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Before Alexis Sharkey was found dead on the side of the road in Houston on November 28, the 26-year-old had been growing a business as a budding Instagram personality.
Stacey Robinault, Sharkey’s mother, told Insider in an interview that Sharkey had a gift for making anyone “feel good,” and that she was great at her job.
Sharkey, whose legal name is Alexis Robinault, was a “mentor” with the haircare and wellness brand Monat, a global company that markets its products with direct-to-consumer salespeople, otherwise known as multi-level marketing (MLM). MLM practices have been widely criticized for being predatory in its recruitment and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned that “most people who join legitimate MLMs make little or no money.”
Monat, which is known for offering glamorous vacations and prizes to its top sellers, has also been investigated by Florida’s attorney general after hundreds of customers claimed its products caused hair loss and other symptoms. The investigation ended when the company agreed to a five-year plan of communication with the office and it was “permanently barred” from using “false or misleading statements in its marketing and sale of its beauty products.”
Sharkey recruited other Monat salespeople through Instagram, where she had roughly 20,000 followers at the time of her death. After the news of the 26-year-old’s death, the circumstances of which are still being investigated by Houston police, Sharkey now has 69,000 followers.
A Monat spokesperson told Insider in a statement, “Alexis Sharkey was a warm, wonderful, and beloved, independent MONAT market partner. We are saddened by her tragic death and our thoughts are with her family and friends who loved her.”
The spokesperson said that Monat has more than 2 million customers and 400,000 independent contractors “who sell the most safe and effective premium hair care, skin care and wellness products.”
Alexis Sharkey ‘loved’ selling Monat products, her mother said
Sharkey began working with Monat in the middle of 2018, according to her Instagram posts. In one caption from June 2019, Sharkey wrote that her Monat business “has forever changed how I think and my life.”
Robinault told Insider that Sharkey “thoroughly researched” Monat before deciding to sell the company’s products. Sharkey thought Monat had “excellent” products. “And so she went through the process of educating herself on how to market and how to grow and how to build a business,” Robinault said.
But Robinault said she was surprised when her daughter began working with Monat in 2018.Back in high school, Sharkey hated the fundraising activities required for sports teams and made her little sister sell products for her instead, Robinault recalled.
“The mere fact that my daughter’s livelihood comes from selling and, you know, marketing this product line, it just boggles my mind because that was never, ever anything I would’ve seen her do. And she did it so well and she’s just into it,” Robinault told Insider.
In college, Sharkey studied biology and considered applying to medical school. After graduating, she moved from her small Pennsylvania town to the south, where she worked at a bar and “bounced around” in different cities before moving to Houston with her husband, Tom Sharkey, in January.
“She went down a totally different road, and she’s happy with it, and if she was happy with her life, I was happy for her,” Robinault said, adding that Sharkey was “very good” at selling Monat products, “and she loved it.”
“I think that she was building it enough that she was going to build herself this business to sustain her life,” she said.
Robinault said she believes her daughter was murdered. The circumstances of Sharkey’s death remain unclear, as investigators await the results of a final autopsy. She was found naked and without signs of visible injuries, Houston police said.
Monat functions as a cosmetics company that uses typical multi-level marketing practices
Monat was founded by the Urdaneta family in 2014, first selling hair products and later expanding to include skincare products. “MONAT starts with changing your hair and eventually changes your life. We offer a generous compensation plan, an exceptionally nurturing support system, and caring, committed leaders who treat you like family,” the company’s website says.
On its website, Monat describes its business model as “direct sales/social marketing” and says that the company “bypasses traditional retail channels in favor of a person-to-person focus.”
Arbonne and Mary Kay are among the top brands that use MLM.
People who sell Monat products call themselves “mentors,” as Sharkey’s Instagram profile shows, but the company appears to refer to them as “Market Partners” on its website. These salespeople recruit more salespeople, mostly through social media, and help them start their own businesses by selling Monat products.
