July 29, 1985 12:00 PM

Two Mary Kay consultants meeting in a Texas hotel lobby: “Pretty lady [kiss-kiss, hug], yew jes’ look mahvellus! Yew look so young!” “Well [giggle-giggle, squeeze], ah am young!”

Brace yourself, Big D. Just as the swallows return to Capistrano each year, it is time for Mary Kay’s minions to flock home to Dallas. For the next two weeks some 20,000 preening beauty consultants will swoop into the city’s Convention Center to celebrate their cash-rich cosmetic company’s 24th annual seminar. They will assemble in full plumage with brows arched, false eyelashes aflutter and cheeks abloom. En masse they will bristle with enough flawlessly polished, razor sharp fingernails to puncture a Goodyear blimp and tear it to tatters.

But the ladies won’t be bent on destruction; their $4 million convention is an occasion for motivation and praise. Dozens of the year’s top saleswomen will be rewarded with diamond baubles, mink coats and pink Cadillacs. Others may find inspiration. All will pay homage to their mentor, Mary Kay Ash, founder of the multimillion-dollar international skin care empire that fires their ambition and loyalty.

Just call her Mary Kay. She is petite (5’3″), gracious and probably on the cusp of 70. But don’t bother to ask. “A woman who will tell her age,” she says, “will tell anything.” As sweet as a magnolia blossom, Mary Kay comes in a softly rounded package with an icecream complexion that is a glowing testament to the skin care routine she has practiced dutifully since 1953. Last year Mary Kay Cosmetics, Inc., which, like Tupperware, sells its products at home demonstration parties, had $278 million in sales—a far cry from the days when Mary Kay toiled nonstop training recruits, packing orders, writing newsletters and sweeping the floor of her tiny storefront near downtown Dallas. Inspired by her own example, she is dedicated today to selling women on themselves. “When God made man, He was only practicing,” she likes to say. “He looked down and said, ‘That’s pretty good, but I think I could do better.’ So He created woman.”

More than a captain of industry, Mary Kay is a sort of mascaraed Moses, leading her chosen people to a promised land brimming with personal pride and her trademark pink Cadillacs. “We all have the capacity for greatness,” she says, and she quotes frequently from a motivational book entitled Rhinoceros Success: “Don’t sit back and be a cow, be a 6,000-pound rhino. Charge!” And so she does, jetting across the country to pump up her sales force—as well as anyone else who crosses her path.

In San Antonio nearly 1,000 “consultants” have gathered for the unveiling of a new line of eye shadows, blushers and gooey lip colors—and just possibly to touch Mary Kay. There she is, sheathed in sequins. Her bolero jacket is trimmed with mink; a diamond heart rests at her throat. Bypassing a crowded hotel lobby en route to a banquet hall, she encounters a startled shoe-shine man in the service elevator. “How are you? ” she asks as if addressing earth’s only other inhabitant. “Fine,” says the bootblack. “No,” pipes Mary Kay in her Little Bo Peep voice, “you’re great! Fake it ’til you make it!” With a phalanx of assistants and a female bodyguard in tow, she makes her way through a steaming kitchen, greeting a succession of mystified busboys. Stopping before an exhausted maid grabbing a smoke by a dumpster, Mary Kay gives her the standard salute, with both barrels. “How are you? ” inquires Mary Kay. “Okay,” the maid replies wanly. “No,” disagrees Mary Kay, leaving the woman in her well-perfumed wake. “You’re great! Fake it ’til you make it.”

Inside the banquet hall the Lord is thanked, and filet mignon is served. Afterward, to the amplified organ sounds of Happy Days Are Here Again, the “Queen of Queens,” as she is invariably introduced, waltzes to the microphone in the arms of an aide. Enunciating her gospel of leadership, enthusiasm and love, she leaves her troops with a benediction to ponder: “God didn’t have time to make a nobody, only a somebody!” Then she exits on a wave of applause.

