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.