Think Pink

How Mary Kay got its groove back

Long ago, in another life, it seems, she was a nurse.

"Mary Kay is more than a way to make a living," she tells the seminar audience. "It's a way of life!"

"Pretty amazing woman, huh?" Kimberlee says, nudging me. "She's kind of what we have left of the real Mary Kay."

Pretty in pink: The Mary Kay Museum, located inside the corporate headquarters in Addison. Clockwise from top left: A portrait of founder Mary Kay Ash, who died in 2001; life-size figures of Ash and the company's current sales force uniforms; a gallery devoted to national sales directors.
Peter Calvin
Pretty in pink: The Mary Kay Museum, located inside the corporate headquarters in Addison. Clockwise from top left: A portrait of founder Mary Kay Ash, who died in 2001; life-size figures of Ash and the company's current sales force uniforms; a gallery devoted to national sales directors.
Maria Jimenez quit her waitressing job to become a full-time consultant. She tripled her income in a month.
Peter Calvin
Maria Jimenez quit her waitressing job to become a full-time consultant. She tripled her income in a month.

"I'm humbled by that," Lenarz says later when I pass on Kimberlee's compliment. She is a petite fiftysomething with good cheekbones and a spray of frosted blond hair. She lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota--a city most people couldn't find on a map--but that's appropriate, since so many of these women come from in-between towns and flyover states. They have rather small lives and concerns, but Lenarz has a politician's gift for treating them with empathy. In a conversation, she focuses on people, makes them feel as though they are the only ones in the room. "You have beautiful skin," she says off-handedly during our interview, and despite myself, I kind of glow. Nightline once featured her in a report on people who excel at their jobs. Like many successful businesspeople, she is friendly and flattering, and she believes strongly in the product she is selling. "There are three things that don't suffer in a recession," Lenarz tells me. "Bourbon, tobacco and makeup. My mother lived through the Depression, and she said if she had to choose between a loaf of bread and a tube of lipstick, she would choose the lipstick, because you feel better."

As we are talking, a consultant wanders up to Lenarz and grabs her hand. "I just had to touch you," she says, and continues on her way.


For the record, you do not have to be a woman to sell Mary Kay. A few men have joined the company, and some of them are quite successful. But the company is unabashedly designed for women. That was, in part, a response to Mary Kay Ash's experience shilling for male-dominated direct-sales businesses like Stanley Home Products. In her company, she wanted to treat women like royalty. She offered exorbitant incentive prizes--"Cinderella gifts," she called them--like diamond rings, brooches, necklaces. For a while, she gave away fur coats. That was before the PETA debacle of the late '80s, when the company was busted for animal testing (chastened, the company teamed with PETA to salve its image) and before the fur coat became so horribly un-PC.

The seminar trade show is filled with these fabulous prizes, laid out in glass cases. There's even a Star Consultant Barbie up for grabs. Behind that are mannequins wearing each of the different Mary Kay uniforms. With each blouse, lapel, trim color and jacket signifying different levels in the company, Mary Kay boasts regalia as meaningful and complicated as the military's. Red blazer? That's a starting consultant. Pink suit with black sequined trim? Ooh, national sales director, the absolute tops.

The most crowded trade show area is always the makeup counter, where saleswomen cluster around the products, taking notes in their binders, their hands a sticky mess of colorful test stripes. Today, as usual, the most popular makeup section is the Velocity counter. The Velocity line is an orgy of pink sparkles and fruity smells. There's lotion and foaming gel in "on-trend" orange-and-white bottles like a Creamsicle, or an iMac. There's shimmery, dramatic eye shadow colors in a clear Lucite compact. "Oh," says one consultant, marveling over the counter, "let's just sell them all now."

A teen line was an obvious extension for Mary Kay. For one, every industry seems to be drooling to court a younger market. For another, most Mary Kay consultants are moms, who begin their business by selling to their family and the people they know. Who on earth wants makeup more than teen girls? And these days, it seems like they're the only ones with disposable incomes.

Velocity earned Mary Kay Cosmetics a dubious mention in Alissa Quart's excellent critique of teen marketing, Branded. In it, Quart quotes Mary Kay's vice president of global marketing, Rhonda Shasteen. "Kids will pull out our product after gym class, start a conversation. 'My mom's a beauty consultant. I can get you samples.'" For Quart, it is yet another example of how corporations use teens to hawk their wares, and she paints a disturbing portrait of adolescents who are treated, and who think of themselves, as nothing more than the sum of their brand names.

But here at Seminar, it's hard to fault the company for trying to stay vital. In a nearby booth, a makeover artist is performing her magic on "a Velocity girl"--one of the handful of teens who are milling around the trade show for just this kind of exhibition. She is fresh-faced and youthful, a 19-year-old college freshman whose mother works for Mary Kay. She sits in the chair, tiny speckles of embarrassed red in her face, as the makeup artist demonstrates for the audience how to apply blush to the apples of the cheeks. "Are you all using your Mary Kay tool kit?" she asks.

The women in the audience nod vaguely. The makeup artist has severe bangs and expensive glasses. She is far and away the most sophisticated woman here.

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