To a multitude of somebodies (currently more than 150,000 women and a few men) earning up to 50 percent on all sales, plus commissions and generous incentives, Mary Kay is heaven-sent, a notion that appeals to her sense of humor more than her vanity. Her friend Helen McVoy, who in 1983 earned $375,000 in commissions, remembers telling her once that one of her saleswomen had said just touching Mary Kay gave her cold chills. “I laughed and said, ‘You know, Mary Kay, I’ve touched you and I’ve never gotten chills.’ ‘Well,’ said Mary Kay, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ ”

In fact the personal touch is Mary Kay’s specialty. Each consultant’s birthday is remembered with a card from the boss, who last Christmas sent as presents nearly 5,000 talking bears that squawked, “You can do it. You can go to the top.” Every new employee at her sprawling Dallas headquarters visits Mary Kay for a greeting and pep talk, and each month new sales directors are invited to her home for spiced tea and cookies. For Mary Kay the Pollyanna principle has always paid dividends; her modus operandi is a shrewd blend of business savvy and maternal warmth. “Sometimes,” she says, “I’m like a mother who wants to give her children the things she didn’t have.”

What she didn’t have was the recognition she knew she deserved. For 25 years she worked in a male corporate world that underpaid her, passed her over for promotions and dismissed her suggestions with a patronizing “Oh, Mary Kay, you’re thinking just like a woman.” Even now she bristles at the memories. “I wanted to start a company where being a woman wasn’t a liability,” she says. “No one gave anything to Mary Kay,” points out her childhood friend Dorothy Forristall-Brown. “I’m sure there were tears at night that no one knew about. But she had determination, darlin’. She just wasn’t satisfied not to have things.”

Mary Kathlyn Wagner’s mother had told her years before that she could be the best, and the little girl from dusty Hot Wells, Texas never doubted it. From the age of 7 she kept house, cooked and cared for her father, who was bedridden with tuberculosis, while her mother worked 14-hour days managing a Houston restaurant. All through school she outtyped, out-debated and generally outshone her classmates. “If there was a contest, I had to win it,” she says. When her best friend could afford to go to college and she couldn’t, Mary Kay upstaged her by marrying a local radio crooner, Ben Rogers of the Hawaiian Strummers. She was 17, and they shared the front bedroom of her mother’s home.

To earn money to buy a house, Mary Kay began peddling housewares for Stanley Home Products, a direct sales company like Fuller Brush. After three weeks she borrowed $12 to travel to the company’s annual convention in Dallas, where she saw that year’s Queen of Sales win an alligator bag. For the next 12 months she carried a picture of an alligator bag and each week wrote her sales goals in soap on her bathroom mirror. At the next convention Mary Kay was crowned Queen, but her prize was merely a trophy. Today she carries an alligator briefcase embossed with her initials in gold.

At 27, with her husband in the Army, Mary Kay had earned enough in commissions to pay for premed courses at the University of Houston. In her first semester, Rogers left her for another woman. “It broke my heart,” she says quietly. “I felt like my life had come to a flat end.” In her despair she was afflicted with temporary arthritic symptoms that threatened to cripple her. She dropped out of school and began selling full-time, with her three children arrayed as support troops. “I was the kid with the staple gun,” remembers her younger son, Richard, 41, now president of Mary Kay Cosmetics. “When other children mowed lawns on Saturdays, we packed orders. Then we’d sit down in the kitchen and figure out our profit.”

At Stanley, Mary Kay displayed a talent for both recruiting and marketing, but was denied the title of unit manager that she felt she deserved. “I worked under a branch manager who promoted at his discretion, and I began to see that my whole world was hemmed in by a man who didn’t want me to succeed,” she says. “Thirty-five years ago you didn’t say anything. You just swallowed it.”

