Self described gellers tout Somaderm as a double-barreled miracle elixir: a goldmine and a fountain of youth. But past users have reported alarming symptoms and their attempt at speaking out is met with legal threats
Charli Johnson says she first discovered the gel last May, two and a half years after a semi-truck doing 75 miles an hour crashed into her car and launched her through the windshield, leaving her with “melted” eyelashes and a brain of “mush”.
“I was dead, literally,” Johnson said on a recent Wednesday evening, standing on a stage before 550 people at the APA Hotel Woodbridge, in Iselin, New Jersey. She wore a glittery white jacket and bangles engraved with the words “LOVE” and “HOPE”.
“I was on every freaking drug you could imagine,” Johnson said of her time after the accident. “My brain tested as that of a 10-year Alzheimer’s patient … I couldn’t put three words together to make a sentence.”
When doctors told her she would never recover, she considered suicide, she said, even Googling which drugs were needed to carry it out. “Every single one of them was sitting on my table,” she said.
But the universe had other plans.
“On that day,” she said, “God showed up in my life in the form of Alexy Goldstein and a bottle of gel.”
Alexy Goldstein is a paunchy 45-year-old with a horseshoe of dark hair. Based in Pleasant Hill, California, he bills himself as an herbalist, nutritional consultant and certified homeopath. In 2017, he founded a multilevel marketing (MLM) company called New U Life (NUL), which manufactures a product called Somaderm Gel.
The company’s website claims this “homeopathic gel is the ONLY transdermal Human Growth Hormone (HGH) product available without a prescription”. A 30-day supply costs $169.99.
According to “gellers”, as the company’s 125,000 customers and distributors often call themselves, potential benefits of rubbing this brownish goop into your armpits and inner wrists every day include improved mood, weight loss, deeper sleep, reduced wrinkles, thicker hair and enhanced libido. (They call it “gelbido”.) Gellers rave endlessly in Facebook groups with names like “Gel Nation – Forever Young”. They post feverish YouTube testimonials and before-and-after photos showing off slimmer waistlines. They recruit new distributors using hashtags like #GelRevolution, #FutureGellionaire and #GetOnTheGel.
Many of NUL’s “Diamond Ambassadors” – the tiny percentage of distributors who occupy the highest level in the company’s pyramid-shaped structure – claim their gel businesses bring in upwards of $20,000 a week. This makes gellers tout Somaderm as a double-barreled miracle elixir: both a goldmine and a fountain of youth.
Johnson, who was speaking at the event in New Jersey, claimed the gel had saved her life.
“The fog lifted,” she said, choking up. “I can feel myself being healed. What’s going on between my ears from PTSD [has] absolutely transformed because of Alexy Goldstein and this product.”
Audience members wiped tears from their eyes. The mostly white, middle-aged crowd included a massage therapist who said the gel had aligned his chakras; a gaunt, heavily tattooed man wearing a red T-shirt that said “Are You Gel’n?”; and a couple who had driven 20 hours from North Dakota just to attend. The energy in the beige-walled event space felt like that of a megachurch service. Bring Me to Life by Evanescence blared from speakers.
“You guys know that I was a 400-pound Filipino woman before this?” shouted Johnny LoPresto, the event’s MC, a thick-necked New Jerseyite with slick silver hair. “This product has changed me … I feel sexy inside.”
He introduced the keynote speaker. Wild applause erupted as Alexy Goldstein walked onstage, rolled up his sleeves, whipped a bottle of Somaderm out of his pocket, and started slathering gel all over his inner forearms, grinning slyly.
“I’m here to talk about the product,” Goldstein said. “My baby.”
The crowd whooped.
Goldstein vaguely described his “baby’s” early years, claiming he first concocted this formula in 2004 for some bodybuilder friends who were sick of injectable steroids. He said the opportunity to provide the world with Somaderm was the “biggest gift” he had ever received.
“This is not about money,” he said. “This is for touching lives.”
“It is about the money. Don’t believe him,” LoPresto interrupted. He grinned at the audience. “But I love touching people. Trust me.”
WTF is ‘the gel’?
I first learned of the gel in January. A Facebook friend in her 50s had posted a photo of herself, smiling and rosy-cheeked, wearing a magenta shirt that said Namaste and cradling a bowl of raspberries. The previous year had been rough, she had written, until her neighbors recommended a gel that had transformed their lives. “I’m feeling fabulously energized!” her post read. “No more chronic fatigue, achy muscles and joint or nerve pain. I literally feel like I did when I was 34.” She encouraged friends to contact her for details about her “new little secret”.
