, doing live sales, going to farmer’s market and yard sales. She paid for an outdoor shade and often had to pay to go in on sales, with no guarantees she would make anything.

    Being the good friend I am, I hosted a party. She would bug me to message my friends and pressure them to buy stuff. She would ask me to like things on her Facebook page so that it would show up in people’s feeds. All sorts of “win a free pair of leggings if you like, share, add 10 people to my group…”

    I had at least 5 pieces with some kind of damage even though I followed the instructions- and I usually the kind of person who laughs at the dry clean only tag as she tosses it in to the washing machine.

    When she did finally close up shop, she had me join some going out of business groups to pimp her inventory. The closeout prices give you an idea just how much the stuff is marked up. And that’s if you buy it from a consultant, I got pretty addicted and spent waaay over market value on eBay. Seriously, if I was a consultant, I would sell there. I don’t think you’re supposed to, but that’s where you would make a killing.

    And everyday, someone else wants me to join another group, or adds me against my will (despite all the requests I got, I never added anyone who wasn’t into llr to any group, and I always asked).

    The worst thing about these mlms is that you feel like you’re a bad friend if you don’t buy something from your friend’s party (regardless if they’re the consultant or the host). They take advantage of people’s friendships then pressure them into exploiting their friends. My friend is still my friend, but I have realized how much people use me because they know I am a doormat.

  2. chan says:

    Good article! And totally agreeing with you that this kind of businesses are very shady.

    About a year ago I had an appointment for study with this woman who called herself a nutritionist who tried to get me into that Herbal Life stuff. Never was Herbal Life mentioned on her website or anything, but that was all she could talk about for two hours. Two hours spend on wasting my time and try to scam me into something very shady. I can imagine she was very convincing to many, because she surely knew how to have the ultimate sales talks. She had also all this kind of tactics which were probably very persuasive to a lot of people. And I still get mad over the fact that in the same room one of her colleagues/partners was having a conversation with a woman who was having cancer and was going trough chemo therapy, and was trying to convince her that this Herbal Life crap was going to be her life saver. Taking advantage of people is wrong on itself, but taking advantage of sick people is just evil in my opinion.

    Ps: I knew from the start of the conversation that it all was so odd, that I heard about Herbal Life before, just couldn’t place it. But the woman I was with was totally excited about everything being said, so besides asking some critical questions (which were being answered with all kinds of bullshit ‘science based’ quotes) I had to sit it out. When I got home the first thing I did was google it and my suspicions were being confirmed. I sent it to the woman I was with and she felt so stupid for almost falling for it and was happy that she told the Herbal Life woman she would think about it for a few days instead of committing to or buying anything during that appointment.

    • chelseas annoying baby voice says:

      ‘, and was trying to convince her that this Herbal Life crap was going to be her life saver. ‘

      This is o wrong on so many levels..

  3. Tyler's Great American Novel says:

    I have a master’s in public health with a focus in epidemiology and work in research, so I spend the vast majority of my time dealing with efficacy and determining how helpful an intervention is. I cannot tell you how enraged I am at seeing self-styled “nutritionists” with Dr. Google degrees with a minor in Natural News basically derailing the work of all these scientists and researchers. So much of my time is eaten up re-educating people on things that shouldn’t be up for debate. No, ItWorks isn’t going to make you thin and fit. Herbalife will not cure your acne/depression/cancer/bring back the guy who ghosted you on Tindr. And NONE of them are going to make you rich. I don’t care how many times they post a couple crumpled 20s in their newly manicured hands (the ultimate status symbol in some circles, it seems) and tell about how “I made THIS over my lunch break. What did you do?!?!?”

    I lose a lot of respect anytime I hear someone I know got into this bullshit. People, including one of my family members, have died because they would rather listen to natural news bullshit than go to the doctor. This is not an “everyone can have their opinion” argument.

  4. Kail's ticking time bomb uterus says:

    I am a consultant for Pink Zebra and Usborne. I do not sell either. I only joined for the discounts because I like the scents that Pink Zebra has over Scentsy and I also like that they are “sprinkles” as opposed to blocks of wax. Easier for me to determine how strong or light of a scent I want and easier to mix two scents. I’m lazy. I also love the discount with Usborne because I much prefer to buy my kids books instead of toys and it saves me money this way.