In 1952 she moved to World Gift Co., a Dallas home accessories firm, and in 11 years extended its distribution into 43 states. Stricken in 1957 by a disease characterized by uncontrollable facial spasms that twisted the left side of her face into a grimace, she simply bought a huge pair of sunglasses and stubbornly continued to work. (Surgery finally corrected the condition, which was said to be caused by a branch of the facial nerve that had become entwined around a blood vessel.) Eventually Mary Kay rose to the company’s board of directors, but found that her ideas were still being ignored. She resigned in 1963.

To overcome her bitterness, Mary Kay, then married to an executive in the vitamin industry, began making lists of all the good and bad experiences she’d had in business. After four weeks of therapeutic note taking, Mary Kay decided she had a blueprint for the perfect company. All she needed was a product. For 10 years she had been buying skin potions from the daughter of a hide tanner who had developed the formulas from tanning solutions. “They were dark orange and smelted like a skunk, but they made my skin so soft,” she says. “I’d be giving a Stanley demonstration, and a client would say, ‘We know about that bowl cleaner, tell us what you’ve done to your face.’ ”

Mary Kay promptly bought the recipes. Then, just a month before she launched her new business, her husband collapsed with a heart attack at the breakfast table. “He just fell into his plate, and his face turned purple,” says Mary Kay. “I jumped up to call an ambulance, but I knew he was already dead.” After the funeral her lawyer and accountant tried to discourage her from going into business alone. Naturally it was no use; like the 6,000-pound rhino, she charged. On Sept. 13, 1963, Mary Kay made her debut as Beauty By Mary Kay.

While both of her older children, Marylyn and Ben, have worked in the company, Richard joined at the beginning and today manages both it and his mother’s checkbook. The business flourished from the start, going public in 1968. From 1973 to 1983 sales exploded, and the stock price rose by an astonishing 670 percent. In the past two years, however, sales have shrunk and so has the stock. Last month Richard made a bid to buy back outstanding shares and return the corporation to private ownership. “When you’re private,” says company spokesman Monty Barber, “you can do things that are in the long-term interest of the company and not be tied down to quarterly results.”

As for Mary Kay, her natural ebullience endures, unquenched even by the death five years ago of her most recent husband, Mel Ash, a retired wholesale manufacturers’ rep. By all accounts it was her happiest marriage. “It would be very hard to marry again,” she says. “I like a man who is polite, compassionate and gentle; they are not easy to find. There are a lot of affluent men at my church [Baptist] who are datable, but they’re scared to death of me because they consider me so much more successful—and that’s threatening to a man’s ego.” Though Mary Kay is deluged with invitations to speak, to party and to contribute to charities, she is not a visible fixture in Dallas society. “I enjoy the FORTUNE 500 people,” she says, “but not as a steady diet. I’m not interested in yaw-ting,” she adds with mock affectation, “or social functions where you walk in and they hand you a drink. I drink ginger ale. I’m rather an ordinary person.”

If Mary Kay would rather be home, it’s no wonder. This month she moved into a $4-million, 30-room house that sits like a pink elephant in a princely Dallas suburb. Acres of sea-green carpet flow beneath 28-foot ceilings. In the drawing room stands a nine-foot grand player piano that is fed a steady diet of Liberace cassettes. Yet, paradoxically, the woman who owns 1.7 million shares of her company’s stock, worth $26 million, is a devoted coupon clipper who is less interested in the latest fashions than in finding a decent chilidog.

An ordinary evening chez Mary Kay finds the lady of the house watching Hawaii Five-0 reruns, poring over a condensed whodunit in a Reader’s Digest collection and sifting through the homework that fills her pink tote bag. Before bed she slathers Mary Kay creams on her face and body and makes a list of six goals for the following day. Each morning it takes her 27 minutes to put on her Mary Kay face, including eyelashes, as she listens to motivational tapes. And she never leaves home without first pinning to her right shoulder a diamond-studded bumblebee the size of a kumquat. It became the company symbol after Mary Kay learned that aerodynamically the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly—its wings are too fragile to lift its plump body. “It’s just like our women,” she says, “who didn’t know they could fly to the top, but they did.”

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