Mary Kay? The giant, pink mythos of it made Kimberlee cringe. Everyone knew about those pink Cadillacs and the helmet-haired Betties who drove them. But one look at Kimberlee, and you could tell she wasn't one of Them. "No way I'm spending my life selling lipstick," Kimberlee said. Before this gig, she'd been in the military.
A year passed. As Kimberlee grew more miserable, her thoughts wandered--hawking makeup wasn't exactly her thing, but could it possibly be worse than this?
She visited the aunt.
When she tells this part of the story, Kimberlee's eyes soften. She plays with the rings on her right hand--four, five, six of them. You can see her watching this moment in her mind's eye: the aunt at the door, in a sharp suit and jewelry that could lure a fish onto dry land. The lacquered nails. The hair just-so. And yet, the woman had such an air of calm that Kimberlee felt at home. She wanted what this woman had. Not just the flash and the snap, but the presence. The peace.
"How are things?" the aunt asked.
"I hate my job," Kimberlee blurted, tears quivering in her eyes.
"We're going to fix all that," said the aunt.
What happened next is crazy, and Kimberlee knows it's crazy, but what can she say? It felt right. The aunt laid out a beauty consultant contract on the table. By this point, Kimberlee was sobbing.
"Just sign here, sugar, and I'll take care of the rest. Now, do you have a checkbook?"
Kimberlee signed over a blank check for a starter kit.
"Don't you worry about a thing," the aunt said and sent her home with a plate of cookies.
When she pulled into her driveway, Kimberlee's husband came out to greet her. "How did it go?" he asked.
She burst into tears. "I think I'm a Mary Kay consultant."
Kimberlee Simko told me this as we sat beside each other at the Mary Kay seminar, held in the Dallas Convention Center in July. "That was nine years, two diamond rings and five new cars ago," she tells me. Now 42 and a mother, Kimberlee thinks it's funny--her initial skepticism that surreal day--because, like many women at the seminar, she considers joining Mary Kay one of the best things she's ever done.
The word "seminar," which conjures images of dry panel discussions and PowerPoint presentations, doesn't nearly capture the pageantry of this three-day event, attended by a total of 53,000 over two weeks. The seminar features elaborate awards ceremonies, musical numbers, fog machines and something dangerously approaching indoor fireworks. "This is the Academy Awards, a Broadway show and Miss America all in one," says one of the company directors. It is also a good old-fashioned motivational hootenanny, a celebration of womanhood and warm fuzzies that feels something like mainlining an entire season of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Over the next three days, I will hear a litany of moving testimonials about triumph through Mary Kay. Single moms and former nurses and frumpy housewives and stressed lawyers who changed their lives. Their stories of transformation are impressive and, indeed, inspiring. Like Kimberlee, many of them were skeptical. But now they are making hundreds of thousands of dollars. A few of them are even making millions. Their message is the same: If I can do it, you can do it.
As Seminar begins, and the capacity crowd quiets to a hush, a video montage shows scenes from founder Mary Kay Ash's life. There she is in sequins and a fur wrap. There she is in pearls and a feather boa. A recording of her voice booms over the loudspeakers, echoes through the dark hall. "God is using our company as a vehicle to make women the beautiful creatures he created." It's as if she is speaking from the grave. Mary Kay died in 2001, at the age of 84, but her company just keeps getting stronger. This year's 40th anniversary theme: "The Dream Grows On."
I find all this a little shocking. As a Dallas kid who grew up in the '80s, I had a vague understanding of Mary Kay. Those women sold makeup, right? Like Jehovah's Witnesses sold Bibles? But now, decades later, Mary Kay Cosmetics seemed as contemporary as blue mascara. How could "the convenience of direct sales" compete with the simplicity of Internet shopping? How could an antique company survive the swarm of makeup brands, all available for discount prices at your local SuperTarget, your local Sephora? Did Mary Kay even exist anymore? I imagined the tiny, aging saleswomen doddering from door to door, selling hot pink lip crème to old women who still use White Shoulders perfume and give their life savings to televangelists.