Virginia Sole-Smith argues in her Harper's story, "The Pink Pyramid Scheme" that Mary Kay, a nearly 50-year-old institution with a sales force of 2 million women worldwide, is a huge scam.
While I can't speak for every woman who has ever sold Mary Kay, I can tell you my own personal story about working with the Pink Ladies. (I'm calling them that, though I doubt it's something a Mary Kay consultant would call herself.)
My experience working for the company was about six years ago. Though some of the details are fuzzy, I remember the overall process like it was yesterday ...
I Was in a New City, and I Was Lonely
My story starts back in 2006 when, as a just-out-of-college graduate, I had followed my then-boyfriend to a little town in northern Florida, where he attended graduate school. I had a journalism degree and big plans to move to New York City to become an editor at a magazine ... but that would not be possible in St. Augustine.
I was young and in love, though. No one could reason with me.
I settled in decently enough, but St. Augustine never felt like home. I took freelance jobs at the local paper, then full-time ones at newspapers in neighboring cities. Although I appreciated the experience, I worked mainly with older men and found it hard to make good friends.
Something about living in St. Augustine was lonely, and I felt like the life I envisioned for myself right after college might never come true.
How I Met My First Pink Lady
I met my first Mary Kay contact (let's call her Helen) at a networking event. My first impression was that she seemed great. She was young, beautiful and impeccably dressed. When we first met, she was working as a manager for a spa.
I didn't know right away that Helen was selling Mary Kay--I actually didn't know much about her involvement with the company until she had quit her job to sell Mary Kay full time, and I had quit mine.
It started innocently enough. Helen and I became friendly, so it seemed normal that she would reach out to me upon finding out I was leaving my company. I remember the first phone call happened while I was sunbathing at my apartment complex pool. (Florida wasn't all bad, after all.) It went something like this:
Helen: "It's a shame you're leaving the company, but I wanted to tell you that I've actually left my job, too, and I'm selling Mary Kay full-time."
Me: "Mary Kay, is that the make-up?"
Helen: "Yup. It's so simple to do, and we have a great support team. Our team leader in St. Augustine has made millions. Her husband quit his job, they live in a great house and it's all because of Mary Kay. Is that something you'd ever be interested in?"
Me: "Sounds fun! Sure, I'd try it out."
Have I mentioned how naive I was? This is not to say that I don't think anyone could be successful selling Mary Kay. If you're a true businesswoman willing to put out the time and money to make it happen, you probably could end up making a lot of money.
That just wasn't my experience.
That Very First Phone Call ...
I knew going in that Helen would be making money off my sales, and that the person above her was making money off of her. But the way I saw it as a 23-year-old was that Helen really believed in me, and she'd be that much more willing to teach me the ropes.
Instead, Helen passed me off to the all-powerful St. Augustine team leader. Let's call her Marissa. We spent about a half hour on that first call, while Marissa explained to me (again) how fabulous Mary Kay had been for her. She and her husband lived richly, she said.
The husband was able to quit his job and the two of them traveled for Mary Kay all the time. She said she barely had to find new people to sell to because she had such a steady base of customers and such a fabulous team. Not to mention that that company set her up with the elusive pink Cadillac to thank her for her hard work. (According to the Mary Kay site, more than 130,000 sales force members have qualified for use of a "career car," or elected the cash compensation.)
The Dream They Sold Me On
Mary Kay salespeople are individual sellers who each essentially own their own Mary Kay "business." I ordered product from a warehouse, and it was up to me entirely to sell that product for a profit, whether by setting up my own website, acting as a Mary Kay representative at parties hosted by individual people or--and this was my least favorite--literally walking up to people to introduce myself and ask if they wanted or needed makeup.
As a MK representative I would be purchasing product at a 50% discount, and then selling it at full price. I was also required to purchase things to start my business off on the right foot, like mirrors and make-up holders for the parties I'd be attending, sample inventory to test out on people at the parties, sample brushes, sponges, mascara applicators and order cards.
