Mary Kay consultants see the world through rose-tinted lenses. And the green that's lining their pockets has never looked brighter. 

The Power of Pink

It's Thursday evening. Eleven women, ranging in age from 14 to mid-50s, are seated around three tables in a small pink room, each facing a tray topped with pink or green cellophane. They are here for a complimentary "skin-care class." An official-looking woman is pacing the floor in a red blazer that makes her look like a flight attendant. She is Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultant Tracey Wilkins, and she doesn't want her guests to unwrap their trays just yet. "Let me introduce myself Mary Kay style," she begins. She sounds over-rehearsed. "What we speak about/we bring about/and I am without a doubt." Huh? "I am back to basics and I teach it with pride/with God as my savior and my Mary Kay showcase by my side ... I thank him for enabling me this wondrous power/of transforming faces and lives in only an hour."

Is this for real? The women at the tables look guarded. Wilkins is so enthusiastic, so vivacious, so darn HAPPY, that some people can't help but smile back. Others wear a more skeptical expression. Clearly, nobody wants to bring her down, but what is the proper response to a woman thanking God in rhyme for her ability to sell make-up?

Wilkins completes her patter and waves the women's attention to the trays, whose contents include enticing dollops of white cream and paper-backed buttons of color. "It's all about pampering ... can we get a little excited about this, ladies?" Wilkins asks.

Most women consider cosmetics and personal growth to be two very different subjects. But in the world of Mary Kay Cosmetics, they come together. Becoming a Mary Kay consultant is a transformative experience for many of the women who do it. It turns housewives into businesswomen, high-school dropouts into millionaires, even saves marriages. But most importantly, say the company's champions, it helps women believe in themselves.

You can smirk at their pink cars. You can scoff at their supernaturally perky demeanor. You can sneer at a world where women are as happy as Santa Claus because they sell makeup. But you cannot deny that these women love what they do and are on their way to getting rich.

Shena Dixon is a prosecuting attorney for the city of Richmond and an Independent Sales Director for Mary Kay — about five steps above an entry level consultant. She began selling just last November, hoping to earn an extra $50-$100 a week toward her student loans. "When I signed my [Mary Kay] agreement," she recalls, "I couldn't have cared less. I didn't want the car, I didn't want the suit, I didn't want the rings, I didn't want anything. Just the extra income coming into the house." Within four months, she had qualified for her first Mary Kay car, a red Grand Am.

"Was I excited about a Grand Am? No. It was not my dream car," she admits. But giving up her Camry also meant giving up a $375 monthly car payment, 85 percent of her car insurance and her personal property tax. Two months after that, she qualified to be a director. There are now 37 people in her unit. Earnings obviously vary, but at Dixon's level the company pays 9 to 13 percent commissions on all orders placed by her recruits, along with cash bonuses for new recruits. "At this stage in the game," she says, "people quit [their regular jobs] and do Mary Kay full-time. But I love what I do from 8:30 to 5."

Why is an educated, motivated, satisfied attorney drawn to the candy-coated world of Mary Kay? Dixon says her cosmetics business actually helps her as an attorney because it keeps her upbeat, even when co-workers are stressed and cynical. "I used to be just like them," she says. "I was negative, negative, negative." Just add pink, and now she is unmistakably positive, positive, positive.

Tonight, she's leading her weekly "success meeting" in a rented office suite near Willow Lawn, in the room right next to Wilkins' skin-care class. Her purple suit signifies her director status, and on the pink wall behind her, a poster of a pink Cadillac bears the headline, "Believe and Achieve." Her unit is named Shena's 20th Century Success Express, and a big part of every meeting is recognition of the consultants' successes. Right now, the group's attention is on 31-year-old Tracy Shelhamer, who has reddish gold hair and a British accent. Shelhamer is a full-time VCU student, a full-time employee at Circle Safety and Health, and until recently, a reluctant Mary Kay beauty consultant. She tells the group that she was all set to give up her Mary Kay business entirely, because she's so busy. But then she brought her product showcase to work and was swarmed with orders. Her sales total for the week? $398. "You're right," she says to Dixon, laughing. "This stuff sells itself. I shouldn't have doubted you."

The group applauds and Dixon marches right up to Shelhamer for a hug. "I am so proud of you," she says. Shelhamer looks embarrassed at first, then succumbs to the Mary Kay moment and even gets a little pink around the eyes. But there's more. Dixon retrieves something sparkly from the head table and Shelhamer squeals, "Oh my God, I get to wear the tiara!" Sure enough, Dixon places a little rhinestone crown on Shelhamer's head. Another rabid burst of Mary Kay applause ensues.

