Mary Kay Sells Women on Having It All

Over ten years ago, one of the finest pieces ever written about Mary Kay Cosmetics was published by Harper’s Magazine. The Pink Pyramid Scheme: How Mary Kay Cosmetics Preys on Desperate Housewives was written by Virginia Sole-Smith in 2012 after going undercover and gathering information on exactly how the Mary Kay scheme works.

I love revisiting this article from time to time because we have so many new readers who never saw it.

At the same time the article was published, Virginia penned a piece on Harper’s website discussing feminism and Mary Kay. This company that professes to “empower women” is doing no such thing. She wrote:

Most of today’s Mary Kay ladies are struggling, though, even as the company flourishes at their expense. Tracy Coenen, a financial-fraud investigator and the founder of the online community Pink Truth, estimates that Mary Kay consultants can hope to clear $25,000 per year, at best. Most who make money earn about minimum wage, while fewer than 300 of the 600,000 Mary Kay ladies in the United States net a six-figure income.

The women I interviewed for “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” told me stories about struggling to patch together daycare or to survive high-risk pregnancies while working long hours scouting prospects and hosting parties without any guarantee of a sale. Debts mounted, marriages failed. They couldn’t have it all because Mary Kay’s business model (like that of any multilevel-marketing enterprise) is designed primarily to profit from, rather than enrich, its workforce.

Virginia wrapped up her thoughts:

The lesson I took from their experiences was that the question of how to have it all shouldn’t be segregated into a “big girlfriends club” (as one Mary Kay lady described her sales force). When we assume that the needs for flexible work hours and equal pay are just “women’s issues,” we do a disservice to the many men who want to be equal partners in their households, and we enable the dysfunctional pattern in which American women who work full-time nevertheless continue to do most of the housework and childcare.

I often refer to Mary Kay as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The public persona is one of helping women and elevating them financially and emotionally. But the truth is that almost everyone loses money, and the “club” created by Mary Kay is fake while you’re in it, and soul-crushing when you leave.


  1. I wonder if anyone contacted Ms. Sole-Smith and asked her why she doesn’t find something good to do with her life?

    [Inspired by last Friday’s diatribe from a PT critic.]

  2. Both articles are always good for a re-read. Well written and thought-provoking.

    Thoughts provoked, randomly:

    Sole-Smith’s comment about an MK career seeming “subversive” is right on, I think. I’m well aware that social change happens by inches, and MKWREWLHA’s “career on the side without threatening/embarrassing your breadwinner husband” could have been a good starting place if not for the fact that she was motivated by greed and set up her corporation to make her rich at the expense of others.

    I can easily see how it would appeal to 1960s housewives: have some spending money of your own without having to ask your husband for money and justify to him every cent spent. Having parties to sell makeup – ain’t nothin’ more feminine and unthreatening to the Y chromosome than that.

    My parents were married in 1962 and my father was an old-fashioned alpha male. He died in 1982 and my mother had zero idea how to handle money. She talked sometimes about how humiliating it was to have to ask for money for things (and possibly be told no!) and made sure me and my sisters knew how to balance a checkbook, stick to a budget, and most of all Have Your Own Money.

    Back in the day, direct sales would have been a way to quietly assert your semi-independence without burning your bras and running off to a women-only commune or whatever people of the day thought that more radical feminists (to which MK’s brand of “feminism” was also subversive) were doing.

    The problem (one of them, anyway) is that they’re still trying to subvert the patriarchy 60 years later when society has changed drastically and gender roles are ever-so-slowly shifting. It’s like they’re cosplaying some idealized version of 1963 with no men allowed (except for the handful willing to play by the same rules as the girls). They’re promising and fetishizing a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore, with added toxic positivity and victim-blaming for those who come to realize this fake pink world isn’t for them.

    • The funny thing is, is MaryKay herself would advertise, “win a free wig.” LOL not even say anything about the make up..

      • Ha! Thankfully I don’t do taxes. I just forgot to hit the “publish” button after I finished writing. LOL

      • I did tax prep one year to earn some extra money, and I’d honestly rather sit through a MLM recruitment event than ever do that again 😛 At least I could make a story out of the recruitment event; tax prep gave my soul third-degree burns.

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