My immediate reaction was one of cautious intrigue. I wanted to believe this gel could be real. But a Google search turned up a Reddit thread titled “WTF is ‘the gel?’”, which led me to a Facebook page called Somaderm HGH Gel Scam, with 519 followers. Comments on the page were alarming.
“Never felt worse on that stuff,” one read. “Whatever it is, it’s terrible and dangerous.”
“I tried it. I’m completely dissatisfied and have returned 4 bottles ($600 worth of product) and they will not refund, answer calls, or email,” said another. “It’s truly a scam, at the least.”
Also suspicious was NUL’s multi-level marketing structure. The FTC cautions that while some MLMs are legitimate, others are thinly veiled pyramid schemes – illegal enterprises in which people earn money primarily by recruiting others instead of by selling products to the public.
MLMs seduce would-be entrepreneurs with tales of making fortunes while working from home – NUL describes its compensation plan as a “guide to financial freedom and a New U” – but it’s rarely that easy. To make money, distributors must become dogged missionaries. They’re tasked with “building a downline” – industry lingo for recruiting new distributors, who in turn recruit their own teams. The more people in your downline, the more you earn in commissions on their sales – hence NUL’s growing army of gellers.
According to a report posted on the FTC’s website, less than 1% of MLM participants will profit. “MLM makes even gambling look like a safe bet in comparison,” it states.
Some MLMs, like Herbalife, are notorious for ruining friendships and driving participants to financial ruin. Despite this, 18.6 million American participated in MLMs in 2017, thanks in part to aggressive recruitment tactics on social media.
Wondering if I should warn my Facebook friend, I messaged the anonymous moderator of the scam alert page. Over the phone, he told me his name, Stevo C, that he’s a Serbian emigre and logistics supervisor in Florida, and that he had created the page after a friend tried selling him the gel last July.
“Me being a skeptic about pretty much everything, especially products that promise so many benefits with no side-effects – plus there was the whole MLM aspect of the business – really had me thinking, what is this all about?” Stevo said. “I did some investigating.”
In his research, Stevo learned that Human Growth Hormone (HGH) – a protein produced by the pea-sized pituitary gland that fuels childhood growth and cell regeneration – is illegal in the US without a prescription. The FDA has banned it for all but a few specific medical conditions, including short bowel syndrome and muscle wasting disease associated with HIV/AIDS. It has been banned by most professional sports leagues in the US and by the International Olympic Committee, since some athletes use it as a performance enhancer.
Those who use it require needles – the only known method for delivering HGH is via injection. Hoping to develop less invasive methods, scientists are currently researching ways to deliver HGH transdermally, but they’re far from figuring it out.
On NUL’s website, Stevo read that Somaderm contains a “homeopathic” dilution of Somatropin, a synthetic form of HGH, as well as 18 “inactive” botanical ingredients, including licorice root and epimedium, also known as horny goat weed.
Stevo started commenting on a geller testimonial page on Facebook. He wanted to know: if Somaderm really does contain HGH, then how could it be legal without a prescription? And if it doesn’t contain HGH, then isn’t its marketing more than a little misleading?
Immediately, he says, the page’s moderator direct messaged him. “After a few messages, I was banned and all my comments were deleted,” he said.
That prompted Stevo – who says he has not tried the gel himself and has never been affiliated with NUL – to start his Somaderm HGH Gel Scam page. Soon, disgruntled ex-gellers started flocking to the page to commiserate. They’ve filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, the California attorney general, the FTC, the FDA and the FBI.
But in their quest to get NUL shut down, they’ve incurred the wrath of some lawsuit-happy gellers intent on silencing detractors.
‘It’s sort of an Erin Brockovich thing’
Among these disgruntled ex-gellers wasGeorgia Hargett, a 55-year-old naturopath and navy veteran in Michigan. She first learned of NUL last January, a few years after her husband’s death, which had triggered the collapse of her business, Earthroots Wellness Center, and the loss of her home.
“I didn’t even have money to bury my husband,” Georgia told me. “The only way I was gonna be covered was if I won the lottery.”
Considering the miraculous stories she’d heard – about old ladies leaping out of wheelchairs, deaf people hearing trumpets for the first time – a Somaderm business seemed like the next best thing to winning the lottery. Four months after becoming a distributor, Georgia was making about $2,000 a week. Among her company recruits were her 80-year-old mother, her sister and her current husband.
