The Pink Pyramid: Paying to Play with Mary Kay [Harper's, August 2012]

Harper's "The Pink Pyramid Scheme" by Virginia Sole-Smith (August 2012) Cover Shot

My new cover story, “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” is out in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine.

This is a big one.

I’ve tracked this story for the past three years, since enrolling in beauty school and discovering that most of my Beauty U classmates moonlighted as salespeople for Mary Kay, Avon or another direct sales cosmetics brand. (An early report of my first Mary Kay encounter appeared on the blog back here.) “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” shares their story, along with the experiences of other Mary Kay ladies who have wound up divorced and in debt — some truly brave women who shared their stories with me even though leaving Mary Kay is, for many, like leaving a bad marriage and a religion combined. Think public ridicule, stigma, guilt, and serious emotional and financial fall-out.

And yes, the story also covers my own brief stint embedded in the world of pink. 

I know a lot of people are going to — understandably — get hung up on a few key questions: Is it a pyramid scheme? Are all direct sales brands the same? Is it a woman’s own fault if she puts $1800 worth of makeup she can’t sell on a Mary Kay credit card? For those questions, I ask you to please read the piece and make up your own mind.

But I hope we can also take this conversation past the obvious questions. What I think this story shows is how Mary Kay uses a “you can have it all” fantasy of modern womanhood to prey on low-income women. The company dangles promises of lucrative career opportunities (with flexible schedules and glamorous perks!) that never quite pan out. It’s a scam almost fifty years in the making, but it’s taking on a new twist during the recession when unemployed and underemployed women are extra vulnerable to the pitch.

As a result, Mary Kay sold $3 billion worth of lipstick, moisturizer and “business opportunities” last year — to its own sales force of over 2 million women worldwide.

More than 30,000 Mary Kay ladies will flood the Dallas Convention Center between now and August 4 for the company’s annual Seminar, an event that is equal parts beauty pageant and mega-church revival. The media usually focuses on how it brings millions of dollars in tourism business to the city, not to mention the company’s own dance troupe. How about, this year, we talk about what’s really happening behind the scenes instead? 

You’ll be able to get hard copies of the August issue of Harper’s on newsstands later this week. Subscribers can read the whole thing online here; an excerpt is available here courtesy of the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, which provided critical research support.

Filed under Beauty Labor, Career Opportunities, Glossed Over, Government Watch, Happenings, Makeup, Mary Kay

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  1. Posted July 18, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but feel that you have used your platform to do a hit job on Mary Kay to gain attention for yourself. It is the lowest form of sexism to marginalize women by making them look stupid for taking a chance on themselves by trying something new and minimizing the impact of Mary Kay and the wonderful things it has done for so many. I have written the following letter to Harper’s:

    Although I am appreciative that the experience that Virginia Sole-Smith had as an Independent Beauty Consultant with Mary Kay was a disappointing one, her article “The Pink Pyramid” went a little overboard in its caustic analysis of the Mary Kay business. I have made a good living doing Mary Kay for the past 28 years. Our business is not for everyone, but I have always believed that the women (and men) who decide to take the plunge and start a Mary Kay business are always a courageous bunch and deserve to feel good about themselves regardless of the outcome of their efforts.

    What her article lacked was the proper context. Becoming a Mary Kay consultant is just like any entrepreneurial business. 90% of all businesses started in the U.S. fail within their first year. Most businesses started require some kind of cash outlay, and the main reason most fail is undercapitalization. The amount of cash needed (but not required as the author pointed out) to fully capitalize the Mary Kay business is a very small amount compared to the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions that other small businesses need to have a decent startup. And unlike almost every other business out there, if a Mary Kay consultant purchases some inventory, and then they decide that the business is not for them, they have up to a year to send all of the inventory purchased back to Mary Kay Inc., and the company will buy back the product for 90% of what was paid for it. One would be hard pressed to find any other startup business with that kind of safety net. This fact was not mentioned in Sole-Smith’s article.

    My other concern about the article is the way that it criticized women in the most sexist of stereotypes, slamming the women in Mary Kay for the way they dressed, and playing on the cultural meme that women are less intelligent, just two of many examples of subliminal and more obvious sexist slams that weaken the premise of this article. We are a country where women have not progressed nearly as much as people think. The U.S. ranks #78 in the world in female representation in government (Interparliamentary Union stat), only 2.8% of the Fortune 1000 companies are headed by women, and women still make only 77 cents on the man’s dollar. There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but one of the major ones is that we haven’t as a nation resolved the work/family issues that plague working women. There is renewed talk these days of whether women can have it all and the Mary Kay business is one of the few opportunities that comes closest to allowing women to have their cake and eat it too. I know because that is the life I have lead for the past 28 years raising my family on my own terms and making a wonderful income while doing so.

    Ms. Sole-Smith, you should have also taken the time to speak to more of the people who have been successful in this business and given them more attribution in your piece. By not doing so, your piece is nothing more than a saga of sour grapes.

  2. The Chawmonger
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I thought this piece was excellent — not only well-researched, but so thoughtful in its analysis of the particular qualities of the company that lure women into making these poor financial and career decisions. It’d be really easy to write about the Mary Kay culture in a way that’s dismissive or mocking of the folks who fall for it, but instead you really seem to get where they’re coming from. Awesome stuff.

  3. Posted July 19, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I’m always fascinated by these companies – Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, etc. – and enjoyed the excerpt. I’ll definitely try to check out the full piece. Congrats on your cover!

  4. Posted July 19, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  5. Kara
    Posted July 19, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating, and excellently reported. Kim’s story at the end, about pitching the teenager in her bedroom, was painful. You’ll surely get lots of flack for this but ultimately you’re providing a helpful service. Thanks for a really good read.

  6. Posted July 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    I will be checking this out once it’s on print news stands!

  7. Anonymous
    Posted July 27, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Mary Kay – “Enriching Women’s Lives” by exploiting women’s emotional insecurities. You’re not attractive enough for society’s standards. But don’t worry, we have a line of products to make you feel more accepted. Enriched!

  8. Terri
    Posted December 8, 2017 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Today, all you have to do is substitute LuLaRoe in place of Mary Kay and you essentially have some striking parallels between the two direct sales companies.

3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] « The Pink Pyramid: Paying to Play with Mary Kay [Harper's, August 2012] July 19, 2012More on Mary Kay: Why The Pink Pyramid Wants You to Have It [...]

  2. By Backstory: How Beauty U Led to Mary Kay on July 19, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    [...] As I mentioned Tuesday, I was super fortunate to have my research for supported by a grant from The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Pieces like these take a huge amount of time, patience and love to get off the ground — reporters can spend months tracking a complex investigative story before we have enough to bring it to an editor, and then it can take many more months to find the right editor and publication for the story. If you’re freelance, like me, that means you’re working gratis until you have enough of a handle on things to get an assignment on contract. [...]

  3. By The Best Email I Received Last Month on November 12, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    [...] since my article “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” ran in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine, I’ve been getting the best emails (and blog [...]

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