    I completely agree though, people go overboard with the sales pitches and trying to prey on people.

  5. Ladywatson says:

    I think it’s really trendy (for lack of better words) to hate on MLM companies. I’m sure I’ll be flamed with negative comments but I’ll do my best to explain.
    I’m a military spouse with a degree in advertising. Do you want to know how many jobs there are for me on little towns where we’ve been stationed? None. When we’re stained in Oklahoma City, I applied for several but was under qualified and my resume shows i move frequently. I tried to get jobs at mcdonalds, Burger King, etc. I was turned down. Or told I was overqualified to flip burgers. I interviewed at a sears and was told “we don’t hire military because we don’t stay around” which is illegal and their HR told me I could sue if I wanted but who has the money for that. On the worse end of the spectrum, there were two places that were highly recommended for spouses to work out, and turned out the managers preyed on military spouses and had contests on who could seduce more of them and break up marriages. Seriously.
    Several of my friends have several degrees, and are teachers. Between movin states, background checks, different state laws… it’s extremely difficult for them to get a job. And expensive. My next door neighbor wanted to work with pre-schoolers and had to provide proof from the 3 states she’s lived in worked in that she had passed background checks in all 3. When the school decided the proof that was sent to them wasn’t good enough, they told her to get a certain form directly from them. They wanted her to fly from Florida to Arizona, because the card and info she gave them, wasn’t enough. Even tho every rule said those forms were acceptable.
    These are just the tips of the icebergs and there are plenty of stories just like this
    So when I see fellow spouses starting up an MLM, I do my best to support them. Millions of people will shell out an insane amount of money for Kylie’s lipstick, but won’t give a friends product a chance. I almost always get better customer service with MLM reps, easier return policies and I’m helping a family directly, not some billionaire that doesn’t give two Effs about the fact their higlighters arrive empty.
    However not all MLMs are created equal. Many are false advertising and encourage shady buisness practices. And I feel like this where the problems arise. An MLM is an buisness, should be treated as a start up and should be researched thoroughly before being started. Most people don’t realize that. Uplines teach shady buisness practices that are outlawed in the companies sign up paperwork. I’ll never hesitate to tell someone to stop adding me to their group and I’m not interested. And if they continue, i report them to their company. I’ve gotten several people kicked out that way. It is not okay to harass family and friends repeatedly after them saying no. It’s not okay to lie about a product to get people to purchase it. It’s not okay to shame new mommies into products.
    I understand not everyone is built that way. But the only way to stop the online harassment is to report it upwards. Most companies have policies laid out against that.
    That being said, i am extremely biased in this situation. I’ve seen MLMs change people’s lives drastically. In my case I was able to secure a job in a bakery and started a home buisness that way. To pay for supplies, I am a rep for pink zebra. I love it. I have zero people under me. I earned 3000 last year, and paid for our Disney trip. Could I make more with a team? Sure but MLM is sales and sales is not for everyone. you have to be willing to sell and work extremely hard. You have to understand your market and your area really well. Spending 6000 on lula supplies isn’t a smart choice when your already has 20sellers, selling similar items. If you don’t have support system behind you, and don’t do the research on your product, the demand and you’re area. Then it’s going to be rough

  6. Stephanie89 says:

    Ugh it really does ruin friendships. If I never see a picture of a pink drink again it will be too soon.

    • Katertot says:

      Pink drink. Ugh. I’m triggered by that phrase. I know someone who got in early with Plexus and is making money but that means I’ve had 5 years of that spam on social media.

  7. Baby Daddy #3 says:

    Do those essential oils fall under this pyramid scheme mess?

    I know waaaaaay too many people who sell them and I just had to tell them to back tf off.

  8. chelseas annoying baby voice says:

    Great informative article but I am missing one about Ambah’s new boyfriend and know Matt didn’t wait to announce his gf soon after.


