Mary Kay: Amway for Women

Virginia Sole-Smith has an article in Harper’s about Mary Kay, which amounts to nothing more than an Amway-style pyramid scheme for women that “preys on desperate housewives” who think they’re going to get rich selling makeup to their friends.

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.

Because I have lived near Grand Rapids all my life, I’m very familiar with Amway. I can’t tell you how much I hate it. My best friend likes to refer to it as the “friends and family program” — first you lose your friends, then you lose your family. My stepmother actually got into Amway for a little while about 15 years ago and she tried to sell me on the idea. She even brought in some emerald or diamond hotshot from her upline to give me a pitch; let’s just say he didn’t have a very good day. Multi-level marketing is a scam.

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About Ed Brayton

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  • d cwilson

    Why aren’t these things considered illegal pyramid schemes?

  • texasjim88

    My aunt sells Mary Kay, I can’t imagine she’s very sucessful at it though. Every chritmas since she stared the whole family gets hand lotion and cologne s presents. Of cource it could just be that I smell.

  • slc1

    Re d cwilson @ #1

    As I understand the law, not being a lawyer, it’s not considered an illegal pyramid scheme because there is an actual product involved.

  • Zeno

    Mary Kay stole away a colleague who was one of our best math teachers. After gradually realizing she had been sold a bill of goods, she returned to teaching (yay!), but not at our school (boo!).

  • ednaz

    Thank You for this. Every article that tells the truth about Mary Kay takes us one step closer to the Mary Kay business closing it’s doors.

    Hope that happens in my lifetime.

  • Sastra

    Years ago one of my friends (a conservative Mormon mom-of-many) invited me to go with her to one of her Mary Kay regional meetings. The more people she brought along, the more points/goodies she got. Since I felt guilty over buying so little makeup and she was fun, I decided to satisfy my curiosity and see what a whole bunch of Mary Kay fun was like.

    Whoa. Oh … my. I do not have a religious background, but I suspect it was very much like a revival meeting. Or a motivational seminar. Or Amway.

    They prayed a lot. “God first;family second; Mary Kay third.” That’s their motto. Jesus snuck into a lot of the speeches.

    It was a happy group of positive people, maybe 300 of them. There were lots of happy, happy women standing up and giving their testimony … about selling Mary Kay. Lots of happy, happy women applauding them. And then applauding each other. And then applauding themselves. And then they gave out the awards. And gave them out, and gave out some more. Jewelery, purses, trinkets, trophies, certificates. I think I may have even gotten a ribbon for something, though I no longer remember what for. It could have been for anything. I showed up. Yea for me!!!

    My friend had problems in her life at the time and issues with low self-esteem. She was otherwise stuck in the house with a bunch of small children and a lot of overdue bills. I saw the appeal Mary Kay had for her — and probably had for a lot of the women there.

    This particular MLM business knows how to push some very specific buttons. Morale was boosted. Praise was given. Fellowship was granted. Not all of it was fake, I think — even the people running the show seemed to be coming from the same place as the people attending. They all really, really wanted everyone to succeed … and were all really, really eager to apply that faith-based measuring stick to what counted as “success.” Make each other look and feel good about themselves. Cosmetic, on multiple levels.

    Shrewd. Not just money and success. A marketing strategy that appeals to the woman’s ideal of being nurturing.

    No need to mention that I got a lot of hard sell about joining up. I learned long ago to say no and never give a reason why: be a smiling stone wall. I once read a story in Freethought Today written by a woman who went to one of the Mary Kay shindigs and told them she didn’t want to join because she was an atheist. She was immediately dropped like a hot potato. Iirc, that was in Texas.

    I bet that wouldn’t have worked in Wisconsin. We’re so nice here. They would have helped me work around that. Believe.

  • karmakin

    The impact of Amway is more than just a pyramid-based sales program. Much much more. I would actually argue that culturally, it’s possibly one of the biggest impacts that America has right now. People just don’t realize it.

  • Raging Bee

    slc1 is right: there’s enough actual visible product involved that it’s not a “pyramid scheme” according to the legal definition of that phrase; but yes, we all know that’s pretty much all it really is.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    Mary Kay is a cross between a cult and a gambling addiction.

    I went to one of their public “guest events” and I haven’t seen anything that fervent since the reruns of Elmer Gantry were on late night TV.