She didn’t stop there. After seeing dozens of unanswered questions on Facebook about Somaderm, she took it upon herself to “educate the field” about homeopathy. Thousands watched her informational videos. At NUL’s pep rally-style events, she gave passionate speeches, assuring audiences that Somaderm is included in the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the US (HPUS) – an independent organization founded in 1897 that provides seals of approval for homeopathic remedies it deems safe. (She later learned it was, in fact, not, and that even homeopathy bodies reject claims about so-called homeopathic HGH).
More red flags popped up. Georgia is postmenopausal, but several months into using the gel, she says, she started having abnormal vaginal bleeding, and her breasts had grown two cup sizes: “If you’re a late bloomer, that might sound exciting, but it’s not.”
Around that time, she says, other gel users started reporting strange symptoms, complaining of tachycardia, panic attacks, hives, rashes, vertigo, nosebleeds. Several postmenopausal women described abnormal vaginal bleeding.
Alarmed, Georgia put together an elaborate spreadsheet documenting about 150 such complaints. When she relayed them to the company’s leaders – acknowledging that she couldn’t prove the gel had caused these ailments, only that the sufferers claimed they hadn’t experienced them prior to gelling – they dismissed her concerns, she says. In a recorded Q&A session, Goldstein claimed that “there hasn’t been any side-effects, there hasn’t been any complaints to the FDA … nothing negative. It’s been super safe with everyone that’s used it.”
(Requests for comment sent to NUL went unanswered.)
In December, Georgia resigned from NUL. “[$9,000 a month] is not pocket change – but I walked away from it,” she said. “It’s about ethics. It’s sort of an Erin Brockovich thing.” Soon after, she posted a statement on Facebook.
“When I began with the company, I was assured the products were supported by studies that supported its safe and effective use,” the statement read, in part. “These documents were to be released pending patent and trademark. I had been made aware that there in fact is no patent pending nor is there research or studies showing the use of Somaderm HGH gel’s safety or efficacy.”
‘Things are about to get ugly’
At the Woodbridge, Johnny LoPresto warned the crowd about skeptics: “If anyone says they don’t feel the product, just say, ‘It’s designed not to work on losers!’” Behind the scenes, NUL has gone to wild extremes to squelch criticism.
Patti Sinclair, a Connecticut-based spiritual medium, had been Georgia’s right-hand woman while they were both Somaderm distributors. She had helped Georgia compile the spreadsheet of gellers’ complaints. Afraid the gel might be harmful, she resigned in October, then detailed her worries about the product in comments on BehindMLM.com.
In January, an NUL Diamond Ambassador who had recruited Patti into the company sent her a threatening email. He had been a friend of hers for seven years.
“I thought you should know several well-funded unnamed people are about to unleash a campaign that I may be able to prevent,” it said. “There is some pretty unflattering information about you out there from the last few decades. I am just stating a fact and want to try to deescalate this situation immediately.”
It continued: “You are going to be exposed on social media & Google. An expert has been consulted and hired to top rank the following domain names with professional content about you.
“Also, they are prepared to make noise at any/all of your upcoming events.
“Things are about to get ugly and I thought you should know,” the email concluded.
Patti tried not to panic and called a lawyer. At his urging, she contacted the FBI. In a public Facebook post on 3 February, she described the threatening email. “I will NOT be intimidated by men who believe they are MORE POWERFUL than I am,” she wrote.
On 7 February, NUL and Alexy Goldstein sued Patti for defamation, trade libel and breach of contract. The lawsuit claimed that Patti’s critical comments about NUL on BehindMLM.com had violated her non-disparagement agreement and cost the company $100,000 or more in damages. It seemed designed to make her stop blowing the whistle: should Patti refrain from making “further defamatory statements,” it stated, “she will suffer no harm”.
When Georgia got served with a similar lawsuit on Valentine’s Day, also claiming defamation and seeking $100,000 or more in damages, she was shocked to find the complaint included screenshots of private Facebook messages she had exchanged with friends regarding her concerns about the company.
“The bottom line is they are crooks and manipulators,” she’d told a fellow distributor in one of these messages. “I am praying for you all.”
The snapshots pictured Georgia’s outgoing messages on the screen’s right-hand side, indicating they were being viewed through her account, not the recipient’s. How had NUL acquired these messages? She suspected someone had hacked her Facebook. Her lawyer, Kevin Thompson, confirmed that her account had recently been accessed from an IP address in California.