  9. Well Juh-nelle says:

    I can’t speak for all of these companies, but I can tell you that for some of these that you’ve mentioned, you’ve got it all wrong here. Maybe a portion of these company’s follow the business model you explained, but I can tell you for a fact that one company you mentioned, LuLaRoe, does not. You can be perfectly successful without building a downline. Your upline does not get a cent of your sales actually, but that’s a different story. Probably should’ve researched that. I became a consultant 3 weeks ago, and honestly, besides having my kids, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. In that time I’ve made about half my initial investment back. I was able to take my kids back to school shopping without stress, and take them for ice cream, something my family hasn’t done in a long time. Best of all, I’m still home every day with my 18 month old. I’ve had the privilege of watching women in all shapes and sizes as they try on a style they never though they could wear…and see their faces light up when they look in the mirror and realize they look beautiful. It moves me to tears almost every time. And for you to call Leah’s business a “business” in quotation marks like that is downright offensive. She is a business owner. I am a business owner. I put in at least 50 hours a week. That’s absolutely rude and ignorant to belittle everybody who does this kind of work. I’m sorry for whatever happened that made you so salty towards MLM’s. Ladywatson is correct, its like there’s some sort of weird trend going on where it’s cool to hate on these companies. At the end of the day, we’re just regular people trying to support ourselves and our families. For some of us, they’ve completely changed our lives in the best way possible. I’m a little confused on what an article like this is doing on a reality tv news/gossip site. I sort of get the connection because of Leah, but… Thanks, but no thanks, Modern Topics.

    • Ladywatson says:

      Hey I had no idea LLR worked like that. I give you props for jumping in to LLR! I’ve always wanted to put my area has probably 50 consultants. And it’s hard work to with the lives, album drops and work you have to put into to reaching customers. Not to mention keeping inventory update, tracking down late payments or invoices. It’s a lot of fricken work… I feel like that’s why I never did it. If you have a page you want to share, I’d love to support it and join! I’ve been loving the Disney patterns for my daughter! She puts her pacifiers in her Mae pockets, it’s adorable. She’s only 1, so it’s a little big but totally cute.
      A lot of MLMs are set up that way, making money off a down line. And that makes it hard because you get super shady people that will lie and lie to get you to sign up. So I give it a 50/50 responsibility. It’s up to you as the person to do research, email the company for rules and regulations, before signing up. It’s also on the person signing you up to give you correct information. If they aren’t they need to be reported to the company. I fully admit tho, I don’t Put up with crap. And will call it out when I see it.
      Like jamberry reps who insult nail salons and techs. I’ll message you and tell you hey, this is wrong, your giving out bad info and yes your led lamp still uses UV rays, it says so on it. They can change it or I’ll call them out. So im kinda a crappy person in that way, but I’ll admit it, at least.
      There was a great article and I wish I could find it that a good chunk of women ceos are from MLM companies. Which i thought was cool as well.
      It’s a big leap to start up a buisness, and there’s no way something will ever cost just 55dollars to make you rich fast. Everything requires work, research and patience. You wouldn’t open a kiosk at the mall and expect to be rich in month. That’s common sense.
      Idk. I’ve seen MLMs make a big difference in friends lives. I’ve seen Mary Kay reps (I don’t use the stuff) donate thousands of dollars and their commissions to charity and raising money for sick loved ones. I’ve seen companies like LLR (which the company needs to catch up to amazing growth) pay for IVF and make a great career for friends.
      Like I stated before, I’ll will try anything once to help out a working mama. And if I can’t buy I’ll share info on my Facebook or social media.
      However when it goes into harassment or you keep bothering me after I say no, then it’s a different story.
      It’s weeding out the crappy sales reps, and finding the good ones.
      And I’ve officially spent way too much time on this
      I’ve sold enough pink zebra over last fall, to save up and pay for our entire trip to Disney, zero people under me. And then I took a break over summer and now my busy season is back. Everyone wants their homes to smell like pumpkin and pine in the fall winter lol!

