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Climbing a ladder made of lipstick

Altagracia Valdez and other Latinas are changing the face of cosmetics giant Mary Kay. They seek a path to the middle class.

January 15, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

Altagracia Valdez is dreaming of a perfect pink Cadillac. All she has to do to win it, according to her boss at Mary Kay Inc., is expand her list of conocidos.

Those familiar connections, she says, can adorn Valdez's 60-year-old hands with diamond rings, pump up her bank account with enough money to pay the bills, buy a house and help her finally enjoy some middle-class financial security.

If Valdez can recruit a sales force of 30 and sell at least $18,000 worth of cosmetics in four months, she can win a free lease and insurance for her first Mary Kay car -- not the signature pink Cadillac emblazoned with the Mary Kay logo, but maybe a Saturn Vue or a Pontiac Vibe that she can trade in for a Cadillac if she keeps meeting sales quotas. If she falls short of winning the car, she can still earn a promotion if her sales total $16,000. And she can always try again.

The women Valdez is counting on to broaden her direct-sales force are mostly Spanish-speakers she meets knocking on doors in Azusa, La Puente and West Covina, immigrants with little spending money but a burning desire to improve their looks and finances.

In a land of opportunity, cosmetic direct sales looks like a shortcut to the middle class, a corporate ladder whose first rung doesn't require a high school diploma or even English skills. As Latina saleswomen rise through the ranks, they are changing the face of Mary Kay, long associated with blond Texas founder Mary Kay Ash.

Mary Kay Inc. sees potential in the immigrants' battered apartments and modest tract homes. Both Mary Kay and rivals such as Avon have recently seen sales swell among Latino immigrants in California.

"Sometimes a woman can have an empty stomach, but she has to have lipstick," said Valdez's boss, Sandra Chamorro, a Nicaraguan immigrant and single mother with a house in San Gabriel and a new pale pink Cadillac convertible, the Mary Kay reward for top sellers.

"Maybe," Chamorro added, "you buy a little less milk."


In November, in the dim living room of a West Covina tract house, Valdez was making that case as she gave a facial to Mary Lee Mejia, 19, a striking Salvadoran with blond highlights, blue-gray eyes and porcelain skin.

"There are no limits -- a woman can work for what she wants," Valdez promised in Spanish as Mejia, who works in a recycling center, lifted a pink hand mirror to admire the results.

"And what about us?" asked Mejia's fiance, a Mexican mechanic who was smoothing on hand lotion as his brother dabbed on face cream. "Can we sell too?"

Sure, Valdez said, reassuring the man that joining her sales team wouldn't interfere with his home life.

Valdez pointed to her daughter Cindy, 20, sitting beside her. Cindy is developmentally disabled, nonverbal and shy. Valdez takes her everywhere, even to her facial appointments and Mary Kay meetings. At first, Cindy hated the Mary Kay social gatherings, but she has grown to love the routine -- and the rewards. In the privacy of their one-bedroom apartment, Cindy models her mother's rhinestone crowns, prizes Valdez earned for her recruiting.

This is a family business, Valdez told Mejia and the men. "Mary Kay said first comes God, then comes family, then business."

Then Valdez made her pitch: Which items did Mejia and the others like best?


They couldn't afford to buy anything. Mejia sank into her fiance's arms, whispering about lotion. But they were saving for a wedding, and the $22 lotion was too expensive.

Valdez changed tactics -- maybe they could sell for her. To start, she said, they would each need $108 for a sample kit of cosmetics. Once they began selling, they could keep half of the selling price -- $11 for the $22 lotion, for instance, with the remaining $11 divided among Valdez, her boss and Mary Kay Inc. She passed out Mary Kay catalogs. Give them to co-workers during lunch breaks, she said. Show them the new colors. Ask them what they like. Friends become clients you can count on to pay.

Mejia watched Valdez pull a gold satchel from one of her makeup bags, unzip it and withdraw pink sign-up forms.

They all signed. They would find the money.

Valdez guided Cindy back to her 2000 Ford Focus, which had been acting up. She was disappointed she didn't sell anything. But the new recruits, the consultoras, give her hope.

She was particularly pleased with Mejia, a delicate girl she first spotted through the window of a nearby apartment. La guera, she called her later, "the white girl."

"Can you see that lady selling Mary Kay? She is going to make money because everybody wants to look like her."


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