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Pink Cadillacs Takeover As Mary Kay Mania Hits Dallas

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Dallas, Texas, is looking a bit strange these days. Pink Cadillacs crowd the highways, purple business suits dominate downtown - all part of the annual attack of Mary Kay Cosmetics - a three-week festival that brings 27,000 sales reps to town. Courtney Collins of member station KERA got a look inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE IT AWAY")

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: (Singing) Give it away, give it away, give it away now.

COURTNEY COLLINS, BYLINE: A sound system blaring Red Hot Chili Peppers, an elaborate stage, lights that pulse with the music and change color. It's no rock show. It's giveaway time at Mary Kay Seminar. A handful of women just won a Skagen watch.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Christina Harrison (ph), Kimberly Thompson (ph), Charlene Fullward (ph).

COLLINS: That prize? Small potatoes compared to the thrills and frills on display in a hall called Expo. Here you can drool over glass cases sparkling with sapphire rings. There's state-of-the-art exercise equipment, wireless speakers, half a dozen brand-new cars, including a pearly pink Cadillac, which is also a photo op.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, yeah. That's the picture there.

COLLINS: They're all incentive prizes, something a Mary Kay salesperson, known as a beauty consultant, can earn for hitting certain goals. A lot of women are here to dream. Some have already hit the mark.

STEPHANI PRENDES: This is my beauty. This is a beautiful BMW. And I'll tell you I was so excited when the company rolled this out as an incentive.

COLLINS: Stephani Prendes of Miami is a senior sales director with Mary Kay. When she signed on eight years ago, she planned to sell makeup and moisturizer to make a little extra cash. A year later, she'd quit her pharmaceutical job to do Mary Kay full time. And she's not the only one. Mary Kay is a giant among direct sales companies consistently ranking in the top five, a few spots below Amway and just above Tupperware. Prendes is part of Mary Kay leadership, so her job is sales and training. She hosts cosmetics parties and places orders. She also manages a team of 150 beauty consultants that either she recruited or someone she recruited recruited. There's one prize at Expo that's really caught her eye.

PRENDES: Definitely that gorgeous suit right over there, the national sales director suit, which would be the next level on the career path.

COLLINS: To earn one of those suits, you have to recruit and manage 20 sales directors. Each director is in charge of 24 beauty consultants. Critics of Mary Kay say the only way to make real money is recruiting. Mary Kay beauty consultants earn off sales. When you recruit someone else, the company pays you a commission on their sales, too. Freelance journalist Virginia Sole-Smith investigated Mary Kay. She found sales can be hard to sustain, even if you dig deep into your circle.

VIRGINIA SOLE-SMITH: You're going to run out of your high school friends, your college roommates, your co-workers, you know. They're not going to keep buying over and over and over. So once you get past that initial burst of activity, the sales dry up pretty fast.

COLLINS: The crowd here isn't worried. They'd rather turn their attention to Darrell Overcash. He's the president of Mary Kay in the U.S. and is part mentor, part celebrity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

DARRELL OVERCASH: Remember to dream big, work hard towards those dreams and have a terrific seminar. Thank you all.

(APPLAUSE)

COLLINS: After his speech, sales directors lineup to be recognized, and women slip off to Expo to make a wish list. While they might not snag the pink Cadillac, trip to Italy or diamond ring right off the bat, they're determined to try. For NPR News, I'm Courtney Collins in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.