They're silly. They say "big hug!" when they embrace. But in spite of their through-the-roof enthusiasm, it's hard not to like them. Or at least appreciate them. Try to spot a base coat of black under the shiny pink finish. Try to show that Mary Kay consultants are actually unethical and ruthless. You can't do it. They're pink all the way through.

Along with the sparkly tiaras and movie star hugs, there are sound business principles involved here. The work is flexible, which allows women to conduct their Mary Kay schedules around other jobs or families. The company provides support materials, and directors like Dixon supply motivation galore in local weekly meetings.

Mary Kay Inc. requires every consultant to buy directly from the company and sell directly to the client, which means the profit margin is the same no matter what a saleswoman's level. Directors' commissions are based on orders placed by their recruits, so a director's success hinges on helping her underlings succeed. Consultants say this interdependence not only makes successful saleswomen, but fosters the true spirit of Mary Kay: selflessness and cooperation.

"It's absolutely incredible," says Felicia H. Woodruff about Mary Kay. "I can't speak highly enough about it." Woodruff is the executive director of Ridefinders, a nonprofit group that supports vanpools and other methods "to move more people in fewer vehicles." She's also a Mary Kay consultant. On a warm fall evening, she sits on her front porch, long brown hair pulled back from her face. She has dark, expressive eyes and wears very little makeup.

Woodruff first learned about Mary Kay in a graduate marketing class, when she was a transportation engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation. Later, when she began looking for a way to stay home with her children, she went back and researched Mary Kay thoroughly. She was impressed. "There's no mistaking the opportunity," she says. "This company is proven."

She built a Mary Kay business while home with her two sons, now 3? and 6. Her husband's salary paid for the house and the car, she says, while her Mary Kay money covered car insurance, Christmas, and "extras." Now she's back at work full time, but still maintains about 100 Mary Kay clients. With a wide-eyed shake of her head, she makes it sound easy: "You don't have to do anything!"

Woodruff insists that in addition to providing income, Mary Kay actually helped her develop professionally. She learned about time management, prioritizing, efficiency, and interpersonal dynamics. She was encouraged to read Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." "I feel stronger now than I did before I left [work]," she says. As director of Ridefinders, she tries to run the agency with the same "Do Unto Others" philosophy that Mary Kay uses. "The Golden Rule is not just a saying, it's the truth!" she says.

Along with good business principles, at the core of Mary Kay Cosmetics is Mary Kay Ash herself, a living legend at 80-something feeble years old, who founded the company in 1963.

"Mary Kay's hook was women who needed flexibility," says Dr. Pamela Kiecker, chair of the department of marketing and business law, at the VCU school of business. The company gave women the opportunity to earn a lot of money and to do it on their own schedule. "For the '60s, it was revolutionary," Kiecker continues. "It was the precursor to flex-time."

Whatever the hook, Mary Kay Inc. has an admirable track record. The company opened with nine consultants in Dallas, where it is still based. Thirty-five years later, Mary Kay claims 500,000 consultants in 27 countries. Mary Kay went public in 1968, but returned to private family ownership in 1985. Over the past decade, sales have tripled to exceed $1 billion wholesale. According to industry sales data, Mary Kay has been the best-selling brand of facial skin care and color cosmetics in the United States for the past five years straight.

Kiecker says Ash's charismatic personality and life have played a role in the company's success. Ash was a single mother and had to work, a situation many women can relate to. She started the business with her life savings of $5,000 and the help of her 20-year-old son, and ended up a millionaire several times over — truly a self-made woman. "She's inspirational," says Kiecker.

Not surprisingly, the Mary Kay dogma has everything to do with self-improvement, and nobody in the business acts as if they are merely selling makeup. The company compels women to put "God first, family second, career third," and many saleswomen say that their involvement with Mary Kay helps order their lives in a meaningful and rewarding way.

It all sounds great. But the Mary Kay principles, ironically, are delivered along with a product that is inherently artificial. Women who use cosmetics are called "made-up," as if they aren't quite real. Is there an essential contradiction in women learning to appreciate their true selves by selling products that "freshen" and "conceal" them?

"It's not liberating," Kiecker admits. Then again, she says, so what? If the end result is positive, does it matter how you get there?

