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Origin Stories: Who am I anymore? (1 year in an MLM)
Part 2/3. The brief history of my time as a multi-level marketing distributor, and how it crashed and burned in a flaming ball of ash that almost cost us everything.
First time here? Start with Part 1 of this 3-part series: How I got sucked into an MLM to understand how it began.
Opening the boxes of my second Mary Kay inventory order was the ultimate dopamine hit.
It was September 2012, and we just bought our first home. I took time to focus on setting up the house with our existing furnishings and decor. But my brain was set on independence. It was set on what the potential earning of my own money could mean for my never-accessed self-worth. And on building up my overall options as a dependent, stay-at-home parent.
With the $150 profit from the first products sale, I bought some (black, of course) dresses and heels to fit how I thought I needed to present myself. My body changed after having two kids, and my previous professional clothes no longer fit. I had a “pooch” to contend with now—one that went away within the first two months after the birth of my first child, but the second time around it clung like a barnacle.
I was in a new body, a new house, and with two young children, I was perpetually overwhelmed. I associated sadness with having children and being a stay-at-home mom—the more opportunities I could make for myself to be away from them, the better parent and person I thought I could be when I’d be with them by choice, not by requirement.
My mission with Mary Kay was to build a life for our family that looked, to me, like every other modern family out there. And I knew I needed to look and act the part if I was ever going to get anywhere with it.
While many I knew of sought ways to stand apart, I just wanted to be a part of what everyone else seemed to innately know how to access. I mean, they wanted to step away from dual-income households and sometime live-in nannies and home and garden caretakers to have one parent stay at home. That was unfathomable to me. So many moms told me how lucky I was that I didn’t “have to work.” Meanwhile, their McMansions were pristine, they had nannies to clean up after their kids, and housekeepers to clean up whatever the nannies didn’t.
Our modest-but-newer home was one I couldn’t wait to bring a nanny into.
I thought these mothers who said they’d trade lives with me were crazy. I wondered if they would still squawk the same spiel after they’d been at home for a year with their newborn and toddler.
Would they still think being a stay-at-home mom was ideal?
I bought some black bookshelves at Big Lots for cheap, and set them up in a bedroom upstairs, along with Brian’s existing desk and computer. I claimed the space as my office (he didn’t work from home yet), and unloaded my newest skincare and makeup inventory onto the shelves, leaving my books in boxes in the closet.
The inventory was sparse. I spread all the products in pearlescent pink packaging and tubes with black lids further apart to fill out the space of the bookshelves. And I put my file boxes for (hopeful) customer information and order histories on the bottom shelves to eat up the emptiness that beckoned me to fill it with more products.
I was already changing who I was and how I thought—catering to a visual appeal, not just for myself, but for the potential “other” who’d view it in person. Or, when I inevitably posted a photo of it on Facebook in desperation for praise and recognition.
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I snapped a photo and sent it to my upline.She responded, Looks great! Now get those bookings and move those products!!
My heart fluttered.
I guess to sustain this manufactured environment, I had to sell the items on the shelves. I’d have to be… social.
I took the list of roughly 12 women that my friends and family referred from the first party, and sat down at the desk with them. My heart pounded—behind my eyes, in my throat, in my chest.
What do I say? I texted back.
She sent me a link to scripts pulled together by uplines from around the U.S. But as I read them, I thought: Do people talk like this?
One would go something like:
(Call to book a party) “Hey girl! I’m [your name], and I’m friends with [referring person’s name]. She said you’d love a free facial/makeover! I’m calling to get you scheduled! Would a weekend or a weekday work for you?”
(To be clear: I can’t even make that sound as unnatural as the scripts actually were, they were that bad.)
Then, if she said yes, you’d work out the details—get her address, the date, time, etc.— then say, “Great! I’ve got you down for [date and time]. Now, can you think of any friends who’d like to join you for the free facial/makeover, too? Let’s make it a party! We’ll play games, and there will be door prizes. You can do snacks, if you'd like, but water is just fine! I’ll bring all the fun and everything else. You just bring yourself and friends!”
Even then, I didn’t see how manipulative it was, and how much more costly the scripts made it for ignorant distributors: Door prizes? Those cost money—money rarely ever recovered through sales (if you were lucky enough to get any).
For any prospect not knowing what Mary Kay was (an MLM),with all the exclamation points in your voice or via text, most unsuspecting social people might find it interesting, maybe even exciting.
Once they agreed to the party, then you’d say, “Great! I keep a full inventory of products, so if there’s anything you or your friends like, I have them for you to take home, same-day!”
I reworked the scripts to sound more like me. I made the calls, booked a couple of parties, and texted my upline back. She congratulated me on the bookings, but added that I should shoot for four to six multi-person events each week if I wanted to make it full-time. So, I should get on Facebook and message everyone I know. Offer the same “free facials” and/or “free makeovers” to them and all their friends. Get them to book parties and/or provide a list of their friends’ names and phone numbers who might be interested in “the opportunity.”
