Mary Kay Ladies Are Really Just Pawns in a Pyramid SchemeS

Is Mary Kay Inc. a glorified sorority godsend for American housewives or a manipulative pyramid scheme? Harper's reporter Virginia Sole-Smith went undercover shilling tacky cosmetics to find out. (Spoiler: the latter, although the company's "girlfriend"-heavy tactics aren't too different from Rush Week, if sororities forced you to go into debt to sell makeup palettes.)

According to Mary Kay lore, the original Mary Kay Ash founded her own company in 1963 after a male employee she trained while working for Stanley Home Products got the promotion she wanted, but she wasn't exactly a feminist leader; in her book, "You Can Have It All" (hah), she put forth the Mary Kay manifesto: God first, family second, career third. She's somewhat of a patron saint for Mary Kay reps; when a beauty consultant is promoted to sales director, she "flies for a week of special training to Dallas, where, between lectures on leadership and sales tactics, she can pose for a photo in Ash's own heart-shaped pink bathtub, which originally occupied one of the eleven bathrooms in her thirty room pink mansion."

Extreme creepiness aside, the company's tagline is still "Enriching Women's Lives," and Mary Kay is still attracting women with the promise that they can "have it all." That's how the company managed to do so well during the recession; by attracting women who needed to make extra money on their own time ASAP. "Discover a part-time choice that can lead to independence," promised a commercial that ran during the beginning of the economic crisis. "Earn extra money. Be your own boss. Need this now? Discover for yourself at marykay.com." The traffic to the website's recruitment page increased 108 percent in the following three days — and that's only the tip of the eyeshadow iceberg:

The company's sales force has doubled since 2003, to more than 2 million consultants in thirty-four countries. In April 2011 alone, Mary Kay signed up 165,000 new consultants, the greatest monthly recruitment total in a decade. The company does not disclose sales data beyond an annual wholesale figure ($3 billion worldwide in 2011), but a press release from January 2012 noted, "Mary Kay is breaking records" with "a 15 percent increase in sales in 2011." March 2011 represented the "highest sales month in company history."

But Sole-Smith argues that the company's $3 billion wholesale figure is more indicative of how much the women who work for Mary Kay spend on stocking up on Mary Kay inventory than how much money they themselves make. When Sole-Smith officially became a Mary Kay lady, her first step was to make an "initial inventory investment" — a move her mentor Antonella promised was optional, although she said it had "some advantages."

It was true, Antonella acknowledged, that some consultants preferred to wait to order products until after they had made some sales using the catalogues and samples in the starter kit. But she didn't think it was the best course of action for me, because she could tell I was so serious about my Mary Kay career. "I was just like you, Virginia-terrified to place my first inventory order." At the time, Antonella and her husband were working their way through some sizable credit card debt. "But my husband said, ‘Ant, you have to do this right. How are you going to sell from an empty storefront?' " Antonella ordered $1,800 worth of inventory, set up a lavish display on the island in her kitchen, and invited four friends for a skincare class. She sold out her entire inventory of skincare products that first night and turned a profit of about $2,000 in her first month.

That $1,800 turned out to be a magic number. Once I ordered that amount, I'd be automatically promoted to Star Consultant-climbing a rung on Mary Kay's ladder without making a single sale-which entitled me to a range of perks, including direct shipping whenever a customer ordered a product I didn't have in stock. No driving door to door drop- ping off orders. "Remember that your time is money," Antonella said. As I became more successful, I'd want to keep even more in stock. Antonella had around $2,500 in inventory on hand most of the time.

But what if Sole-Smith didn't have the money on hand? "I actually don't suggest that my consultants use personal funding to buy their inventory, even if they do have the money," Antonella told her. "I find that unless someone holds you accountable, consultants forget to pay themselves." The solution: a Chase Mary Kay Rewards Visa card! "What you need to understand is that this is not a debt," Antonella said firmly.

But for the vast majority of Mary Kay representatives, it is debt — some of the women Sole-Smith interviewed blame Mary Kay for ruining their finances, their marriages and their faith in friendship. Check out the entire piece to find out what happens to Sole-Smith's makeup-selling career and the Mary Kay victims she met along the way — and also for some fun/incredibly disturbing details about the Mary Kay lifestyle. For example:

"These roses are my gift to you, and they represent your future with Mary Kay," Margo explained, holding her own rose aloft. "The stem is for the support you'll receive from your sister consultants, your director, and our wonderful company. The green leaves represent the money you will earn. The thorns are the growth points and obstacles you will overcome along the way. The pink represents the ultimate symbol of success in our company-the beautiful pink Cadillac! And the fragrance of this rose is the sweet smell of your success."

Cue up the Twilight Zone theme and slather on some rouge while you read the story for extra effect.

The Pink Pyramid Scheme [Harper's]

Image via Poznyakov/Shutterstock.