Several years ago, I paid my bills doing management consulting research in lieu of figuring out what I really wanted to do with my life. As it turned out, one of those research gigs -- going undercover to investigate Mary Kay -- unexpectedly helped me figure it out. What started as a three-month assignment ballooned into a three-year obsession with the ladies in pink. Much to my horror, I learned I had more in common with them than I'd ever imagined.
Normally, my job consisted of browsing copies of Dun & Bradstreet publications, scouring piles of annual reports and interviewing dozens of people about their companies' policies, practices and profits -- all so that my clients could keep ahead of their competition.
This time, however, I was asked to actually infiltrate the ranks of several multilevel sales companies. These companies, namely Amway, NuSkin, Avon and Mary Kay, use the term multilevel sales (instead of the more common term "pyramid scheme") in reference to the voluntary, non-salaried sales force that hawks their wares. My first assignment was to penetrate the towering powerhouse of positive pink thinking, Mary Kay Cosmetics. My client wanted to know what the recruits were getting, financially or otherwise, to maintain their high degree of loyalty and service (which resulted in considerable financial returns) to a company that didn't employ them.
Before I started my literature search into the company's history, the one fact I knew about the company's founder, Mary Kay Ash, was that she ain't no feminist looking to empower the female masses. The mention of the company immediately conjured up images of eternally perky, well-coiffed, manicured suburban women in their 40s and 50s, who believed that not understanding whether or not your color scheme is spring or summer is what Theodore Dreiser meant by "An American Tragedy." Mary Kay obviously appealed to women with too much time on their hands, desperately in need of some panacea of feel-good Tony Robbins-like meaning in their lives, with lip liner.
I later discovered that she had gone on record to declare her feelings about the F word. "Mary Kay dislikes the word feminist, but has made a lifelong commitment to help women aspire to greatness." The difference? After 25 years of direct sales experience with other companies, Ash was "frustrated with the obstacles women faced in the workplace and wanted to create a company where women had unlimited potential personally and professionally." Sounded like feminism to me, but, obviously, this was just a slick marketing ploy to appeal to the '90s woman while still keeping her in her pink little place. Or so I thought.
To begin the subterfuge, I needed to become allied with a "beauty consultant" who would pull me into the business so that I could observe her recruiting tactics firsthand. Enter my new Mary Kay best friend, Paula, whom I "innocently" contacted via the Yellow Pages for a beauty makeover. She was a 50ish, single, ex-airline stewardess turned cosmetics biz grand dame, thanks to the ample training and motivation of Mary Kay. She had worked her way up from the bottom to attain the coveted title of national sales director, and had won several Cadillacs and furs over the past five years. Paula had earned $69,000 in the prior year alone.
She enjoyed immediate familiarity, calling me "sweetie," "dear" and "honey" within the first 10 minutes of meeting me at her downtown San Francisco apartment. (I was convinced I would be headed to the suburbs for this venture but, as it turned out, Mary Kay is everywhere, including the Amazon.)
"Sweetie, are you ready for the new you? Let's do it!"
With those words, she ushered me into her Ethan Allen air-conditioned nightmare of an apartment for my transformation. She had laid out the complete Mary Kay line on the dining table along with worksheets, various disposable dishes of lotions and liquids, applicators and cotton swabs.
"Now Kristina, how old do you think I am? Wait. Feel my skin."
Paula grabbed my hand as shock and horror overcame me.
"Smooth as a baby's bottom, isn't it?"
Paula had an incredible ability to answer her own questions. This served two purposes. First, it allowed her to overcome any weak-willed opposition she may have faced by telling potential customers what they thought before they had a chance to think it. Second, the answers provided her with the perfect segue to the next point in her watertight sales script (without which she would be lost.)
I thought I was off the hook but she repeated, "Now guess my age."
I hesitated, hoping to God she would fill in the answer, but she didn't. She was beginning to remind me of that Texas cheerleader-killing mom. What would Paula do if she didn't get the answer she wanted? Finally I squinted and grossly underestimated.
"Forty?" I whispered.
"Fifty-one," Paula announced proudly, slapping her hand down on the table.
My real guess was 53.
"My skin was a mess before I went on the Mary Kay regimen six years ago. You're young and you have good skin but, trust me, it won't stay that way forever. Oh, what I wouldn't give to have started on these products at your age."
I already hated Paula. I never wore makeup, and, at this point, was still in the midst of a raging, sophomoric feminist period. A preoccupation with looks was, to me, tantamount to suckling the devil. She was as abhorrent as I'd imagined she would be.