It only makes sense to purchase bulk inventory each time you order, since the shipping fee was flat no matter how much you buy, Marissa explained. And when you're getting started, you should really bulk up, because the last thing you want is to make your customers wait for their products to come in.
So, would I be willing to shell out $350 for my first order?
That might not sound like a lot now, but at the time I was unemployed and had no way of knowing when my next solid paycheck would come in.
I forked over the cash.
Selling Make-Up Was Fun ... for a While
I wasn't thrown directly into the lion's den--my first step was to attend Mary Kay "classes," taught by Marissa at a local event space.
I showed up to my first one, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with Helen, and we sat in the front row soaking it all in. I was introduced as a new hire, along with a handful of other women who were also newbies. We watched make-up demonstrations, learned about ways to find new customers and, of course, heard more success stories:
The flexible schedules!
It's not hard to do!
I work from the comfort of my own home!
Armed with tons of inventory, all the supplies I needed to start my sure-to-be-wildly-successful business and my expert knowledge from the classes, I did what every good business owner would do: I started asking all my friends in the area if they'd like to throw a Mary Kay party.
I had only known these people for a handful of months at this point, and they were all, for the most part, grad school classmates of my then-boyfriend. Read: dead broke. "Come on!" I chided. "It'll just be a fun party! Plus, when you host, I can give you a discount on any stuff you buy for yourself!"
And so the parties went, for a little while. I hosted about 5-10 parties, never making much more than $15-$30 from each. I also held a "flash" sale in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, in which I emailed my family and friends to say I would be donating 50% of my proceeds to a breast cancer research fund. In essence, I would be making no profit from a sale. ("What a savvy businesswoman I am!" I thought, when I got a few bites.)
This is the text of an actual email I sent out:
Dear Preferred Customers and Friends,
Exciting news!! I'll come right to the point. I am in a very special
contest right now, and in order to qualify I must have $1,000 in retail sales in
one day! Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Well, I'm hoping this is where we can
help each other ...
I was getting desperate. I even manned a booth at a local business fair when Helen dropped out last minute and had already purchased the space. I made business cards, bought ribbon and cellophane wrappers and made up dozens of cute little gift bags containing sample products with my business card.
I handed out about ten of those.
The Beginning of the End
After a few months it was becoming increasingly clear that my days selling Mary Kay were coming to a close. No matter how much a person loves you, none of my friends or family members needed a lifetime supply of microdermabrasion sets. And I was learning that my talent for approaching random people and asking if they'd be interested in make-up was slim to none.
The pros would say I just wasn't doing it the right way, but selling Mary Kay really wasn't the career for me.
I slowly started backing away. I stopped trying to have parties, wasn't attending any more training sessions or picking up the phone when Marissa or Helen called.
Marissa put in a call every week or two in the beginning. I never answered, and her message was always the same: "Come back now and you won't have to pay a re-activation fee for your account! Mary Kay can really make you a lot of money--call me and we can discuss ways to grow your business!"
According to this site, keeping an "active" account means ordering a minimum order of $200 to start, and continuing to purchase $200 wholesale every three months.
In the end, I roughly broke even when you compare the cash I made with what I spent. I did, however, end up with a ton of leftover makeup. Some I used myself, some I gave away and I ended up throwing out a lot more than I would have liked.
I don't regret my experience, but I certainly didn't make any lifelong friends (I haven't spoken to Helen since I left Mary Kay). I definitely didn't come away with any extra cash or skills.
On the plus side, to this day I still carry around leftover Mary Kay Oil-Absorbing Beauty Blotter tissues in my purse.
So at least there's that.
Cheryl Lock is the LV Moms editor at LearnVest. Selling Mary Kay was the final push she needed to break away from her St. Augustine life. A few months after she stopped selling, she moved to New York City and started working in magazines. She's been living the dream ever since.