FOR THE WOMEN OF MARY KAY, the values of the company seem to balance the superficial nature of the product. As Kiecker says, love, support, understanding and cooperation aren't typically associated with business. But they seem to be exactly what Mary Kay consultants are experiencing.

Mary Morgan is an eight-year independent sales director, with 50 people in her unit, Mary Morgan's Million $ Magnetics (because "we attract and don't attack"). At the time she joined the company, she ran a financial business with her husband, Tom, and dealt mostly with men. "They could be so ugly to me," she recalls. She was also home with three children back then, and trying to be a wife, mother, homemaker and business partner was taking its toll. "I'd just made myself a doormat," she says.

Mary Kay Inc. helped her rediscover who she was. "All sales gets down to selling yourself," she explains. "So the first thing you have to find out is, 'Who am I?' And I was not the person I had been acting like for some time." As she progressed with her Mary Kay business, Morgan uncovered and reclaimed parts of herself that had been buried. She also recommitted herself to her religious faith.

But it was when she reached a crisis point in her marriage that the Mary Kay values really helped. Morgan realized that she could choose to love her husband just the way he was, could choose to be happy by finding happiness inside herself. And so she did. Since then, her husband has rediscovered his faith as well, and in October, the Morgans celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary. "When I joined the company, I thought there wouldn't even be another one or two," she says. "I have a fairy tale life now. Ten years ago, I would have laughed — or cried — if someone had said this was in my future."

From a small, silver-plated photo album, Morgan gingerly slides out a picture of her and her husband posing on either side of Ash at the famous annual "Seminar" in Dallas, in 1988. She describes how they unexpectedly ran into Ash when nobody else was around, and recounts with awe how warm and personable Ash was. "We were nobody," she says. "And Mary Kay made us feel so special." The picture is all the more precious to her since Ash suffered a stroke a few years ago and can no longer talk.

Morgan waxes prophetic about Ash's impairment: "I feel like this is a steppingstone to see how we get along without her," she says. "This is to get us used to not having Mary Kay actually speak to us." Morgan is confident that the message will still come through. "I think her spirit and soul are in this company and won't give up."

Indeed, the spirit of Mary Kay Ash is reaching a more diverse group of people than ever before. At Dixon's Thursday night success meeting, all of the consultants look different from each other. But there's one who looks especially different. That's because he's a man. Forty-one-year-old Herb Alston works as a financial systems analyst for Heilig-Meyers and sells Mary Kay Cosmetics.

Nothing about Alston is pink. He's black and brawny-looking, and wears a gold wedding ring on his well-tended hand. And he's as matter-of-fact about selling cosmetics as if they were sports equipment.

He explains that he used to live in New Jersey and had to commute to work in New York every day for years. A hairstylist girlfriend turned him onto a sure-fire Friday night pick-me-up, and it didn't involve basketball, brews or belching. Alston discovered hot baths, facial masks and manicures.

Tonight, next door to the women, in the only room of the Mary Kay office suite that isn't pink, Alston is imparting his knowledge to Troy Haskins and Tony Boisseau. The two men sit in front of the standard cellophane-wrapped trays, listening intently. They eye themselves in the mirrors as Alston explains the life cycle of a blemish, and finally, with Alston coaching, they apply the products to their skin.

"Be gentle," Alston instructs. "Don't pull. Remember, go towards your ear." The men earnestly pat and buff with pink washcloths. "When you dry, don't rub," Alston tells them. "Pat."

The men nod. They echo, somberly, "Pat."

Most men probably wouldn't buy skin-care products from a woman in a purple suit who drives a pink Cadillac. But Alston is their peer, their golfing buddy, one of the guys. The men's market for Mary Kay is full of potential, Alston says, and he's just the person to tap it. He aims to land a bottle of Mary Kay sunscreen in every golf bag. He also aspires to send his 17-year-old daughter to med school — in a free Mary Kay car. And, eventually, he hopes to quit his day job and sell Mary Kay full-time.

Alston watches his two skin-care students, busily fixing their faces in the mirror. They look up, hopefully, and Alston smiles at them. He says, "I can already see a difference."

Top Ten List

What You'll Hear on a Regular Basis if You Become a Mary Kay Beauty Consultant:

10. Put out fires, pump up tires.
9. Fake it 'til you make it.
8. I can already see a difference.
7. Know the way, go the way, show the way.
6. The product sells itself.
5. Underpromise, overdeliver.
4. We fail forward to success.
3. God first, family second, career third.
2. A woman who will tell her age will tell anything.
1. We don't sell. We meet the needs of

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