Most weekday mornings, a security guard comes to the front door of a one-story North Dallas home, where an elderly woman waits to be taken to work. With her perfectly curled blond wig and her cottony white skin, 77-year-old Mary Kay Ash is one of the most recognizable women in the United States. Her name, according to a market study, is almost as well known as Coca-Cola. Her most recent motivational book, Mary Kay—You Can Have It All, made every major best-seller list within days of its publication in August. Mary Kay is treated with such adoration by the 400,000 women who sell her cosmetics—and the millions who buy them—that she has eleven secretaries to help her handle the daily flood of gifts and fan mail. But America’s grande dame of cosmetics is not satisfied. She takes the arm of the security guard and steps carefully into her pink Cadillac for the twenty-minute drive to her office. “When you have someone lapping at your heels all the time, you kind of speed up,” she says.
Only five miles from Mary Kay’s home, another woman struts out the door of one of the most lavish homes in Dallas, a $12 million, 18,000-square-foot mansion built to resemble a seventeenth-century French château. Wearing a short designer skirt that shows off her cocktail party legs, her skin so soft it looks airbrushed, 42-year-old Jinger Heath hops behind the wheel of her four-door white Mercedes and races to her company, BeautiControl, a cosmetics firm modeled almost exactly on Mary Kay Cosmetics. “We like to move fast around here, really fast,” Jinger, her glamour-puss face topped by swirls of blond hair. “When you’re the smaller company and you have the huge pink cloud hanging over you, you have to move fast.”
It is one of the most colorful battles in American business, waged between two wealthy Dallas cosmetics queens from two vastly different generations. Compared with Mary Kay’s mammoth company, which sells $866 million (in wholesale dollars) worth of cosmetics to 20 million women a year, BeautiControl is, as Mary Kay herself puts it, “a gnat”—less than a tenth of Mary Kay’s size. But in the past twelve years, under the leadership of Jinger, who is the chairman of the company, and her silver-haired husband, Dick, who is the president and chief executive officer, BeautiControl has grown dramatically, from $1,870,000 in sales in 1983 to an estimated $80 million this year. And now BeautiControl is preparing for an all-out assault on the Mary Kay empire. On the inevitable day when Mary Kay Ash finally steps down from the company she created, Jinger will have her best opportunity to capture the hearts, and faces, of a new generation of American women.
While traditional cosmetics companies such as Lancôme and Estée Lauder promote their products through multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns built around a supermodel or a photograph of a jar of facial cream, Mary Kay Cosmetics and BeautiControl are direct-sales companies, which bypass advertising altogether. Instead of selling their cosmetics in department stores, the two companies sell them directly to their saleswomen, known as “consultants,” who operate as independent contractors. The consultants then sell the cosmetics to consumers at twice what they paid for them. A largely misunderstood and often lampooned enterprise—“A lot of magazine beauty editors think of us as nothing but crazed doorbell-ringing women,” says Jinger—direct-sales cosmetics companies account for nearly 20 percent of this country. For the past thirty years Mary Kay has built her kingdom with a mesmerizing sales pitch that offers supremely normal, middle-class women the chance to make more money and win more prizes (including the world-famous pink Cadillac) than they ever dreamed—in other words, to become just like Mary Kay. The incorrigibly convival Jinger Heath pushes a similar dream, only she rewards her top salespeople with a Mercedes or a Cadillac of any color they choose.
Although the feud between BeautiControl and Mary Kay Cosmetics goes back thirty years, to when the two companies were just getting started in Dallas, Jinger Heath gives the conflict the dimensions of a modern-day fairy tale. Depending on whose side you’re on, either Jinger is the fair-skinned Snow White, viciously hounded by an aging, jealous queen, or in a convoluted version of the Cinderella story, Jinger is the evil step-daughter trying to sneak her foot into Mary Kay’s slipper. For her part, Mary Kay cannot restrain herself when it comes to her ultrafashionable young rival. “Anyone who gets fired at our company takes a taxi over there,” Mary Kay tells me. “She [Jinger] gets all she can get from them, wrings them out, and fires them.” The empress peers at me, her blue eyes sitting in her perfectly powdered face like two cold lakes. “She’s the Leona Helmsley of the cosmetics business.”
“I know some people are going to think about me, ‘That witch, who does she think she is, trying to beat up on a sweet little old lady,’” Jinger says, snacking one afternoon in her office on a non-fat brownie and using a straw to drink from her glass of water (to avoid ruining her lipstick). “I think Mary Kay is very kind and she is very genuine. But I definitely have some resentment toward her company because I think every new product of ours is copied by Mary Kay Cosmetics six months later. And then they tell the world that we are copying them.”
Although it seems almost impossible that BeautiControl, with its 42,000 consultants, could ever overtake Mary Kay Cosmetics, this is an industry in which the right image literally can determine who succeeds and who fails. “Mary Kay might scoff at the idea of someone toppling her,” says Gary Jones, BeautiControl’s director of product development. “But soon, every town in this country is going to have a woman who works for Mary Kay and another one who works for Jinger. It’s going to be a catfight among the women in the field like you’ve never before seen.”
By far, the nation’s largest direct-sales beauty products company is Avon