Mary Kay and Cults

Mary Kay has often been described as a cult, or as having cult-like characteristics. This is the first of a 3 part series exploring the cult issue.

Cult Billboard

Is Mary Kay a cult? No. Does it have many things in common with cults? Yes!

The fact that Mary Kay Inc. is cultish has NOTHING to do with the fact that the company was founded by a Christian woman or that many women in Mary Kay make frequent references to their faith. That has nothing to do with this cult series.

What the cult series is about is this: The collective behaviors exhibited by the majority of Mary Kay consultants, especially the directors and NSDs, who are in a position of power and have the ability to “push” things on those at lower levels.

Yes, we all have free will and no one held a gun to our heads and yada yada. But as you will see in this series, cults force their beliefs on their members in subtle, consistent ways.

The series uses different resources for each of the three parts. So if you think one of the sources is biased or incorrect, take a look at what the other sources have to say. I was pleasantly surprised that the information is consistent from source to source, and in my opinion, Mary Kay fits the cult mentality quite nicely. On with the show!

Noted cult expert Rick Ross has a website devoted to the discussion of cults, and I thought it was appropriate to use his information as a basis of discussion of the Mary Kay “opportunity”.

1. A cult can be defined as: A great devotion to a person, idea, thing; esp.: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad. A usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure.”

One of the longstanding traditions in Mary Kay is an unusual allegiance and devotion to Mary Kay Ash. Women covet the opportunity to sit in her pink bathtub. They ohh and ahh over her old makeup. They covet the chance to sit at her desk.

In the eyes of Kaybots, Mary Kay did no wrong. Ever. Yet the fact is that she was a very shrewd businesswoman who created a company that made her rich. It is the MLM system that made her rich. Publicly, she said the MLM system was intended to give everyone an equal opportunity (”we all start at the same place!”). In reality, MLM is used because it is the lowest cost (and therefore, highest profit for Mary Kay Ash) and it reduces the risk to the company. (Let the consultants buy all the products, and we don’t have to waste money on stocking inventory in stores.)

Mary Kay’s system was NOT a benefit to the consultants. It was a benefit to her. Yet they genuflect to her and worship her for starting such a wonderful program for them. That blind allegiance, even in the face of objective evidence that proves the system is harmful to over 99% of participants, is the hallmark of a cult.

The national sales directors of Mary Kay have become what the woman herself once was. Consultants and directors beg for the chance to “sit at the feet” of an NSD. They worship them unlike any celebrity I’ve ever seen. They give them an unusual level of adoration.

2. Ross says that just being cultish in one’s devotion is not necessarily a problem, until it creates groups of people that have unsafe or destructive practices.

Mary Kay has built its reputation on helping women. For years the company used a tagline of “enriching women’s lives,” and more recently they talk about “transforming lives” and “empowering women.” But Mary Kay Inc. has destroyed far more lives than it has ever helped. The Kaybots will parade around the national sales directors and the high-ranking sales directors as those who have truly succeeded at Mary Kay. Yet those women are so few in number. We are talking probably less than 3,000 women total, in the 43 years of Mary Kay.

With a likely annual churn rate of about 70% (i.e. 70% of consultants leave the company every year and are replaced with new ones), the fact that 3,000 women “succeeded” is scary.  With more than 3 million consultants around the world, there are likely 2 million or more who quit each year. They don’t drop out because they are successful. They drop out because harm has come to them, primarily financial harm and damage to their self-esteem.

Yet women are so “into” the cult of Mary Kay that they overlook the high turnover numbers. They deny that those numbers exist, even though Mary Kay Inc. admits that they are true. If the Mary Kay consultant even considers that the failure numbers are true, she convinces herself that those enormous numbers are only because those people were losers or quitters who didn’t work hard and didn’t follow “the plan.”

3. Ross points out that some commercial groups, particularly multi-level marketing companies, appear cult-like. He mentions that the groups stress total commitment, avoid answering critical questions, and use manipulative techniques to achieve their goals.

This describes Mary Kay exactly. Consultants are taught to have unquestioning devotion to the company and its founder. Asking critical questions about the methods of conducting business will be seen as negative and may result in shunning.

Mary Kay consultants should not hang around anyone who may have a negative opinion about the company or MLM in general. They don’t know what they’re talking about and they might have a bad influence, so it is best to stay away from them. (In reality, they just don’t want you hearing the truth.)

4. Cults draw in all kinds of people, and no one type of person is more vulnerable than others. Intelligent, strong people can become involved in cults as easily as those from unstable backgrounds. All kinds of people can be drawn in because cult members are good at “persuasion and indoctrination”

One common thread amongst ex-Mary Kay consultants is a disbelief that we got “sucked in” and fell for the hype. Many of those who “failed” in MK were intelligent, hard-working women who never thought they’d be involved in a scam of any kind. They believed what they were told about the Mary Kay opportunity. What they didn’t realize is that they were the target of an elaborate con game: Gain the trust and confidence, instruct her what to do, collect the paycheck.

No one is immune to the draw of Mary Kay. The benefits sound wonderful, and the work is made to sound easy. The true time commitment is never told, and the financial and intangible benefits are played up. Even women in rewarding careers can be sucked into the Mary Kay pink bubble and desire “something more.”

These are just a few of the basics of cults. More in-depth information in the coming days./


  1. Lazy Gardens

    Mary Kay’s setup is very much a “commercial cult” …

    Although it is geared towards religion, not commerce, the late Isaac Bonewits created a multi-question evaluation form for determining whether an organization is a cult and if so, how dangerous is it to members and perhaps outsiders.

    “The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame”

    And this on Amway, a throughly commercial cult:

    All those affirmations, the love-bombing, the chanting, even the dorky public reciting of “my blood runs pink” … it’s all designed to keep you in the cult,

  2. Char

    “No one is immune to the draw of Mary Kay.”

    Definitely. I like the paradoxical phrase “willing victim” when referring to MLMers.

    Of course, as soon as they become “successful”, they are straight up con men/women. What do I mean by that? The term “successful” does not necessarily denote something positive, even though we tend to default to that. For example, you can have a successful bank robbery and get away with the loot.

    A successful MLMer/consultant is never a compliment.

    It is cult tactics that makes the best of us “willing victims” commit the act of MLMing.

  3. Is Mary Kay a cult? Yes.

    Study the works of Robert Lifton, Michael Langone, Carol Giambalvo, Benjamin Zablocki, Janja Lalich, Philip Zimbardo, Margaret Singer, Steven Hassan, et al., and it becomes clear.

    Almost universally, the three characteristics that can apply to any cult:

    1. Charismatic leader(s) – MKA and the NSD’s
    2. Deceptive recruiting – executive pay for part time work; faith, family, career…
    3. Exploitation of members by leader(s) – financial exploitation of consultants

    After two-plus years of study, I could go on for pages and pages…

    I will confidently say that Mary Kay, like ALL product-based pyramids (MLM’s), is a cult.

  4. BestDecision

    The forces are pretty strong when Directors put their kids in daycare or people give away their pets to focus more attention on MK. It’s sickening. It’s interesting to see how many people suddenly go on vacation on July 1, having stuck around and hovered over their computers through midnight on the 30th. Credit card bills will be coming in for all that “awesome” “momentum” really soon!

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