Mary Kay and a Cult Checklist

This part of our cult series compares Mary Kay to cults with a Cult Checklist from the International Cultic Studies Association.

Does Mary Kay fit the bill?

“The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.”

1. The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

Blind allegiance to the Mary Kay way. Closed toe shoes, pantyhose, skirts, and all. Mary Kay Ash did no wrong, in the eyes of the Kaybots.

2. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Shunned if you say anything considered “negative.” Shunning includes being made to hold/wear embarrassing items like a dunce cap or skunk toy. Alternatively, you may be told to lie down on a table so that everyone else can “perform surgery” on you to remove all of the negative things. (We’re not joking about these things. Former consultants report having been made to do these things at unit meetings.

3. Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

Yes. Singing and dancing to the song “Pink Cadillac,” including strange hand motions and conga lines. When in doubt, hold hands and sing “I’ve got that Mary Kay spirit down in my heart, down in my heart…..”

4. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry — or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

Sales directors engage in mind control regularly, and many even have a daily “inspirational” hotline that members are encouraged to listen to. The core of the mind control is “positive” thoughts about Mary Kay. Additionally, one must possess negative thoughts about mainstream jobs (referred to as J.O.B.s – Journey of the Broke). No formal education or mainstream career is respected. If your husband expresses any concerns over Mary Kay, he is immediately labeled as unsupportive and you may have to consider divorcing him.

5. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar”or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

Women are encouraged to be part of the “Big Girls” and recruit enough women into the cult to be called sales directors. One more holy status exists above that: national sales director. These sales directors and national sales directors all have a special purpose in life: To bring soap, lotion, and makeup to the masses, and proclaim “We make women feel good about themselves!”

6. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

With Mary Kay, you’re in or out. There is no in between. If you are not “in”, then you are to be avoided at all costs. Kaybots are only to associate with Kaybots or non-Kaybots who verbally support the Kaybot mission. Once you quit Mary Kay, you will be asked to “fade away” (or some other more impolite phrase). You are not to contact anyone else in the cult, as your contact with them may cause them to question their personal involvement in Mary Kay.

7. The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

Well, Mary Kay is dead, so I guess she’s not accountable to anyone now. While she was alive, Mary Kay Ash created a reputation for herself that caused people to NOT question her. They admired her and her chutzpah, and so they didn’t challenge her. That worked out nicely for her and Mary Kay Inc.

8. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

Any behavior, recruiting practices, or sales tactics in Mary Kay are justified. Leaving out information during the recruiting process is for the benefit of the recruit, to not “overwhelm” her with too much information. The true cost of getting involved in Mary Kay is never told during the recruiting process. Stealing the recruits of others is condoned because it is assumed that the other consultant wasn’t really working with her.

It is okay to lie to your spouse about the money being spent on Mary Kay and/or the amount of debt you are accumulating because of MK. When you make it big, that will all be paid off, so there is no need to worry him with the facts. The justifications for unethical behaviors go on and on.

9. The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

Mary Kay has long relied on peer pressure to achieve its ends. Directors regularly use guilt trips to get consultants to buy inventory. Particularly when the director knows that a consultant does not need any inventory. Guilt, guilt, guilt. Be a part of the team. Help “us” win this car. Help the unit achieve a goal. Set an example for other consultants.

10. Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

Non-Mary Kay goals are not respected or approved. Family time must be kept to a minimum in order to pursue moving up the career ladder. This is justified under the “short term sacrifice for long term gain” theory. It’s okay to miss your child’s birthday for a Mary Kay event, because the kid will have another birthday next year. You have to meet your Mary Kay goals now.

11. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Recruit, recruit, recruit. Need I say more? It’s all about the recruits. The big advertising campaign in the spring? It wasn’t really about products. It was about recruiting new consultants. What more proof of the company’s goals do you need?

12. The group is preoccupied with making money.

Making money via recruiting and frontloading defines true success in Mary Kay. It is advisable to flaunt all material goods that may attract others and get them to become a recruit. Material goods such as money, jewelry, cars and homes and consistently waved in front of consultants so they will “do what it takes” to have those things too.

13. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

Please discontinue family events until further notice. Your kids should be your reason (to work), not your excuse! We’ll keep telling you that it is only for a short period of time. But it’s not really a short period of time. There are women who have been on this hamster wheel for over 20 years, and aren’t even close to being a national sales director

If you’re really committed to Mary Kay, you’ll spend one night per week at unit meetings. One morning per week at a recruiting event. One night per week on a conference call. All other nights at skin care classes. Time during each day should be devoted to finding new potential customers (also known as stalking or warm chatting or getting phone numbers). Time during each day should also be devoted to “making phone calls” and “interviewing” women to help your recruiting efforts.

Ignore the “few hours a week” or “10 hours a week” that were pitched to you in the beginning. Plan on at least 20 hours per week, and more preferably 40+ hours per week if you really want to “move up.” If you have a job, be prepared to do Mary Kay while you’re there. If you have kids, ignore them and tell them to go play so you can do Mary Kay. Nothing else matters!

14. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Mary Kay consultants are told that they should avoid anyone “negative” at all costs. Negative is anyone who doesn’t believe in Mary Kay or suggests that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Don’t talk to others about your “business” unless you know they’ll be “supportive.” (Supportive means encouraging you even in the face of common sense.)