Within four months, I was the highest-selling distributor on my upline’s team. (Mind you, this was pulling in less than $100 to $300 in profits weekly at the time.)
She, of course, wanted me to focus on recruiting over solely on selling, but I wasn’t interested in building a team. She said it was the only way to advance in the business, yet, that didn’t send up any red flags.
It just lit a fire under my ass to prove her wrong.
I wanted to create my own little subset “empire” of sorts—discover and package a new process that I could offer fellow distributors who didn’t care to prioritize recruiting. Or, if they were like me and didn’t want to recruit/deal with handling a “team” of downlines,my process could work for them.
If someone happened to join our teams without the scripted bullshit to manipulate them into doing so, then so be it. But, at the time, I refused to recruit intentionally.
My Orlando-based upline said it was a good idea for me to link up with a local group of Sales Directors (what Mary Kay refers to uplines with 10 or more active distributors under them) in the Sarasota area, so I could have the support of fellow distributors and recruiting-pushing Directors. Looking back, I see how much that altered my experience and goals. It was like she knew it’d be the final push needed get what she wanted: More distributors recruiting.
Recruits meant “working smarter, not harder” in an MLM—making more money than we could ever make solely selling products, by convincing recruits to buy-in so uplines can earn commission off them; masqueraded as “sharing the opportunity for more women’s benefit.”
My entire relationship to the business model changed after she connected me with the local Mary Kay group.
The uplines all had their suit jackets and skirts (I’m only visualizing the heavy wool suits in black with gold accents, but that was actually the next generation of Sales Director attire during my year in Mary Kay). The almost-Sales Directors wore red jackets—all dry-clean only. (Also, this was in Florida. No matter the time of year, you wore that uniform to symbolize that you made it. I remember one new Director going through menopause... Just brutal.)
Everyone was heavily perfumed and heavily made up, with perfectly styled hairdos. I felt like a fish out of water.
Outside of two older women, I was also the only plus-sized person there. The ones that looked like Barbie dolls seemed to move up fast, and people who looked more like me seemed to forever be at the lowest wrung of the distributor level.
Each week I went to the meetings, generally winning a crappy prize for being the person with the most product sales—so often that they just stopped offering prizes within a few weeks of me attending.
Other distributors would ask me how I did it, and when I tried to explain, they’d slowly reverse into a conversation with someone else nearby. The truth was, I just didn’t try to sell anyone (yet). I genuinely loved the products and what they did for my skin and for my overall appearance—how they made me feel about myself, and how they made my skin feel healthy and not tight all the time. I was still excited about the results and the products, and I was excited to share them.
It wasn’t until later, when I changed under pressure, that things started to fall apart.
I studied all the top distributors and Directors.
I dyed my hair blonde, like the bulk of the women who supposedly did well in the MLM. I learned more dramatic, face-altering ways of applying makeup.
I won some high-end items directly from the company, which I photographed and posted on Facebook, and regularly donned with pride and excitement. Posts I was dragged on Facebook over by a couple friends and friends-of-friends.
Still feeling good about my achievements, I reached out to my aunt’s husband’s niece one day on Facebook. She lived in the area. I remember thinking, Cha-ching. (Who was I?)
The uplines encouraged me to make conversation with people we met before Mary Kay, and essentially prime them so they don’t ghost us immediately. But I’ve never been good at trying to butter people up, so I just came out and asked her over to my house to try out the products and do the whole facial and makeover thing while she was there. I suggested that she bring a friend, and she did.
To set the scene: I’d gone from using the “bottom shelf” of (the wrong) drugstore items to Mary Kay products. That was a massive jump for me. I believed I’d found “high-quality products,” and I’m sure it came across to others like they were the bees knees; and I held the key to people accessing them too. Simply using products designed for my dry skin when I previously only used what I saw in commercials: Where older women had dry skin and needed special products for that, and younger women had acne issues. Oh, how I was wrecking my skin prior.
By that point, I’d been working full-time and making a fraction of a part-time income which all went to babysitters, food on-the-go (because that was constant—income or not), and more inventory to keep up with demand, plus whatever was advised for aspirational demand. And, of course, for inventory re-stocking costs and increased phone bills and gas costs and vehicle maintenance costs; and more clothing and setup displays and things to help me sell more products. Yet, still my “highest earning salesperson” income couldn’t cover any of it on it’s own. We had to pay on top of that from Brian’s salary. We’re talking 100% of my earnings could, on a good week, only cover 10 to 15% of the outgoing money just for Mary Kay. And I worked hard, and worked the business model full-time.
I stupidly stopped tracking the expenses so closely, and soon fell out of the habit of tracking altogether.
When I tracked, I felt depressed and unmotivated. How would I ever succeed when seeing the outgoing money far exceed the incoming if it made me stagnant? (Ridiculous logic, but apparently it’s not uncommon in an MLM—generally due to poor training, primarily. But I ran a medium-sized business prior, though—I had no excuse.)
Making phone calls transitioned to easier-for-me text messages. But, still, the stress of contacting people—especially strangers—felt as depressing as going into serious debt did.