      • Well Juh-nelle says:

        Thank you so much, that’s really nice of you. I wasn’t going to share my page because that really wasn’t the point of my post, but I’d be more than happy to have you if you’re interested! facebook.com/groups/lularoeamandamulyck is my group. Not sure if I’m allowed to share, but hopeully I’m not breaking any rules doing so! But yeah, it really is A LOT of hard work. People don’t realize it. And that’s okay, it just hurts when people belittle that hard work. Anyways, I appreciate the support though and feel free to add me on FB if you’d like to chat more! 🙂

        • Ladywatson says:

          I sent a request! In case you wanted to delete this. Idk if it’s breaking rules as well lol

        • Baby Daddy #3 says:

          I don’t think she belittled your hard work, but explained how many of the similar businesses are set up in a way that you don’t make money unless you can get people to sell under you.

          The problem in those cases is that you’re working your ass off and you’re still broke. It’s great that your business is the exception

          • Grace says:

            The website is called Modern Topics, not just Teen Mom. You could always skip an article you don’t feel like reading…

            Keep up the good work Modern Topics! Not every reader is going to agree with what you post and voice that, but you guys do a great job 😊

    • Baby Daddy #3 says:

      Can you please elaborate on where you said you’ve made half of your investment back?

      How long did it take you to make that back? How long do you project it’ll take you to surpass that amount? It doesn’t sound like you’ve made a profit to this point, based on what you said. Ex. You invested 10k and you’ve made 5k – well, you’re still out 5k, no?

      Also, do you own shares in LuLaRoe? Owning shares would make you part owner. Selling someone else’s product and taking profit sounds more like a franchise or a business franchise operator. I’m glad you’re proud of what you do, but I think it’s important we be as transparent as possible so that people aren’t misled.

      • Stephanie89 says:

        Good points there, Baby Daddy!
        I have a couple friends who sell LLR and say they basically buy the products wholesale and sell retail to make a profit. The focus does seem to be on selling the product and not trying to get others to sign up (unlike my Plexus-pushing friends whom I’ve essentially had to remove from my life).

      • Well Juh-nelle says:

        Sure! I’d be more than happy to elaborate. As I said in my original comment, I started about 3 weeks ago. I’ve now sold enough to pay back a little over half of my investment. Yes, I am “still out” the other half, at no point did I call any of my earnings “profit”. My sales are growing weekly, so at this point, I’m projecting to make back 100% of my initial investment by week 6. I know it’s not for everybody, but I genuinely don’t mind not paying myself for the first 6 weeks (besides taking my kids BTS shopping and for icecream, like I mentioned). That little small business bakery you might get bagels and coffee from occasionally? At one point the owner had to believe enough in himself to sink some money into all his baking supplies, any other necessary products, and rent out the space. Any Etsy shop you’ve ever bought from? Same thing. They had to buy their crafting supplies before they could create any listings. Anytime you make the decision to become your own boss and sell something to people, you have to take that risk before it takes off. And honest to God, this isn’t some spiel that I’ve heard from my upline or anything, this is coming from my heart. I 100% get that this isn’t for everybody. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky that it’s going better than I dreamed, and I count my lucky stars every day for that.

        And sure, we can call it a business franchise. Maybe that’s a better word. I work for myself, put in a lot of hours every week, and pay my taxes. Stephanie89 is correct, I buy my products wholesale and sell them for retail. My upline does not get any percentage of what i sell. I will never be pressured by anybody to create a team under myself, or anything like that. I’m not recruiting people, and I don’t know if I ever will. In fact, I’ll never even ask people to join my shopping group unless they ask first. If I could figure out a way to delete the comment with my group link in it, I would. I think that’s where the big differences between LLR and some of the other companies lie. But we all get lumped together and therefore we get a bad rap.

        At the end of the day, I just made the decision to do something big for myself, and it’s making me happy. I feel purpose in a way I haven’t in awhile. I’ll never be that pushy salesperson, and if LLR required that, I would’ve never signed on.

        Anyways, I certainly did not mean to mislead anybody with my comments. And I hope I’ve given you the transparency you’re looking for.

  10. ColeAteMyCereal says:

    Are you guys still doing weekly recaps too?

  11. […] Teen Moms, Pyramid Schemes, and Social Media (Modern Topics) […]

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