"The moisturizer is scientifically created to compliment the work begun by the cleansing system. You really won't receive the full benefits unless you are committed to the entire regimen." Seeing as the only daily regimen I could commit to at the time was feeding my cats, this was the wrong tactic to take with me. But I acquiesced dutifully to any and all ploys that would lead me into Paula's confidence.
The skin pitch over, it was time to color-coordinate my features. Paula layered my face with more makeup than I had cumulatively ever worn in my previous 25 years. She did one eye at a time to demonstrate how I was scientifically becoming more beautiful with every stroke of the brush. I cringed at the decimation of my features. As my natural appearance began to fade, Paula set about probing into my work life.
As she dusted, stroked and massaged my face, she gently prodded me into a full confessional. I knew she was on the lookout for any signs of weakness so as to launch into the Mary Kay sales opportunity speech, and I didn't let her down. Fortunately, I had come prepared with a story about "my job" as a marketing assistant, which, of course, I found very "disappointing." With each frustrated word out of my mouth, Paula's eyes grew bigger and hungrier. "The better to recruit you with, my dear."
If Paula seemed happy when I told her she looked 40, she was ecstatic at my career misfortunes. I later came to understand why. I was young, college-educated and working in a business field. The average Mary Kay sales rep has a high school education and typically works in non-professional, female-dominated occupations. My goal had been to seem a believable candidate for recruiting, but, compared to the unhappy secretaries and dental hygienists Mary Kay usually attracted, I had inadvertently become Paula's wet dream.
By the end of the makeover, Paula had successfully roped me into an upcoming meeting to learn more about the business and meet some of the "great gals in this company." She was glowing. It was clear I had become recruit target No. 1 for an ex-airline stewardess turned perky makeup pusher, and that was beginning to frighten me.
I knew I was getting in a little over my head when I realized the importance I had suddenly taken on in this woman's life. When I started the job, I knew I would be lying to people, but I hadn't thought anyone was going to get hurt. Even from our first encounter, I could see that Paula wanted me bad, and that she would be hard to shake when my work was done. As much as I disliked what she represented, I was already feeling the guilt of ultimately rejecting her, like a pretty girl turning down a date from a guy who doesn't realize she's out of his league.
Paula's ability to disregard what didn't fit into her scheme of things became apparent when she picked me up for my first meeting. I lived on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, and when her pink Cadillac pulled up, one of the local transients was relieving his bowels between two cars. This should have been her first clue that I was not exactly as I seemed. How could a potential Mary Kay beauty consultant willingly live in such filth? Perhaps she took it as a further sign of my desperate state of need. Dressed in a pink suit with white piping and pink pumps, the official national sales director uniform, she floated above it all and ushered me proudly to her new pink Caddy.
Earlier, I had tried to put the makeup on as she had instructed, but some willful part of me just couldn't do it. No, no more slate-gray lid shadow enhancer! I was suspiciously clean-faced. But again Paula didn't seem to notice.
When we arrived at the Marriott, Paula went into hyper-drive, introducing me to all the top consultants as her prize new recruit.
"Isn't she pretty? And she went to college, too."
I was trying to surreptitiously collect information on each woman I met in order to assemble some basic profile of a Mary Kay consultant, but, so far, all I could see was that they smiled a lot and were very enthusiastic. "Well, we are so happy to have you here, Kristina! This is a magical company! We think you'll see that today!"
These women didn't know me from a hole in the ground, but, gosh darn it, they wanted to like me. Perhaps they wanted to like me in that cult-like, brain-washing, prey-on-human-weakness-and-bring-me-into-the-fold kind of way. That was a distinct possibility. But how would I have felt if their makeup and hairstyles didn't scare the beejesus out of me? Or if I were less of a cynical bastard? I think I really would have felt good about the warm reception I was getting.
The meeting was to begin with a fashion show, to showcase the evening wear that the year's top performers would be taking to Mary Kay's annual awards event, Seminar. Seminar, held in Dallas each year with none other than Mary Kay herself presiding, is a knockdown, drag-out, feel-good tear-fest, rife with testimonials from women who were sucking Cheez Wiz straight from the can before the goddess in pink spoke to them and changed their lives forever.
I was alone for a few minutes before the show began, since Paula was one of the models. I started to feel a little excited. Maybe I was getting into my undercover role -- or maybe this experience was more like porn. No matter how much your brain disdains the idea of it all, if forced to watch it, your body will have a physiological response. Was I being dragged into a treacly "feel-good" state against my will?
The lights went down. The pounding beat of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" came blasting from the speakers and a voice cried out:
"Ladies, are you ready for some glamour?"