MLM companies such as Monat often reward top salespeople with luxury vacations and other glamorous gifts, including cars. Many MLM’s are criticized for selling salespeople on top success stories and rewards that aren’t realistically attainable for most salespeople. In November 2019, Sharkey posted pictures on Instagram from Monat’s “Passport” celebration in Cancun. “I must say, it’s nice working with a company that goes out of their way to make sure you feel loved and spoiled to death on the first night of your all paid vacation,” she wrote in the post’s caption.
“Off to company training,” Sharkey wrote in another post.
Though the glamorous and vibrant view of MLM companies offered by social media may encourage others to join the fold, many people brought into MLM models have darker experiences.
With companies that use MLM practices, it’s not only new customers that salespeople are recruiting, but also new salespeople themselves. One Instagram post from Sharkey in September 2019 urged her followers to stop making “excuses” for why they didn’t have time to sell Monat products as a side hustle, and invited them to join a conference call to learn more.
A 2011 report by Jon M. Taylor, the president of the Consumer Awareness Institute, an indepedent consumer-advocacy and research group, highlights these concerns.
“Built on an endless chain of recruitment, MLM is inherently flawed, deceptive, and profitable only for founders and those at or near the top of a pyramid of participants, usually those at the beginning of the chain of recruitment,” Taylor writes in the report, which was shared on the FTC’s website. “MLM is also extremely viral and predatory.”
Many MLMs like Monat have been using those tactics to recruit newly unemployed Americans during the pandemic, Business Insider reported in April.
“The companies are so desperate to get people to join now, so they’ve really amped up their recruitment,” Emma Rose, a former network-sales distributor who now hosts “The Anti-MLM Podcast,” previously told Business Insider’s Paige Leskin in the spring. “They’re counting on the fact people are scared and looking for something to help them. They’re all selling promises.”
MLM brands often position salespeople to appear financially successful with glamorous social-media posts, but that the actual details of the money-making in selling the products is more complicated, as Business Insider has reported. “MLM makes even gambling look like a safe bet in comparison,” Taylor’s Consumer Awareness Institute report says.
According to the FTC, some businesses that appear as functional brands that use MLMs end up actually being “pyramid schemes,” which make money by recruiting new salespeople, rather than selling products.
But even with legitimate MLM businesses, the FTC warns that most salespeople “make little to no money,” some lose money, and some end up in debt. A 2017 Quartz article examined how many people recruited into MLMs have face psychological problems and debt.
Complaints about Monat products causing hair loss and other issues led to an investigation in Florida
At press time, there have been 859 complaints filed against Monat to the Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit organization that is considered the authority on business standards in the US. Monat is not accredited by the agency and representative for the Better Business Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Many of those Better Business Bureau complaints came from customers who reported experiencing hair loss, itching, and skin lesions, after using Monat hair care products. Several YouTube videos also allege similar issues associated with Monat.
In 2018, KTNV 13, a news outlet in Las Vegas, reported that Monat products had allegedly led to hair loss and scalp sores. The outlet later reported that the attorney general in Florida, where Monat is headquartered, was investigating the company. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office was made aware of at least 800 such complaints, KTNV 13 reported.
Moody’s office resolved the investigation by signing an agreement with Monat this August that “permanently barred” the company “from making false or misleading statements in its marketing and sale of its beauty products, including with respect to its discount offers, and from making unsubstantiated claims regarding the supposed health benefits, safety, performance or efficacy of its products.”
In the agreement, Monat maintained that the company had “clinical studies that demonstrate (product) safety and efficacy” and that it acted “reasonably and in good faith and conducted business fairly and honestly.” The company also began to refund complainants, totaling roughly $82,000, according to the agreement.
For the next five years, Monat will have to follow a set of guidelines agreed upon in the assurance of voluntary compliance document. As part of the agreement, Monat is required to give the attorney general’s office access to offices, warehouses, retail locations, and other company facilities. The terms of the agreement also include that the attorney general’s office can “inspect and copy all documents relevant to any matter” addressed in the agreement.
The Monat spokesperson told Insider that the company has spent over $1 million on product-testing. “We continue to engage third-party scientific testing laboratories to validate the safety and effectiveness of our products,” the spokesperson said. “In each case the findings are conclusive — our products are safe and effective for their intended purpose.”
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