  • oranje

    Thanks for posting this. I have several friends involved in Mary Kay, and all of them are struggling. One of them, my former girlfriend, thankfully dropped it quite quickly and is about to graduate in a very in-demand field. She almost quit school to do this full time. I shudder.

    I fear the day some company starts something like this up in my industry. My shop is relatively new and still wobbly. I think just about everyone who frequents here agrees they’re a scam (correct me if I’m wrong, please), but as Sastra notes, they build it into something more than just a social event, where it becomes a means of self-identification. That’s powerful stuff.

  • democommie

    Mary Kay, Scientology with lipstick.

    Amway is now running very slick ads on national TV. I would not buy a pack of gum from those fucking charlatans.

    Years ago a guy that I knew invited me to a “party” at his house–7:30 tuesday evening or some such time. Seemed a bit odd. I was unable to escape the pull of gravity at Lenny’s Debate and Drink Emporium so I missed the event. Another friend who had the bad fortune to arrive just after the start time was LOCKED OUT of the house and told that he was too late to attend the MEETING. As soon as he told me that I said, “Fucking Amway!”, he said, “Fuckin’ A!”.

  • Area Man

    I’m actually surprised the publishers allowed the phrase “pyramid scheme” to be used in the book’s title. I don’t know about Mary Kay, but I’ve heard that Amway has no sense of humor about this and will sue people for calling them a pyramid scheme.

  • wholething

    The way people make money in multi-level marketing is to sell motivational material and sales techniques. They encourage their followers to concentrate on these materials and ignore the nay-sayers.

    Some people try to get dozens of MLMs and bring their whole downline from one to the other, hoping to make enough money on one or two businesses before they fold.

  • John Hinkle

    Multi-level marketing is enticing to those uninitiated. I had classes in probability, statistics, etc. I saw the numbers. I was seduced. While my wife watched me fail, she waited patiently while I discovered the folly. (Fortunately I had skills to fall back on).

    MLM can work… for a very select few people. It’s kind of like being an Olympic athlete. Only one of … say 1 million … make it.

    Avoid it (MLM, that is).

  • den1s

    Call it what you want … Amway, Mary Kay, Scientology, Landmark Education/Forum, it’s all MLM. Only legal enough to not be busted for what they are doing, meanwhile ruining lives left and right, and accepting no blame for it.

    Maybe I am wrong, but doesn’t Amway have strong Mormon connections or something?

  • rudbeckia

    Oops, sorry–my cut and paste went nuts there. Comment should end after the first “comments on that page are also enlightening”

  • kimberlyherbert

    Elementary teacher lounges are hot beds for this trash. I hide out in my room to avoid being hit up for Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, and Candles.

  • JustaTech

    I have a friend who just started doing this, and she was the first one to say that it’s a pyramid scheme. And she’s OK with that because 1) it’s not her real job (or even her primary second job) 2) she doesn’t want to “move up” so she can skip all the recruiting. And in our area it’s less religious, because the culture here tend to be a bit more quite about the Jesus thing.

    But yeah, if you think you’re going to get that pink caddy, you’re in for a rude surprise. And some of the things they tell you to get you to join are just plain wrong. “You get great tax benefits! You can write off your rent and utilities and clothes!” No, no you can’t.

    I can really see how this gets to some women, with all the positivity. If you don’t know exactly what you are getting into, and have the ability to stand firm on your convictions about how much you want to do, Mary Kay will suck you dry.

  • BrianX

    Oddly I’d always been under the impression that Mary Kay was better regulated than Amway, much less a pyramid scheme and closer to a traditional franchise model. I guess I’m incorrect about that?

  • morejello

    My wife did Mary Kay for a while – the meetings were great for self esteem, the selling not so much. She never made much money, certainly not more than she put into it.

    The way to make money in Mary Kay (also any MLM) is to be higher up the ranks. So rather than selling to all your friends, you recruit them to be salespeople. When you get enough, you advance and they work for you. Then you earn a cut of *their* sales. Naturally, that means any Mary Kay market saturates pretty quickly. Here in SE Idaho (mormon country) we have both Mary Kay and Melaleuca which is headquartered nearby.

  • Gretchen

    I helped run sound for a Mary Kay convention in Dallas several years ago. Sastra’s cult comparison is right on– all of these women in identical clothes were standing on their chairs, chanting and dancing…kind of like a massive sorority, actually, which I suppose isn’t too far from a cult when you think about it.

