Dream Merchants At the top nation's growing network marketing pyramid you will find astounding wealth, the promise of absolute freedom and something surprising, perhaps

a claim to the moral high ground.

May 10, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

On those momentous Wednesday evenings when Kathleen Deoul makes a personal appearance at the Pikesville Hilton hotel, she arrives early to park her Rolls-Royce Bentley sedan near the hotel entrance. There, among the Saturns and minivans of those who have come here to see her, it shimmers like a dream come true.

Deoul knows the Bentley gets people hungry. Gets them jazzed. It is there to testify, as Deoul is, that anyone has a shot at this shiny green, turbo-charged, $175,000 machine and the wealth it broadcasts. You, too, it announces, could ride this beauty right out of your daily rut.

Cultivating desire. It's a skill that Deoul, a tall, elegant Owings Mills resident, has leveraged into her own sumptuous lifestyle; beyond the Bentley, there are monthly vacations, flexible hours, a monthly five-figure check, even a regal title: "Diamond Nikken Distributor."

Deoul, 53, is an independent contractor for Nikken, a multibillion-dollar Japanese manufacturer of therapeutic magnets and other health-care products. She is also a celebrity in America's growing shadow economy of network marketing, where millions of distributors draw earnings from the work of "downliners" below them, where dreams are sustained by endless pep rallies, testimonials and coaching sessions, and a strangely paradoxical celebration of rugged individualism and team spirit prevails.

Deoul's success and enthusiasm have made her a Nikken legend. She is profiled in company publications and gets top billing at seminars and conventions around the country. As one of the elite perched near the apex of network marketing's sales pyramid, Deoul's success fuels the aspirations of a broad range of society, from homemakers seeking spending money and doctors supplementing managed-care incomes to corporate defectors no longer able to square six-figure incomes with 80-hour work- weeks.

Deoul sees them all, in Sioux City, in Southern California, on Nikken-sponsored Caribbean cruises. She sees them at the weekly all-comers recruitment meetings at the Pikesville Hilton, and at monthly Baltimore Country Club luncheons, where high-end prospects like television personalities, doctors, lawyers, architects and executives are wooed.

Ask her and other successful network marketers why these prospects come, and they will tell you it's not really for the promise of fancy cars and other tangible trappings. Instead, they say, they come to revolutionize their lives, to change their way of thinking, to find a path that will lead them to true freedom. A freedom that's not just financial, but spiritual, imbued with compassion and brotherhood. Talk about having it all.

When Deoul speaks at the Hilton, she tells her personal version of the Network Marketing Creation Myth, the same basic tale told by her wealthy brethren in similar companies. Like them, Deoul testifies to making her way through stages of discontent and skepticism to a financial and spiritual epiphany. And like them, her evangelistic zeal for her new career knows no bounds.

But first, there's business to be done. It starts with a science lesson about Nikken's therapeutic magnets.

The earth's "magnetic strength" is the lowest it's ever been, she says. This, along with the prevalence of electronic appliances that bombard us with alternating currents, explains the high incidence of degenerative diseases in affluent nations, Deoul explains.

"If you reinstitute a magnetic field to the body, maybe you'd feel better," she says. Audience members jot notes, key words and phrases.

Soon, though, Deoul's tone turns confessional. She shares her early skepticism about network marketing; it was, she confides, "The last thing in the world I ever wanted to do."

How wrong she was, Deoul says. She speaks poignantly of how her flexible schedule now lets her enjoy life's simple pleasures, like munching homemade cookies with her daughter after school.

"Man!" she says. "Do you know how I savor these moments?"

You too, she tells her audience, can escape the tyranny of lousy jobs and exhausting routines.

"Freedom - that is what we are presenting to you tonight!" she says in a crescendo of emotion.

If you're black, if you're female, if you're a 50-year-old male, your place in the work force is endangered, Deoul warns. "I'm not making this up. You hear it on the news every night!"

But Deoul has more than riches to offer, more than dire warnings to make. She has the true good news of network marketing to share.

Every night, she says, she goes to sleep on her Nikken magnetic mattress pad with the soothing thought that her product has enabled her to help others even as she has helped herself. For Deoul, like other successful network marketers, has an unassailable rationale for her chosen work: Sell a product you believe in and you've "just helped somebody feel better. What a guiltless way to make a living!"

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