She feared further retaliation. “I’ve had many people reach out to me from the [NUL] field saying they’re concerned for my physical safety,” she said.
“[Patti and I] have been crying all the time. My 80-year-old mom is worried about me.” For the first time, she’s seeking psychotherapy. When her current husband went away for a recent weekend, she sat locked in her house with a loaded shotgun. Thompson, a Tennessee-based MLM attorney who is representing both Patti and Georgia, told me he finds NUL’s lawsuits “pathetic”.
“When I see companies that can’t handle criticism,” he said, “they generally have a lot to hide.”
Complaints about NUL have started to draw watchdog attention. On 23 January, the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (ASRC), part of the Better Business Bureau, announced that NUL had “failed to submit any competent and reliable evidence to demonstrate that [Somaderm] would provide the purported health benefits of HGH,” and that the company had agreed to discontinue certain health benefit claims in its online advertising.
Even if NUL does revise its advertising, it will be tough to police thousands of gellers’ bogus social media posts – including their vast library of gel memes, one of which pictures a flaccid-looking banana.
“Feeling a little down?” it reads. “Don’t worry, HGH gel can help you back up!”
The caption: “#gelbidoisreal”.
Facebook’s efforts to combat “fake news” have not yet targeted these sorts of false advertising claims.
The quest for an elixir of youth is about as old as human awareness of ageing. In medieval legends, Alexander the Great crossed the Land of Darkness in search of a magical “Water of Life”. Cleopatra bathed in donkey’s milk. Today, Gwyneth Paltrow is “all about scrubs”. The alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich hawks “Gorilla Youth Serum”.
In 2018, the global anti-ageing market was worth $42.51bn.
Multi-level marketing companies are also thriving, with $34.9bn in US retail sales in 2017. This success is no doubt celebrated by the Trump administration, which employs a whole squad of MLM cheerleaders, including the Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos. President Trump himself used to have an MLM, the Trump Network, and was a spokesman for another, called ACN. In a nation built on fantasies of streets paved with gold, Trump’s empty promises of easy economic fixes echo those of MLMs’ get-rich-quick spiels.
Amid a broken healthcare system and growing distrust of mainstream medicine, perhaps it won’t come as a surprise that most products sold by MLMs fall into the “wellness” category.
“Apply a healthy dose of skepticism before buying or selling products advertised as having ‘miracle’ ingredients,” the FTC cautions. “Many of these ‘quick cures’ are unproven, fraudulently marketed, and useless. In fact, they could be dangerous.”
‘A Chance to be free’
After talking to Rick Ross, executive director of Cult Education Institute, I chose not to try to warn my Facebook geller friend about NUL’s alleged shadiness.
Ross posits that MLMs and destructive cults tend to share two defining characteristics: a process of indoctrination or thought reform that encourages group members to shun anyone who questions their devotion and economic, sexual and other exploitation of group members by the ruling coterie. Getting a friend out of an MLM, therefore, often requires staging a strategic intervention.
During a product giveaway at the Woodbridge event, bottles of gel flew through the air.
“You’re my family,” Goldstein told the crowd. “I love you.”
A Diamond Ambassador named Brian Meara gave an existential closing speech. A pompadoured New Jersey real estate agent, Meara, had recently purchased a Maserati with vanity plates that say “The Gel”.
“Why are you here?” he asked the crowd. “Why are people doing this? … Because they want something different from their life.”
He described being diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 18, and how it disappeared after his aunt, a born-again Christian, laid hands on him, and how, ever since he got that “second chance”, he has known that “there’s a reason we’re all here”. Now, through Somaderm, he has found a way to “literally change lives”, and if everyone in the audience simply shared NUL’s three-minute promotional video with a few people every day, they might finally get “a chance to be free”.
He stared out at a room full of gray hair, bald spots, potbellies, crow’s feet, laugh lines, liver spots, spider veins.
“Do you realize something, that you’re running out of time?”
The crowd nodded.
“Can you please get excited about your life?” he shouted. “Anybody wanna make a change here? Stand up, please!”
People began to stand and cheer.
“Clap your hands! You got one shot! YOU DON’T KNOW WHEN YOU’RE GONNA DIE!”
This article was amended on 1 May 2019 to remove a reference to 16th-century Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory swearing by virgins’ blood.
Read more: www.theguardian.com