Mary Kay entered my life one morning at the gym. I was running on a treadmill when I noticed a black Mary Kay binder sitting on the machine next to me. I leaned over to initiate a conversation with my neighbor.
"Are you a Mary Kay consultant?" I asked.
In less than 20 minutes, my new friend Janet had given me a catalog, a brochure about Mary Kay job opportunities and an instructional DVD. Janet also asked for my number and left knowing when she could reach me for a follow-up conversation.
The night before my gym meeting, I had been talking to my friend Pam about my fascination with Mary Kay. I knew the cosmetics company was started in the 1960s, but I was curious about how their attitudes toward beauty and makeup may have changed to embrace the modern world. According to the Mary Kay Web site, 1.3 million women worldwide are actively working as beauty consultants for the company.
Having recently returned from a romance writers' convention that took place in a building shared by 2,000 Mary Kay consultants, Pam offered some intriguing insights.
Unlike the romance novelists, the Mary Kay consultants weren't allowed to drink at the hotel bar and only wore knee-length skirts during the convention, she told me. Conservative dress and prohibition don't exactly invoke the image of today's "modern" women at least not the ones I know.
Mary Kay claims to stand for women, economic self-empowerment and families. But it's also spawned at least one support group with more than 900 members, who decry what they call manipulative tactics and "God abuse." Asked for comment, company officials had not responded by press time.
I set out on a mission to investigate the Mary Kay stereotypes and to get a behind-the-scenes look at the organization. I accepted invitations to a private beauty consultation, a regional meeting and a local weekly meeting. As it turns out, there's a whole lot more at stake than a pink Cadillac.
The last place I thought I'd reconnect with Bob Marley's "Stir it Up" was during my first Mary Kay beauty consultation. My reference point for Marley comes from late-night dorm-room hangouts in college. This Thursday afternoon, the setting is different: I'm sitting at a table in the basement of my consultant's home, giving myself a hand treatment.
It's been a long, long time, yeah! (Stir it, stir it, stir it together)
Since I got you on my mind. (Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh oh-oh!)
Janet asks me how my hands feel after I've applied the product.
"My hands do feel softer," I say. "They smell really good, too."
"Just imagine what it can do when you apply it to your face," she responds.
Janet invited me to her at-home Mary Kay studio to learn more about job opportunities. If all goes well today, I will become a Mary Kay beauty consultant. Standing between me and my goal is $100. I don't have it. Most Mary Kay beauty consultants enter the business with a $100 starter kit, Janet says. The kit includes samples of skin-care products and makeup I can use on potential customers.
Janet and I engage in idle chatter while I wash the products from my hand.
"I just love satellite radio. This is my favorite mix station," she says in an upbeat tone. Indeed, Marley, the Indigo Girls and Edie Brickell drifting through the room eases what would otherwise be an awkward meeting between two strangers.
Janet next introduces me to skin foundation, something I've never worn before. After quick deliberation, she decides my Mary Kay color is 104. I take the taupe-looking 104 from a Styrofoam tray and apply it to the top of my hand. For contrast, Janet adds an equally taupe-looking 204 foundation to the tray.
"It's a tough call," she says, deliberating.
The florescent lighting in the basement doesn't help the decision-making process. Under the artificial light, the pink-and-white Mary Kay perfume and makeup boxes on shelves to my left look lackluster. A 1-foot-tall Mary Kay doll in the corner, tilted to her left side in a small glass case, looks even duller.
"Hold your hand up to your cheek," Janet tells me.
I hold my right hand next to two lines of foundation I drew earlier on my cheek. Shifting my weight around, I try to find different angles with the light that might unlock this unsolved mystery.
"Nope, you're a 204," she says confidently. "Don't you think?"
"I think you're right," I say.
I'm still not sure, but I anxiously move toward the sink under the vanity to remove the foundation.
After returning to the table, I come back to the topic of the $100 starter kit.
"The job opportunity sounds good. I'm interested. I just don't have $100," I say, repeating what I'd said earlier to her on the phone.
Janet nods her head and sits even more erect in her chair. She tells me that she's been thinking about my situation, and she has a few ideas.
Maybe she'll give me a break on the cost, I think, or maybe I won't have to buy a starter kit at all.
Janet says that every new Mary Kay beauty consultant is required to buy the starter kit. One option for me could be charging it on a credit card. Many Mary Kay consultants apply for a separate business credit card, she explains; it makes sense for tax purposes.
