By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I put a little bit of blush around the brow area, because that helps it look natural."
"I never thought of that," says a woman, scribbling in her notebook.
When the makeover is done, the Velocity girl steps into the audience and walks around so that each woman can peer at her refinished face. Her makeover is surprisingly subtle, not the vampy, thick-glossed look I had feared. As she walks slowly down the aisle, she blinks her lashes dramatically, giggling.
"Wow," the women around her say, as she beams. "You look beautiful."
Someone yelled out, "Husbands!"
To be fair, the positive Mary Kay posts on Cagey Consumer vastly outnumber the negative. But I brought some of these reservations to Karen Piro, the top Mary Kay businesswoman in the Dallas area. Piro, 53, is a former elementary schoolteacher who was living in Iowa when a blond and leggy local television reporter approached her about joining Mary Kay. The woman was Mary Hart, who would go on to host Entertainment Tonight. After the Mary Kay skin-care products cleared up Piro's persistent acne, she signed up. Twenty-seven years later, she is one of the company's top sellers and has netted more than $6 million.
"First of all, the company only requires $100 to start," Piro says. Some consultants buy more, of course--some may even be encouraged to buy more, with the reasonable notion that the greater the financial investment, the greater the reward. What the complaints don't mention, however, is that Mary Kay has a long-held policy that any consultant can sell her products back to the company within 12 months at 90 percent cost. "I had the same concern when I started," Piro says. "What if I don't sell this? But my husband is a marketing graduate, and he looked at the information and said, 'You'd be crazy not to try this.'"
Although some complaints slammed the company for high prices, the cost of Mary Kay products falls "in between mass and prestige"--more expensive than Walgreens and cheaper than Dillard's. A tube of lipstick costs $12. Blush is $9. Their skin-care line is pricier--$22 for body lotion, $20 for moisturizer, $18 for cleanser--but they are also the company's signature, and best-selling, products. Mary Kay consultants receive a 50 percent commission on all sales, purchasing the product wholesale, selling it at retail (the price is doubled) and keeping the difference. As consultants move up in the company by recruiting a team, the company pays them a percentage of their unit's sales. That's how Piro--after a quarter-century of recruiting women, who in turn recruited other women--can make such a jaw-dropping amount of cash.
Piro says most women in Mary Kay fail for the same reasons. "They don't come to training sessions. They don't come to meetings. There's a lack of discipline, poor time management. But isn't that the same with any business, anywhere?"
And for the record, Piro says, "I don't even know how to dance the Macarena. Where was that woman going to meetings?"
My own reservations about Mary Kay have to do with the nature of direct sales. I flinch when scruffy, big-eyed boys approach me with a list of magazine subscriptions, and at certain times of the year, I avoid Girl Scouts at all costs. I dislike the disruption, the pressure to buy.
"Boy, I understand that," Piro says. "That's why we don't go looking for salespeople. We want people who can let the person who's trying the product decide if she wants it or not. We don't want to pressure people, and we don't train anyone to pressure people."
I admit that was not my stereotype of the Mary Kay saleswoman. I pictured someone pushy and needling, something approaching the satiric women of Hell on Heels, the NBC made-for-TV movie. Based loosely on a true story, the movie features Shirley MacLaine as Mary Kay Ash, whose empire is threatened when the much younger Jinger Heath, played by Parker Posey, starts a rival company, Dallas-based BeautiControl. The portrait has a campy appeal--despite all their polish and gloss, these women are just harpies in pantyhose. But the women I met for this article were not like that. They were polite and kind. They were genuinely altered by their experience in Mary Kay. I know obnoxious women exist in this business, as they do in most. But it's not a requisite; in fact, in a job that requires an element of trust and likability, it's probably an impediment.