The crowd went nuts as the lights came up and a thin, bleached blond, highly-coiffed, chiffon dream of a woman hit the stage. I later learned she was a well-known motivational powerhouse who traveled around the country to participate in regional events like this one. She was well-known for seeking out women who were having a hard time, and personally devoting herself to helping them get their business off the ground. These stories became fodder for her show, and she was universally adored. Throughout the course of her speech, I found my thoughts vacillating between sarcasm and sincere introspection.
"You deserve some glamour and we're gonna give it to you!" Oh please don't.
"That's right, ladies. You've worked hard all year and today we're celebrating you. What other company is gonna do that for you?"
The crowd roared, "None!" I thought. My clients don't celebrate me.
"That's right. Who else is gonna put a fur coat on your back when you've been out there building your business like crazy?"
"A pimp?" I thought.
"No one" was the correct response.
"That's right. And where else are you going to be surrounded by a bunch of fabulous gals who are all here to support you and help you reach your career goals?" Not any of the companies I've worked for. "Nowhere!"
The emcee became solemn for a moment. "Nowhere. Nowhere but Mary Kay. Because Mary Kay is about helping you become the best you can be." OK. She had lost me again due to the schmaltz factor, but she'd had her moments. I wanted to hate her, but it was hard.
As each women was introduced on the catwalk, her recent achievements were enumerated by our perky emcee. There was the Queen's Court of Sales, The Queen's Court of Recruiting, the Go-Give Award for doing the most to help others and a variety of other rewards for excellence in business and strength of character. For all the competition it must take to win these awards, I was genuinely surprised at the lack of competitiveness among the consultants. Achievement at Mary Kay was defined by competing against oneself, not others, and the company placed its highest value on helping others succeed. Mary Kay consultants make most of their money when the women they recruit do well. By nature of the compensation scheme, every consultant must develop other women's careers in order to be successful herself. Combined with Mary Kay's focus on women, this resulted in a definitive air of sisterhood -- in a scary, Southern sorority kind of way.
In sequined gowns and heavily bejeweled, the women came in all shapes, sizes and ages, and varied widely in their attractiveness. While other makeup companies use 15-year-old stick figures with high cheekbones to push product, Mary Kay pushes the idea that every woman can feel beautiful and be successful. There were women strutting their stuff on that catwalk who were kicking ass in their businesses at age 70 not to mention weighing in at some hefty proportions. And they felt glamorous and looked happy.
Paula's turn came. She walked quickly, with a smile so wide I thought her face would burst, jutting her shoulders and hips back and forward in opposite strokes like an insane rumba. She was wearing a black silk pantsuit with (what else) a sequined top in a sort of rainbow-speckled design. As the emcee finished enumerating her accomplishments, a look of concern came over her face. She exited quickly through the audience, as all the other models had, but then doubled back to the side of the stage to whisper something to the emcee. Then she dashed backstage and reemerged on the catwalk. The emcee had forgotten to mention one of her many accomplishments. Paula did the same crazy rumba routine, which conjured images of her practicing for hours in front of her mirror at home. The disappointment she felt at having it not go perfectly the first time was palpable.
Following the fashion show, speakers' topics ranged from "How to Change No to Yes Every Time" to "Advances in Nail Color Theory." These were followed by a string of personal testimonials on overcoming obstacles, followed by self-esteem affirmations straight from the makeup maven herself. We were then led through a cheer (one, two, three, four, get those recruits in the door); told that our priorities should be God first, family second and career third; and made to get up all at once, turn to the women next to us and shout "You're awesome and so am I!"
Just as I was beginning to see how this could be a good thing for some women, I started to get pissed off again. If I was collectively referred to as a gal or lady one more time, I feared I would stand up on my chair, Norma Rae-style, and start chanting "Take Back the Night" slogans while holding up a sign that said WOMAN scrawled in lip liner. And God first, family second, career third was more than I could handle. While I didn't argue that these were perfectly valid priorities for an individual to choose, having them dictated in the so-called workplace made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Just as I started to get up and look for a paper bag in case I started hyperventilating, the next speaker began by asking "How many of you out there have heard of the glass ceiling?"
The face of Mary Kay in the '90s had changed significantly. Realizing that the deep well of bored housewives had dried up and could no longer provide enough disgruntled and downtrodden women desperate for something to do, Mary Kay revised its message. It was no longer good enough to offer entry into the workforce to escape the isolation of being at home. Now women had to be convinced of the limitations of their current jobs, and see Mary Kay as the key to reaching full career potential. The pitch included co-opted feminist constructs like the glass ceiling to explain why many women felt unappreciated in their jobs. Fortunately for Mary Kay, the hordes of secretaries and dental hygienists among the recruits didn't realize that the glass ceiling didn't apply to them. They were not MBAs hovering in the purgatory of middle management, and that is just what Mary Kay is counting on. But at the same time, these women felt rejuvenated by the prospect of working hard to establish their own businesses, and Mary Kay was teaching them to do it. Why, then, did Mary Kay co-opt feminist messages to appeal to these women, and then turn around and patronize them by dictating their priorities? I was baffled. Boiling Mary Kay down to a few choice tidbits for a dry business report was becoming a greater challenge than I had anticipated. Was all this equivocation part of a brilliant marketing ploy or just a sign of ignorance?