"Not an option," I say. "What's the second one?"
Janet shifts in her chair and establishes eye contact again. She explains that other consultants have borrowed money from friends and family to buy their starter kits. For example, I could borrow $10 from 10 people. That's not asking too much, she adds.
"Is there anyone that would loan you the money?" she asks. Searching for the right words, Janet rephrases the question and looks directly into my eyes.
"Is there anyone that believes in you?"
Pretty in pink
Standing in front of a "Mary Kay: Enriching Women's Lives" poster, an emcee announces that tonight's speaker will be one of the fastest Mary Kay consultants to ever climb the pink ladder. I look around the hotel conference room and see roughly 200 Mary Kay consultants and guests all in skirts. Janet suggested I attend the event to gain more information about the beauty consultant position.
Before the emcee brings the speaker on stage, she announces a contest for all guests in attendance. She calls any woman who has hosted a Mary Kay home event to the stage and encourages them to share their experience.
Women shuffle quickly to the stage and wait in line for their chance to speak.
"I'd like you to say your name, who you came with tonight and what your favorite part of hosting a Mary Kay party is," instructs the emcee.
"My name's Monica, and I'm the guest of Terry, my mom," says one high-schooler. "I hosted a homecoming party for Mary Kay, and the best part was making all my friends look beautiful for homecoming."
The crowd sighs and then cheers.
"I liked getting together for girlfriend time," says a woman named Laurie. "And I liked seeing one of my friends who found her favorite lip gloss for the first time ever. It felt great!"
The crowd claps, and a middle-aged woman approaches the microphone.
"My name's Tina, and I hosted a party for Paige," she says. "I loved getting together with all the girls and trying Mary Kay products. We had had the skin-care tests right after women's Bible study," she says. "Like Paige says: God makes us beautiful on the inside, and Mary Kay makes us beautiful on the outside."
Tina's comments are a home run with the crowd.
"Thank you for sharing that," says the emcee.
"Let's give a big round of applause to all of our girlfriend-party hostesses," she says. "The skin-care class, girlfriend parties that is the foundation of our business. It's nice to try before you buy and be with girlfriends. That's why most of all of us call it a girlfriend party, or girlfriend-pampering time.
"What I loved is, did you notice how many of them talked about how much they loved the girlfriend time? Girls just want to have fun, don't they?" she asks rhetorically.
After raffling off the large basket of beauty products, the emcee moves on to the evening's keynote speaker, Allison Lamar.
Lamar is a perky Texan and mother of two who, in 33 months, managed to pay off $30,000 in credit-card debt, earn a pink Cadillac and reel in a 2005 annual salary of more than $200,000. While Lamar is quick to point out that money doesn't buy happiness, she says that her six-figure income enabled her to take her dad and brother to the World Series when it came to Houston, and to buy her husband a pickup truck.
"It's just so fun to give back to the people in your lives," she says.
After Lamar finishes her personal story, she sounds the charge for all guests at the meeting to become beauty consultants.
"The very first step of faith over the line is the hardest step to take," she says. "Once you take the first step, it's our job to help you get there."
About 15 women walk up and join Lamar on the stage as the crowd starts cheering.
"Are they beautiful and courageous or what?" asks Lamar.
For Laura Ryan, a 50-something former Mary Kay director, fun and girlfriend time are small pieces of the full Mary Kay picture. While some find the Mary Kay experience empowering and fulfilling, Ryan says the organization can handicap consultants both emotionally and economically.
About a year ago, Ryan started the Yahoo group MKSurvivors for Mary Kay consultants who have left or are thinking about leaving the business. Her group was so successful that she launched the Web site thepinkingshears.com, which offers information and stories of those who recently have left Mary Kay.
"It's a big secret. You do not talk about anything like this in Mary Kay," she says. "If you have a bad day, you are trained to say, "My day is great.' Everything's positive or great."
Now with more than 900 members in her group, Ryan says there's a grieving process that women go through after they leave the company. It's not uncommon for women to end up with thousands of dollars in extra Mary Kay inventory, she says.
"[Women feel] shame for what they did; that's No. 1. The directors are promoting, and people order inventory that they don't need," she says. "They were ashamed that they did it, or what they have become that they pushed people into joining."
And there's the loss of close friendships.