  • democommie

    ““You get great tax benefits! You can write off your rent and utilities and clothes!””

    Get THAT in writing, NOW you got some grounds for some sort of legal action.

  • grumpyoldfart

    I googled “mary kay sales” and first result was which had this on the front page:

    In 2009, Mary Kay Inc. and its international subsidiaries achieved $3 billion in wholesale sales worldwide. Mary Kay® products are sold in more than 35 markets worldwide, and the global Mary Kay independent sales force exceeds 2.4 million.

    That’s $1,250 worth of wholesale business per year for each salesperson.

    I’m guessing now:

    * Markup 100%

    * 50% of profits goes to team leaders et al

    * 50% stays with the salesperson

    So an average income of $24 per week for 2.4 million sales people.

    Information available on the front page of their own website.

  • dingojack

    ‘I seen Mary Kay and the damage done,

    They push their junk on most everyone,

    But every sheepie’s like setting sun’*.

    :( Dingo


    *With apologies to Neil Young.

  • arakasi

    As with any MLM scheme, the customer isn’t the end user of the product, the customer is the bottom layer of sales reps. Once you recruit them, they do most of the work and send a steady stream of money up the chain.

    Years back, the girlfriend of a friend of mine tried to recruit me into Amway. I was the first person she made a pitch to, so she asked me for my feedback on how well she did. I don’t remember all of my answer, but I do remember saying “are you aware that we have been sitting here talking about this opportunity for 20 minutes, and you haven’t once said the word ‘Amway’”? Apparently, the company had such a toxic reputation even then (1992) that the training materials de-emphasized the name.

  • cycleninja

    @ Sastra #6:

    You just uncomfortably reminded me of my first job out of college: selling Filter Queen vacuum cleaners door-to-door. I lasted a month. I’ve never been so depressed and anxious in my life–and that’s saying a lot.

    (Mentally bleaches the memories)

  • Ava, Oporornis maledetta

    If you try to read the Harper’s article at the link, you run into a subscription paywall after a few paragraphs. I hate when such sites don’t say that at the top but only say it where they cut you off.

  • frog

    I had someone attempt to recruit me into Amway once, and my overwhelming reaction was, “But you want me to annoy my friends by trying to sell them stuff. Or worse, annoy them by trying to make them sell stuff.”

    Who hears that pitch and says, “Yeah, I gotta get me some of that!”? All I could think was how annoying it would be to have a friend keep trying to sell crap to me.

    A common observation on FTB is that a certain stripe of Christian lacks basic empathy. Perhaps that is why these MLM schemes do well in fundie areas: the recruits can’t anticipate that their friends will not appreciate being targets.

  • jimbaerg
  • Stevarious

    Right out of high school, I spent three months selling Cutco knives for Vector, which is a multi-level marketing scheme sales firm that sells the knives.

    The knives themselves are fantastic. I still own them, still use them, every time I cook. Incredibly sharp, incredibly durable, I quite like them.

    It was easily the most stress I endured in my life (before my son was born) – 14 hour days of driving all over the countryside, presentations, phone calls, aggressive sales, desperate pleas… ugh, I get kind of shivery just thinking about it. At the beginning of the program, you had to buy the knives that you would be doing your presentations with. And they were incredibly expensive – the presentation set was about $400, while the Homemaker set (which was the best at the time) was somewhere in excess of $600, and contained about 18 tools, and is what we were supposed to push for every single time.

    Also, my boss was doing some things that were absolutely illegal – we were supposed to receive a minimum pay per presentation we did, even if we didn’t make sales, which is what helped convince me that the company was legit. But if you did too many presentations with no sales, he’d simply tell you, you don’t get that minimum anymore until you make a sale. I wasn’t that great a salesman and in the three months I did it I barely made enough money to pay for the knives and the gas to drive about to people’s houses. (Fortunately, I lived at home still or I would have been screwed.)

    When my car broke down (from all the driving) it was actually kind of a relief to call the guy and tell him I couldn’t do the job anymore. I doubt he was all that sorry to see me go – most of the people (all young college age) who had started with me were either excellent salespeople (and actually making money) or had quit after a couple of weeks. I had the unfortunate combination of intense stubbornness and poor people skills. I know for a fact that a number of my coworkers made a fairly decent income selling these knives, and the quality of the product is undeniable. But I always have to wonder – just how much of their income comes from people who are hired, buy the presentation sets, then quit after a couple weeks because it’s not for them?