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Mary Kay, Avon Find Market Among Poor Latinas

MIKE PESCA, host:

When you talk about the basic necessities of life, you usually mean food, shelter and clothing. One teacher once told me that love was on the list, too. But that seems more like a song lyric or something, you know, that the hippies are wedded to. In any case, one thing not on the list of those necessities is lipstick, unless you're talking to a woman who is quoted in the L.A. Times recently as saying sometimes a woman can have an empty stomach, but she has to have her lipstick. This story about Latino women who leverage what little they have to buy quality cosmetics is the latest in our series Ripped…

(Soundbite of "Law and Order" transition sound)

PESCA: …from the headlines. And please don't interpret our sound effects as an endorsement of the Fred Thompson campaign. L.A. Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske wrote this story, and she joins us now.

Hi, Molly.

Ms. MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE (Reporter, L.A. Times): Hi. How are you?

PESCA: I'm good. Tell me how you found out about the subculture phenomenon - what do you want to call it - of these women who were selling Mary Kay cosmetics?

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, I'd actually wanted to do this story for a while. I first thought the idea after I traveled to Texas to visit a friend in Dallas and it - was sort to exposed to the hometown of Mary Kay. And I work in various other states and kept seeing this popping up in the Latino community in North Carolina, in New York and finally here in California. And I managed to track down sort of main character in the story here, who seemed like the perfect person to sort of explain this and tell the story through.

PESCA: Yeah. You told the story through the character - the great journalistic technique - and it hooked us and, you know, as a reader, I was very interested in Altagracia - is that how you pronounce her first name - Valdez.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: That is. And it sort of roughly translates into the high, or tall and grace…

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: …so kind of an evocative name.

PESCA: Who is she? How did she get into Mary Kay?

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: She is a mother of seven. She's 60 years old, and she came to the U.S. from Mexico, put herself through high school, you know, learned English mostly here, and worked mostly as a seamstress while she was raising her kids. Her husband was a construction worker. And later in life, after her kids, most of her kids had moved out, she decided that she wanted to have a career of her own and some financial independence, and she saw Mary Kay as a way to do that.

PESCA: And was this a rational decision, economically?

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, you know, she and her youngest daughter who's 20 and is developmentally disabled live in this one-bedroom apartment. And, so she's spending a lot of her time out on the road, you know, in, you know, rain or shine, late into the night, sometimes on weekends working.

But realistically, a lot of her peers are doing that just in low-income are - sorry - low paid jobs, or sometimes one or two jobs. So I guess it's a question of, you know, which job are you choosing? In this job, she felt like she had more flexibility. She could take her daughter with her. But the question is is the payoff there in the end?

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: And that's what I was sort of address in this story.

PESCA: And when they hold a Cadillac as the prize for if you sell enough…

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: And not just any Cadillac, a pink Cadillac…

PESCA: Of course.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: …although, the Caddies today are a little paler pink. It's a little more subtle…

PESCA: Oh, yeah.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: …but…

PESCA: More subtle than a pink Cadillac sounds like one of those lines from a Raymond Carver story or something. But, so, I mean, can a sales person -realistically, how much do you have to sell to get a Cadillac? Can she achieve that goal?

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, for her, yeah. It was $18,000. But it wasn't just her, it was her sales team of recruits, what they call sales consultants - or in Spanish, consultoras. And she was very motivational. She had this sort of sweet grandmotherly way of motivating her ladies. And her, sort of, supervisor, her - the national sales director who supervises her is also a Latina immigrant from Nicaragua. Her name is Sandra Chamorro, and she's the one who said the thing about the lipstick. And, you know, Sandra is very - she is definitely in the line of Mary Kay, the sort of inspirational figure…

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: …who says things like that and it really motivates women to work there.

PESCA: About, you know, you can have an empty stomach, that's one thing, but you really need your lipstick. That was the line we were talking about. Yeah.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Right. And, you know, having reported in Mexico a little bit - I'm not a Mexican-American, but I did report in Mexico for a little while. My experience there in even really poor neighborhoods - like in northern Mexico that they call the colonias - you would have women coming out of these, you know, cardboard shacks and they'd be perfectly made up with, you know, their hair just in place, even if they didn't have running water.

So when I talked to Sandra about this, she said, you know, this isn't just a Mexican thing. Look at America. You know, Rosie the Riveter wore lipstick. So there's this idea that you motivate yourself by looking good. It's almost like, you know, an Oprah, sort of, or a Martha Stewart idea.

PESCA: Yeah. Do you think that the popularity of their products in the Latina community surprised Mary Kay? Because I always think of Mary Kay as sort of big, blonde, almost bouffant hairdo - you know, that kind of big Texas hair and lots of makeup. Although, it's this…

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Exactly.

PESCA: …although it's a smart company. Yeah…

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, that's what it was when it started - when she started the company in 1963. I think it probably did, but you know, they latched on to it. They're going with it. And it's not just here. They also have developed Mary Kay sales networks in Central and Southern America. You know, in Mexico, in Guatemala, in a bunch of different countries. I think it's something like 31 countries - and in Asia, as well. So I think they're sort of parlaying the immigrant experience into sales overseas, too.

PESCA: Do you think Mary Kay is mostly helping the people who sell for them, especially these Latin-American immigrants? Or is there any predatory aspect to it?

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, I think - like I said in the story, some of it has to do with the promise of America. You know, the promise of America is if you, if you work hard - right - you know, in the land of opportunity, some people are going to succeed. And you've got Altagracia's boss, Sandra, who is a national sales director. She's one of the 500, you know, top, you know, sellers in the country. And then you've got the roughly $1.7 million, you know, consultoras on the bottom of the ladder just trying to make it up. And Altagracia is somewhere in between. So is the investment of time and so forth worth it? Well, I don't know, but I, you know, sometimes I wonder that in my job. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: …you know? That's the economy we live in right now.

PESCA: But you don't have to rope in, like, sub reporters under you.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Exactly.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Exactly.

PESCA: Now, what was the reaction to your story?

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, I heard from, sort of various kinds of reactions. I heard from some Mary Kay salespeople who said they liked it. Altagracia and Sandra liked it. I heard from some people who, you know, were questioning sort of the immigration aspect of it, you know, wondering about, you know, were these, you know, documented or undocumented immigrants?

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: And then I also heard…

PESCA: Did you get much traffic…

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: …from a lot of companies who wanted to offer Altagracia other job opportunities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Did you get much traffic on just sort of moral judgments? How could they be spending money on cosmetics when they don't have much money to begin with?

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Surprisingly, no. I didn't.

PESCA: Well, that's what we're going to talk about in a second, but I want to thank you for first - LA Times reporter, Molly Hennessy-Fiske. Thank you very much for being with us.

Ms. HENNESSY-FISKE: Thanks. And if you want to hear more from Altagracia, we have an audio presentation on our Web site at latimes.com.

PESCA: All right. Good plug. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.