"I told my director the most confidential things I've ever told anybody in my life," she says. "That's what people do. The directors tell you, "You only talk to me.' And they get to know your personality type. They study this, and they know where to get you and where to motivate you to succeed. When those friendships are lost, it's devastating for women."
Equally challenging for the women in Ryan's group is marriage. Despite the emphasis on family, many women report finding that working as a Mary Kay consultant increases the stress in their lives. Ryan claims that many Mary Kay consultants have to hire housekeepers and nannies as they rise through the company's ranks, because most of their time is consumed with developing their business.
Every individual starts at the bottom in Mary Kay that is, as an independent beauty consultant. As a consultant recruits others, she advances in the hierarchy of the organization and manages a team of recruits, who pay her commission on their sales. One step that takes eligible consultants to management level in Mary Kay is called "sales director in qualification." During this four-month period, a consultant must increase her team to 30 beauty consultants, and the team must sell at least $16,000 of product.
"There's some women in our group who are upward of $90,000 in debt, lost their homes, lost their husbands and have gotten jobs to finance their Mary Kay jobs because they don't want to leave," she says. "We try to ask them, "What keeps you here?' And they just say, "I don't know.'"
Even Ryan says she had difficulty leaving the group. As a government employee, Ryan says Mary Kay first appealed to her because of the extra money.
"I wanted to make enough income so that my husband could quit his labor job and I could make the house payments," she says. "Then I started to find out, little by little, about the "godly' women."
With the credo, "God first, family second, career third," many Mary Kay consultants strongly identify with the Christian faith. At first, this component of the business appealed to Ryan.
"As a born-again Christian, this is like ministry. We could talk about our faith, and you think you're divinely sent there," she says.
A turning point for Ryan came when she learned what it really takes to climb the Mary Kay ladder. Ryan claims she'd heard stories of consultants who were behind in their sales and recruitment quotas during the "director in qualification" period, and who were encouraged by directors to spend their own money to make up the difference. In her group, she alleges, such cushioning took place on more than one occasion.
The practice, however, is against Mary Kay rules.
Still, by many measurements, Ryan was doing well: She was a director, had qualified for a company-leased Pontiac Grand Am, and was bringing in recruits. But as she continued in Mary Kay, other group behaviors stood out as morally incompatible.
During one lunch meeting with two other Mary Kay consultants, Ryan started talking about how she wasn't making her sales goals.
"I said, "I didn't make production two months in a row,' and I figured these women would understand. The director said, "Don't ever talk about missing production again.' I'm like, "We're all in the same boat, and there's only three of us.' She said, "No, even in a small setting, we don't talk like that.'"
Ryan says she became frustrated once she took on her new role. She was told that meeting sales goals during her qualification phase was the most difficult stage of working in Mary Kay. When she became a director, she found the sales goals to be equally challenging. There seemed to be no relief in sight.
Just as religion played a strong part in the recruiting process, Ryan also saw religion as part of the message when she started to talk about leaving Mary Kay.
"That's what they get you with "God doesn't want you to quit' even though you're losing money. They use Scripture on you. It's the God thing, the girlfriends thing," she says.
Ryan says she's working on a "God abuse" section for her Web site. Based on her research, she says she sees religion playing a role in other direct-sales companies like Mary Kay.
"They all say the same thing. They're like, "God first, family second and career third,'" she says. "It paints a trusting picture. "Look at us we're so good, this is so pure.' It keeps you in. You think, "It must be me, because these are godly people.'"
Ryan says she's also seen greater emphasis on recruiting in recent years at Mary Kay.
"They are getting more bonuses for recruiting than when I was there in 2003," she says.
Ryan says that some consultants use Mary Kay "scripts," which enable them to question candidates and determine how to best sell the job opportunity.
"They bill it that "All your financial problems are going to be solved by getting into this.' But your financial problems have only just begun."
The final stretch
"Ready, set, go!"
Upon instruction from Susan, our Mary Kay meeting leader, myself and two other guests race to fill out our "gift of pampering" forms during the group's weekly get-together.
With a colorful gift box printed at the top of the sheet, there are spaces for names, phone numbers and a place to explain why the people we're listing are "special" to us. We're told that the person who lists the most names and phone numbers in the allotted minute will win a prize.
Unfortunately, I didn't bring my cell phone to the meeting, and the brunette to my left, dressed in a black knitted poncho and jeans, is kicking ass.
I'm also waffling with a moral dilemma: Which friends would still talk to me if I put their phone number on this sheet? And how detailed should I get when describing why individuals are "special" to me?
