Think Pink

How Mary Kay got its groove back

A few days after our interview, I called Piro at home with a request. Although I'd interviewed several Mary Kay saleswomen, I had yet to experience one of the company's fabled facials. Could she give me one? Like, tomorrow? Piro was booked with other obligations, but she quickly found someone who could help. Her sister.

"Did Karen tell you it took nine years to recruit me?" Linda Bird jokes when I arrive at her Plano home. Bird, 47, now refers to herself enthusiastically as "a future executive senior sales director," but 18 years ago, she was working as a speech pathologist when she caught a glimpse of her sister's tax statement. "I really thought the job was like a hobby. Then I realized I was making a third of what she was, and I had a master's."

Rows of lipsticks line her dining-room table and converge at a makeup mirror. Q-Tips and a wash rag have been laid out daintily, like a place setting. "We let you apply the makeup yourself," Bird says, squeezing lotion in my hand. "That way you don't get home and wonder, 'Now how do I do this again?'" This is the company's "Try Before You Buy" policy. Bird hauls out a flipbook of suggested color combinations, and I glance at the before-and-after shots. A pale, pockmarked woman with a headful of frizz turns into a radiant beauty. The transformation is almost magical--from drab to fab. No wonder reality TV is flooded with makeover shows. Who can resist such a clean character arc?

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.

As Bird looks on, I cover my face with ivory foundation. I stipple concealer under my eyes, using my ring finger to pat it on gently. I apply teaberry blush in circles slanting upward so as not to pull at my skin. I smear my lids with copper beach.

The decisions are endless: safari sunset or Persian spice? To goldenrod or to crystalline? It is almost overwhelming, and after a while, I begin to understand why people still need a Mary Kay consultant. It's not the convenience. Good God, makeup is as readily available as fast food. It's the inconvenience of sorting through it all, because makeup is all so mysterious and exhausting. It's nice to have someone sit down with you in private, walk you through the whole sordid process, match your fantasy to your reality. Saleswomen have sold me a hundred bad shades of red lipstick in my time, but no one has ever taught me to stipple before.

"Blending, blending, blending," Bird reminds me as I struggle to add an outside wedge of java to my eyelids. I make a frustrated face, and Bird assures me, "It just takes practice. There you go. That looks perfect."


Every Mary Kay seminar ends the same way. The lights dim, and 10 of the company's top saleswomen line the stage for a solemn "Candlelight Ceremony." It is an expression of solidarity and hope, the kind of thing you might find in a sorority, or a church--and this company is a little bit of both.

Each of the saleswomen holds an unlit candle in her hand. When the first woman lights hers, she says, "This light represents the future," and turns to the woman beside her, passing the tiny flicker across the stage. "This light represents humor," says the next. This is intended to symbolize how women light the path for one another in this company, and to underscore that, Mary Kay Ash always played the same song, "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Across the hushed audience, pockets of light pop in the darkness. They are not lighters, like at a concert, but electric bulbs on white sticks, sold outside at the seminar.

"This light represents knowledge," says one woman, who pivots to the left and dips her candle. She stoops slightly and cups the flame to help the woman standing beside her.

The wick ignites. "This light represents perseverance."

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