Driving back from the meeting, Paula proceeded to tell me that you can't count on men in this world. Listing all her failed relationships, and all the men who had left her high and dry, she told me that without her Mary Kay success she would be nowhere. I was taken aback. This was not the party line I expected after hearing Ash on the subject of life's priorities. But Paula was not the automaton I thought she was. She had her own exceptions to the system. Remembering all the shitty things that had happened to her just reaffirmed her commitment to a company that had restored her faith in living. And she wanted to share that life lesson with me, genuinely, as a cautionary tale.
I found myself respecting this blurring of boundaries between the personal and the professional. Mary Kay had a human face, and it embraced people. It didn't demand that a woman's identity be subsumed into that of a neutered corporate drone in the interest of efficiency, like most of the companies I worked for. But Paula's final words to me before I got out of the caddy to return to my safe haven of bohemian squalor were chilling.
"I love my furs and my diamonds and I love this car. But do you know what Mary Kay has given me that she can never take back? My self-esteem. I had no self-esteem before Mary Kay came into my life."
I knew that I would never see Paula again, and that I would spend the next few months dodging her phone calls and ultimately disappointing her by not buying into the dream. She stood to make money off me if I was successful, as she felt certain I would be. But more than that, she truly felt that I, a young college graduate from a business field, would bring a new respectability to her and the company. If Mary Kay could begin to offer opportunities to the likes of me, the company had stepped up to a whole new level of legitimacy. And, ultimately for Paula, that's what Mary Kay offered her: respectability and legitimacy in the professional world.
Political ideas can be so well-crafted as to get in the way of reality when you let them. At 25, I was so full of raging feminism that I had already decided what I thought of Mary Kay and anyone who would get involved, before I even met Paula. Traitor. Enemy. But in the end, it was infinitely more complicated. For all her problems, Paula had the strength and perseverance to pick herself up, dust herself off and start building a career that she was proud of at the age of 45. Despite all my staunch beliefs, it was more than I could say for myself at the time. I was getting paid to lie to people and tattle, and I wasn't proud of myself. I wasn't being brave and going for what I really wanted. So on what pedestal did I stand to judge her?
I still see Paula, and the whole Mary Kay culture, as being warped by materialistic ideals, patriarchal images of female beauty and half-baked nauseating self-esteem tricks. But would Paula be better off being jostled back and forth on some crappy commuter flight serving microwaved chicken Kiev and spiraling into a valium haze every time the latest boyfriend took a powder? She was driving a Cadillac, wearing furs and diamonds, running her own business and feeling better about herself. She walked up on a stage in front of thousands of women, and was cheered for her accomplishments. And she had loads of friends and a support system that really did care about her and helped her get where she is.
No doubt she still has problems. But so do I. I schedule in at least 30 days a year for lying in the fetal position praying for death and I'm not driving a Caddy. (Nor do I want to, but Paula really did.) Mary Kay delivered on her promise. She improved Paula's life.
My biggest complaint about the Mary Kay philosophy is that it represents a cowardly form of feminism. Feminism is so splintered these days that, while I don't agree with everything that falls under its rubric, I do call myself a feminist in support of its one common denominator: that women deserve the right to fully reach their potential and receive equal financial rewards for work performed. What does it mean to espouse a philosophy of helping women reach their full career potential and yet refuse to call yourself a feminist? Ash wants the same things I do, she just wants them to stay pretty and nice. She wants it not to seem like the ladies are making too much of a fuss about it. She wants to stay popular with men, and promote "family values" by placing her desires beneath those of others. Yet I truly believe there is not a cynical bone in Ash's body. She fully believes the golden words that drip from her mouth into the eager ears of her followers. Whether she likes it or not, Ash is a feminist. And whether I like it or not, I have to give her props for what she's done for the women who worship her.
Over the next year, I would recount to friends the story of Paula and other women I observed during my time as a spy to great comic effect. But as I played on the stereotypes they seemed to embody, I found myself becoming more sympathetic to their struggle and their strength. These women worked hard for their money and their sense of accomplishment. Two years later my fascination led to the development of three characters representing various facets of the women I met. Those characters were finally assembled into a solo show, which became my first writing and performing venture. So, in the end, Mary Kay improved my life as well. And that still makes me a little queasy.