As Susan starts to count down the seconds, I glance at my sheet. I've written three names: my mom, my boss and my running partner. I tell Janet, who's invited me to the meeting, that my mom's phone number is the only one I can remember.
"I can't remember any phone numbers either," Janet assures me. "I have everything voice-activated on my phone; I have a high-tech hubby."
With poncho-girl surpassing 10 entries, she's a shoo-in for the $50 Mary Kay gift bag.
Time is up. The contest ends, and now it's time to put on some makeup.
"MK always said that an artist would never paint a picture on a dirty canvas," says Susan to the guests at the meeting. "We're going to start by washing your face."
My consultant Janet sits on the other side of the table and offers pointers while I wash my face with a product that cleanses, exfoliates and freshens all in one.
"How many of you weren't aware that the skin is the largest organ in our body?" Susan asks.
I'm surprised by my hand, which bolts up at this intriguing new fact. Unfortunately, I'm alone on this one, as the other guests and 10 consultants already seem to be in the know.
Before we move on to makeup, Janet whips out her digital camera to take my "before" picture.
"Don't show your teeth. Look a little serious. Don't look straight at me," she says. "Well, you can look at me with your eyes, but turn your head a bit."
Janet snaps the picture and then shows the result to me. I look pasty and aloof, a good look for a "before" shot.
"There, I think that gets the point across," she jokes. "Have you ever looked so serious?"
Upon completion of our makeovers, Susan calls the guests and their Mary Kay consultants to the front of the room. After a rundown of the Mary Kay products used, Susan compliments each guest on their beauty and asks us more about ourselves. As we return to our chairs, we're given yellow award ribbons that read, "I am special."
The next order of business is the initiation of a new Mary Kay consultant to the group.
The newbie is called to the front of the room and given a pin by her recruiter.
"Put it on the right side, because it's the right thing to do," says the recruiter. "Put it upside down, so people will notice. It's a conversation starter."
Susan finishes the ceremony by reading a poem. The group recites it back to her.
With this pin, I am so cute. Away with my jeans and on with my suit. I don't know much, but I can learn. The more I do, the more I earn. My dreams once far, are so near. My faith I'll walk, but not by fear. My Mr. Wonderful doubts that I'll make money. But soon he'll be saying, "I knew you could, honey.'
As the group nears the end of the poem, excitement builds.
My boss thinks I'm crazy, says with this I can't win. But he doesn't know that soon I'll make more money than him. So I'll choose to work and make my day. Because from now on I am Mary Kay!
As the weekly meeting draws to a close, the guests are asked to participate in another game: Q&A. Susan asks the guests to shout 10 questions about Mary Kay.
"It can be anything about the business, the product or even about me as a director," she says.
"What's the coolest thing about the pink Cadillac?" I ask.
OnStar, Susan replies. Although considering the recent cold weather, the remote start comes in a close second, she adds.
The other guests ask how Susan developed her business, how she became successful and who her first client was.
Someone next to me whispers in my ear, "Ask her about her income."
"How much money do you earn every year?" I ask.
"My highest monthly check was $20,000," she says. "I make about $150,000 per year."
As the Q&A session dies down, Susan thanks the guests and announces an upcoming incentive for a March meeting.
"We're going to vote on everyone's favorite product," she says. "It's really going to be interesting to see what product wins."
The group breaks up and members start to mingle around the room.
"So, any more thoughts about the starter kit?" asks Janet.
I tell Janet that $100 is still a lot of money for me.
"Well, if you don't have the money, that's a pretty good reason to join," she says. In a series of follow-up questions that Janet reads from a sheet of paper, she attempts to gauge my interest level in Mary Kay.
"I just need some more time to think about it," I say.
Janet attempts to schedule a specific time that she can call me. I really don't want a follow-up phone call, but I find myself unable to say no.
On my way out, Janet suggests that I stop and chat with a new Mary Kay consultant.
"I know this was difficult for her," she says. "You might get some ideas about how to finance your business."
In the lobby, I run into Amber, a 20-something brunette, who says her boyfriend and friends were skeptical of her Mary Kay career, but that her worries went away once she held her first girlfriend party.
In addition to the starter kit, Amber says that she's already spent $600 on Mary Kay inventory.
"How were you able to do that if you're tight on cash?" I ask.
Amber pauses slightly and chuckles.
"Susan hasn't cashed the check yet."