How Lia Sophia, Tastefully Simple and Pampered Chef are Taking Over Women’s Social Lives

Exploit your friends for fun and profit!

When I opened the e-mail, I knew it was the beginning of the end.

It came from my friend Jenn. My cool friend Jenn. My witty, irreverent friend Jenn in Marlton, whom I’d met at a moms’ group six years ago, after we had our first babies. Jenn always wore stylish shoes and had good haircuts. She drank wine. She read real books. She had a cool husband and cool, well-soled daughters, including her second, who was born four days before mine, because we planned it that way.

And here, that Jenn was asking for a favor: Would I host a party for her?

A jewelry party.

Noooooo! I screamed to myself. Not YOU, Jenn!

I immediately wrote back: “You went to the dark side!”

Jenn wasn’t my only friend who’d gone to the dark side—the world of direct sales (a.k.a. person-to-person sales, a.k.a. multilevel marketing, a.k.a. pyramid-ish scheming, minus the illegal part). I knew the drill, which hadn’t reall­y changed since Tupperware blew up in the 1950s: In order to get business going, Jenn needed to ask friends, like me, to host parties. I’d invite my friends, and Jenn would present her wares—in this case, Lia Sophia jewelry, affordable and costume-y and, most of it, very nice (though some of it very Madonna circa 1984). Jenn would encourage my friends to buy by explaining that the more they spent, the more free jewelry I’d get. In the end, she’d make 30 percent of the night’s sales in commission, but her real goal would be to convince my friends to host parties of their own. And maybe, just maybe, she’d also recruit someone to sell Lia Sophia and thus join Jenn’s “team,” so Jenn could eventually earn money on the recruit’s sales as well.

If you’re shrewd, direct selling can snowball into a $50,000-plus-a-year career. No wonder every woman from Collingswood to Wynnewood suddenly seemed to be hosting parties for buying/selling kitchen gadgets or makeup or candles or bags or jeans or lotions or meats. It’s a $28 billion-a-year industry; one million people hopped on the bandwagon in 2009 alone, shooting the number of multilevel marketers in the country—16.1 million—to an all-time high. They’re everywhere. Like zombies.

“It’s a million-dollar industry built on women doing favors for other women,” says Bonni Davis, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Lia Sophia, the world’s largest direct seller of jewelry.

The whole concept actually made me a little sick in my mouth.

I’d been to only one of this kind of party before. To avoid the guilt of letting down my hostess friend (and fearing she’d later snipe, “Vicki drank three glasses of wine and didn’t buy a thing!”), I bought. I ended up with a purse I later regifted to my mom, as well as a new mantra: “I will never participate in another home party, even if James Marsden will be there, manning a kissing booth.”

So I avoided hosting when my friend Sonya started selling Silpada jewelry, and when Michelle signed on with Tastefully Simple and all its prepared foods, and when Jennifer sent me her Pure Romance catalog, offering a potpourri of lubricants, arousal creams, and vibrators in various shades of Easter colors.

But how could I possibly say no to Jenn? Yes, I knew this was exactly how I was supposed to be feeling, because this is exactly why direct selling works. Still, how could I not host a party and call myself Jenn’s friend?

So we settled on a date. I sent out an Evite. And I waited for it all to be over.