15. The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Once you leave Mary Kay, you are shunned. All those “girlfriends” you thought you made will avoid you. Why? See #14 above. Once you leave MK, you are a loser and a quitter. If you dare to tell anyone about your (negative) experience and why you left the company, you are a whiner. Most importantly, it will be said that you “didn’t work”. You were lazy. You didn’t work the plan as it was designed. You quit working full circle. You neglected your business. You didn’t have what it takes.


  1. Kristen

    This is a good site, as well.

    I’m just wondering. Did any of you actually meet Mary Kay herself? She doesn’t seem (and I’m basing this entirely on photos and my perception) like she had the personality to recruit enough women to start this pyramid. She looks like it pains her to even smile. Was she actually a “dynamo” in her day? My guess is that she managed to convince a few dynamos who actually made a lot at the beginning. They did it for her. Hmmmm…

    1. BestDecision

      She was very charismatic. She died in 2001, so fewer people still in in MK have met her. I didn’t, but I did get to go in her office as a new Director. It’s actually a place of pride to have been in there, and others have gotten to go into her private bathroom and looked at her cosmetics left just the way she left them before retiring. Don’t even get me started about how excited we all were to sit in her bathtub at corporate!

    2. EyesWideShutNoMore

      My director met her, and apparently, MK had this knack for only focusing on you and would talk to each and every person who was waiting to see her. In other words, she made them feel special.

  2. EyesWideShutNoMore

    Wow, this sounds like my last place of employment! I was in the cannabis industry (Canada) and the CEO’s running that show act very much like a cult leader. They take home obnoxious salaries (in the millions) and are masters of spinning an opportunity to get more investors and make it seem like they’re doing you a huge favour by letting you work for them. It’s also built on a foundation of lies and brainwashing, but many people just go from one pot place to another hoping the next one will be better. It’s not, just like one MLM to another.

  3. NayMKWay

    The group-think manipulation is insidious. Few would join Mary Kay if they were told up front that they would be told how to think, act, dress, prioritize their lives, etc. It’s all “Easy money! Have fun! Make new friends!”

    The process starts with something that sounds like good advice at first: positive thinking. “Look at all these successful people who believed in themselves. You have to believe in yourself! Put all doubts aside!” Best-selling books have been written on the subject. Motivational speakers have made millions tickling the ears of audiences who lap it up.

    Positive thinking isn’t necessarily bad, but it becomes toxic when it becomes an obsession. Fear of “negative thoughts” soon becomes fear of critical (i.e., clear-headed) thinking. Before long, you become convinced that your own thoughts dominate your life experience. Then when your pretend business fails (as with 99% of those who join), it must have been because you let negativity creep in. It’s just more manipulation to encourage the victims to blame themselves rather than the system, but that’s hard to see from the inside.

    People who come out of cults almost universally ask themselves, “How could I have been so deceived? I thought I was smarter than that.” The answer: one inch at a time.

  4. Heather

    My former senior SD has a PhD in Psychology. She was something else when it came to the manipulation that you see in cults. I once mentioned to her that I was working on some non-MK goals, and I thought she was going to lose her mind. How dare I try to improve myself and have a life outside the pink bubble!

    Re: meeting Mary Kay – I did once very briefly. It was like Elvis had entered the building. She was petite, maybe 5′ in her heels.

  5. cindylu

    I remember MK at Seminar. She gave Barbra Sunden Heck for spending her first million unwisely. I think that Barbra kept earning and losing units. However Barbra was finally able to make it into the big league for life. Once Barbra made it she seemed to be very self centred and uncaring. It was all about the money and NSD status. Daleen White, Dorothy Dingler, Anne Newbury etc. managed to keep MK going and thriving. MK may have been able to win prizes within Stanley Home Products but quit because her efforts were limited. It seems that women like Jackie Brown helped build this company. Trouble is there seemed to be a constant moving of the goal posts. Jackie did indeed do well within MK because the market was wide open back then. There was little competition for women’s skin care back then. Even back then MK seemed to be competitive, demanding and manipulative. It seemed that MK preached values but the reality is that she had favorites, pitted women and units against each other and wanted her directors to sacrifice everything to build her billion dollar empire. Husbands, family, children, giving birth were secondary to recruiting. I recall some kind of infighting between some of the older NSD’s. (At Seminar when they were on stage and on microphones). There was the incessant useless clapping. There was also the queen of sales and the queen of sales. When they spoke I listened intently for some sign of wisdom. I seem to have heard, you know how to do it. That’s when the original NSD’s Anne Newbury etc. spoke of doing it the right way. I got the impression that some units were now finding a way that was somewhat deceptive. They spoke of doing things the right way. This was probably the beginning of a slippery slope that was accepted and eventually became the norm. I know my SD was untrustworthy. The reality was that MK wanted Directors and NSD’s to meet quotas, recruit and build her mlm no matter what it cost hundreds of other women. The carrot was: Seminar, Prizes (Jewelry, Exotic Trips, Prestige of meeting her and being at the top). She struck me as being focused, stern, ruthless, demanding and fixated on her empire. MK seemed to be that boss who was very demanding and not shy about blaming her NSD’s and Directors rather than a very flawed mlm system.

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