I was working as a newspaper reporter in Michigan and barely making enough to make ends meet, better yet pay down my student loans. A friend of mine knew someone doing quite well selling Mary Kay. So I drove an hour to Toledo to meet this woman and explore whether the opportunity would be a good fit for me, too.
Anxious to recruit me, “Vicky” took me to see her team leader, where I was given one of the most convincing pitches I’d ever been thrown. You see, Vicky’s team leader was a big mucky muck in Mary Kay. She wasn’t just any Mary Kay lady. She was the reigning queen of unit sales – crowned in front of a stadium of pink ladies from all over the country. Her unit had produced a record-breaking $2 million in wholesale volume. She’d won cars, diamond rings, mink coats and trips all over the world. She was a blonde bombshell in a pink suit, who lived in a showplace fit for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
Tired of the milk crate bookcases in my tiny rental apartment with the avocado carpeting and wallpaper from the Victorian era, I was only too eager to chuck my master’s, sign on the dotted line and begin building my own eye shadow empire.
When the queen told me how much it would cost to order my pink cases full of samples and enough product to get started, I knew I couldn’t afford it on a reporter’s salary. But she insisted that I could start with a very basic order and work my way up. If I sold something I didn’t have in stock, she would sell me anything I needed from her massive royal inventory.
So I ordered the Mary Kay hobo kit. And every time I needed something, I’d drive an hour to Ohio. I quickly realized I was spending more on gas than I was making on age-fighting moisturizer, so she and Vicky found me a Mary Kay lady in my area who could sell me what I needed. I was the Oliver Twist of Mary Kay ladies: “Please sir, can you spare some Meadow Grass eye color?”
Still, the road to Mary Kay fame was paved with levels of accomplishment that actually seemed achievable. All I needed was one or two active recruits to earn the title of “senior consultant” and start collecting a commission from my team sales. With just three active recruits I’d earn the right to don the company’s somewhat tacky but prestigious red blazer. With 10 or more active recruits, I’d be a sales director in qualification (DIQ). And if I could keep up my sales for a certain number of consecutive months, I’d not only earn the sales director title, but qualify for a car!
Twice a week I commuted to Toledo for sales training with the queen. If I was going to learn the art of the wrinkle cream sale, I wanted to learn from the best. So I attended her classes on what to say, how to say it, and how to get strangers to fork over their last dime for my brunette brow definer. I also attended weekly “rah, rah, sis boom bah” gatherings where reps drank the Kool-Aid and got all pumped up on TimeWise skin lifting serum and Garnet Frost lipstick.
Each week, rep after rep walked up to the microphone and announced she’d just qualified for her red jacket or a car. Cue the thunderous applause.
Wow, I thought. That’s going to be me! I walked out of every meeting so upbeat and empowered, I belted Broadway show tunes all the way back to Michigan.
Still, no matter how much training I received, or how much I tried to embrace the pink within, something never felt right. The queen suggested techniques like putting baskets in public places, where people could drop in their business cards and “win” a free “facial.” Nobody actually “won” anything. I was supposed to contact everyone who dropped in a card and pretend like each of them was the big winner. Their free “facial” was really just a sampling of my products.
Mary Kay’s lingo felt misleading. I’d had a real facial once at Elizabeth Arden. It included opening up my pores with steam, a lady in a white lab coat extracting blackheads, and a soothing face massage. I made a living seeking out the truth. Calling a moisturizer sample a facial felt like misrepresenting my services. I couldn’t do it.
I also hated that Mary Kay didn’t call the colored stuff you put on your face “makeup.” They called it “glamour.” After giving these free fake facials, I was supposed to say, “And now I’m going to apply your “glamour.” I felt like a little old lady from an era gone by … like at any minute, I might also start using words like “chippy” and “snollyguster.”
Most of all, I neglected to take into consideration how much I hate sales. I used to dread donning my Girl Scout beanie and knocking on doors to hit up neighbors for my overpriced Do-si-dos®. At least with Girl Scouts, people perceived they were supporting a noble organization. With Mary Kay, I was selling purely for my own gain … which made it much harder to get a pity sale.
I just hated the idea of approaching strangers. But once I cut strangers out of the equation, all that was left was hitting up my friends. And I hated that even more. I don’t care what you’re selling … makeup, vitamins, laundry detergent that doubles as a tub and tile cleanser … go into any type of network marketing business and watch your friends run from you like you’re bouncing a beaker of streptococci.
Fortunately, my friend Ann started selling Mary Kay at the same time and offered to co-sponsor a home party at her house. We each invited six people, pitching it as part of our training. So a dozen gals from community theater came over to let us practice our makeovers. We drank wine, ate snacks and bonded over mint green exfoliating masks. When it was over, Ann’s six bought pink bags full of products. I sold a $7 mascara. My $3.50 commission didn’t even cover the Ruffles and dip.
My second home party was with a bunch of my friends who worked at the newspaper. My dear friend Jo gathered some reporters, photographers and paste-up gals to support me in my newfound dream of becoming a cosmetics mogul.
Jo’s dining room was dimly lit, and matching skin tones to my foundation colors was tricky business. But I did my best and let each guest pick a day, evening or dramatic look from my “how to” glamour portfolio . And my inner “artiste” got to work making them red carpet ready.
I was so excited. My friends looked so awesome, they couldn’t resist buying my products! I drove home absolutely thrilled. My first real sales!
The next day, when I entered the newsroom, there was Jo, with her bright smile, waving from across the room. As I got closer, I could see that the rose-colored base I sold her made her face look like it froze in the middle of a hot flash.
Then Dee walked in, with eye make up so heavy against her porcelain skin and white hair, she looked like an albino raccoon.
One-by-one my colleagues poured into the office with skin the color of Oompa Loompas, coral-colored lipsticks that could only work on a slightly demented bag lady, and smoky eyes that made them look like victims of domestic violence.
I was mortified. How could I tell them they all looked horrible? Maybe they’d tell each other?
I’d talked up how fantastic they looked the night before. We all did. I was about to lose my street creds. Apparently, during my intensive training, the queen didn’t cover the importance of good lighting.
That day I packed up my kit and started my going out of business sale. I gave my friends refunds and let them buy whatever else they wanted at cost. It was abundantly clear that the cosmetic industry was not my calling.
No, I would never drive a pink Cadillac. I couldn’t sell enough product to cover a pair of fuzzy dice for the windshield. In fact, I was such a lousy salesman, I let some garage sale vulture talk me into walking off with my brand new $100 kit for five bucks.
Still, it was a sale.
And you know what?
I was tickled pink.