Think Pink

How Mary Kay got its groove back

"It's just so big," I said.

She smiled. Everyone says that.

It's also surprisingly young. As a woman in her 20s, I expected to be the youngest one here, but I'm not--by a long shot. The seminar floor is dotted with a few fragile, aging Southern belles, but for the most part, the women here are very much vibrant. Women in their 20s making more money than I do. Women in their 30s and 40s reveling in a newfound career. I never considered selling Mary Kay products, but the company is so much bigger, more profitable, more youthful than I imagined that when the PR rep meets me the next day and asks, "So are you ready to sign your beauty consultant agreement?" I kind of choke on the response. "That's funny," I say. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it later.

Karen Piro, Dallas' No. 1 Mary Kay saleswoman, has netted more than $6 million in her 27 years with the company.
Peter Calvin
Karen Piro, Dallas' No. 1 Mary Kay saleswoman, has netted more than $6 million in her 27 years with the company.

So why the popular misconceptions about Mary Kay? For one, Mary Kay's iconic founder is dead. She was a dynamo, and without her, the company's profile inevitably dipped. Toward the end of her life, her press was more critical; her business began to flounder. Also, Mary Kay Cosmetics does not advertise. No commercials, no billboards, no slick ads. So the evolution of the products has happened largely outside the public eye. Unless you personally know a Mary Kay saleswoman, you'd have to go to the company's Web site, www.marykay.com, to find out about its popular teen line, Velocity. "Kick it with friends, do the relax thing," the Velocity Web site once read in its amusing version of faux teenspeak. Velocity is a hit, second in sales only to TimeWise, their classic three-in-one skin-care product. Other revitalizing lines include a luxurious "private" spa collection of lotions and spritzers in creamy pastels and a series of men's fragrances. But people don't think of these things when they think of Mary Kay. They think of makeup from their childhoods, of playing with their mothers' foundation, perhaps, shoveling it on thick like spackling.

The products have come a long way since then. And sales continue to climb. But the truth is that Mary Kay's continued success isn't really about cosmetics at all. Mary Kay wanted women to go into business for themselves; through that, and through her direct-sales company, they would change their lives, make money, have it all. "It was never about the makeup," Mary Kay Ash once said. Oh, she loved makeup, wore gobs of it, but the makeup was just a vehicle for her Business Opportunity. Mary Kay Ash was a self-help guru, long before we all rolled our eyes at the phrase "self-help guru." To Mary Kay Ash, her company was about "enriching women's lives." She wrote motivational books like You Can Have It All and Miracles Happen (her 1981 autobiography was recently reissued by HarperCollins), whose tagline reads, "Expect great things and great things will happen." When she appeared on a television talk show wearing a mink stole and diamonds, she addressed the camera directly. "I would like to talk to all those women at home, behind four walls," she said. "To that woman who thinks she's hemmed in, she's not. The only thing that holds you back in this company is you." Like all self-help gurus, she was extremely charismatic and kind of corny. But no matter what you thought of her wigs, her grandeur, her diva-dom, it was impossible not to admire the woman's drive.

She opened her dinky 500-square-foot storefront operation in 1963, back when a woman had to have a man's signature to own property in Texas. But these days, the notion of a "Business Opportunity for Women" sounds almost old-fashioned. Quaint. Is it still necessary? Is it serving a purpose? Here at Seminar, where thousands of women--women my age--are high-fiving each other, jangling new car keys in their hands, smiling and waving from the stage like beauty queens, I can tell you that it is.


Maria Jimenez taught elementary school in Mexico before coming to the United States. She still looks like a teacher, polite and mild-mannered, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. But she doesn't speak English (Mary Kay staffer Liz Zuckerman-Landa translated our conversation). When Jimenez immigrated in 1997, she could only find work as a waitress. About six months ago, a woman approached her at Olé, a Mexican grocery store in Plano, to ask if she'd ever considered selling makeup for Mary Kay.

"I already used the products," says Jimenez, 35, "but no one had ever offered me the opportunity." That's what she calls it: "the opportunity." Recruitment is a big part of the Mary Kay business model, kind of how witnessing is a big part of evangelical Christianity. For the word to spread, there has to be new blood. And Jimenez made a perfect recruit--a mother, frustrated with her current job and bruised enough to take a risk.

"I never thought I could sell anything," Jimenez says. "I'd never done it before." Tentatively, she signed on. She returned to Olé, this time wearing a crisp suit, hose and pumps, and a dainty Mary Kay lapel pin. She stood outside and approached women and girls as they passed. She was nervous, but Mary Kay provided her with the script.

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