Over time, the inventory shelves got all the gaps filled in with more products and more products. I bought a massive Mary Kay rolling travel case for products to keep them fresh(er) whilst sitting in the back of my crossover in the Florida heat whenever I left my house. Although I never made a sale outside a “party” setting, I always kept products on hand, just in case.
By the time my cousin got together with me, I fully fit the part. My hair was professionally colored, highlighted, and cut, and in a perfect, not-a-hair-out-of-place updo every day. I layered on makeup to a point where the face I saw in the mirror my whole baby-adult life no longer looked like me. I dressed in clothes I never would’ve touched before MLM Life—heck, clothes that were pricier than the nicer clothes my counterparts wore, as the price of plus-size clothing is costlier than ones thin people can wear.
To my uncle’s niece, I was no longer the presumed slutty, trashy-looking, bumbling cousin she saw maybe once or twice a year at family gatherings. I looked like I fully had my shit together. And maybe that was all Mary Kay.
Before the end of her facial and instructed makeover, she was sold on the phony, aspirational version of the me she saw before her.
I wish I could go back and tell her it was all fake. I was still a hollow shell of a person, only stretching myself beyond my limits to play a role. It was all a show, all for the sale. “Everybody does it,” one of the Sales Directors told me when I had a crisis of conscience.
No one saw any of the behind-the-scenes we all painted over, even blinding ourselves to it on the daily.
She signed on as my first recruit on the spot. Soon after, my husband’s cousin did too. Then, a random woman from another party, then another, then another, then another. Two of my recruits got their first recruits, too. And I earned that “prestigious” red jacket (which, of course, I had to pay for), and I was just a couple active recruits shy of becoming a Sales Director, opting for cash over the “free car.”
Just like opening inventory boxes and gaming the yeses became addictions, now recruiting did too.
I had no idea who I was anymore. I cried almost daily. I was bone-tired all the time. My existing digestive issues worsened, and I was getting hives constantly. I had to wear more makeup and more makeup because my skin got redder and puffier and more textured, which only made me scrub it with the “microdermabrasion in a bottle” product more, damaging my skin further.
My lists of referrals grew slimmer and slimmer as recruiting ramped up.
When your recruits need their friends’ party sales and their friends’ contacts, and their friends’ friends’ contacts to get started, you’re no longer getting sometimes a dozen or more referrals for new customers, parties, and potential recruits. No more or very little sales at a party when an attendee verbalizes their desire to join before you hard-sell individually at the end.
To acquire fresh yeses, you had to start resorting to desperate measures.
I returned to Facebook-begging. I began inflating how great it was to have the “freedom of working for yourself.” (At the time, I did actually believe it was better than working for an employer, even with such little income. But, that’s a privileged position from someone being supported completely by their spouse, and one spawned from affixing blinders onto my own eyes. And it bit me hard on the ass later.)
I conveniently left out how I cried every day. How my husband and I rarely had sex—how we barely even interacted anymore. How babysitters were raising my kids (and in a way I didn’t feel was right). How I blinded myself to the racking-up expenses; otherwise I’d have to quit the charade if I knew how bad it was hurting us. Or, about how many times I’d drive over an hour to a party, and no one would answer the door. How many times I drove hours, spent hours on my feet in heels, and still didn’t make a single sale, receive a single referral, and definitely got zero recruits from countless events. (And how dangerous it all was, too—cold calling and showing up at strangers houses? Especially as a woman and as women? How idiotic, on all of our parts.)
But what was worse is that I was lying to myself, and losing myself further in the process. It all fed into me persisting in the fool’s errand.
I didn’t acknowledge who I was becoming. At the time, I saw it as an evolution. I was becoming more “normal” to people—overall more socially acceptable. I could charm people now. I could make people laugh and smile. But what I didn’t see was that my actual friends no longer responded to my text messages. Previously, timely and responsive women in my life sometimes took a few days to a week or longer to text me back—if I ever did receive one.
Every woman was a potential customer or recruit. If they didn’t fulfill one of those roles, I no longer had time for them.
I didn’t see everyone I cared about pulling away from me. I was constantly surrounded by new people, ignorant to the fact that I was losing those I truly loved; replacing them with some fictitious, hollow models of human connection. I increasingly felt like a mom in terms of being a vessel that brought children into the world, but hardly in practice.
Then, I started slipping. I was forgetting party dates and details, forgetting supplies after leaving for events, and so on. I forgot to mail reorders to customers. I’d go up to my office and spend hours blanking, unable to get anything done.
I couldn’t think straight, and I felt like utter garbage.
Brian gave me a look—the one I pictured him making the time before, when I complained to him over the phone about how poorly I’d been feeling. “Do you think you might be pregnant?” he asked for the second time in our relationship.
After a pause, my lips quivered. My vision bleared. My heart throbbed. “Fuck.”
Income-wise, things got better during the (visible part of the) pregnancy. I neared a full-time Florida earnings, but it still didn’t cover the costs of running a business.
Then, two of my recruits quit in one month. Then another the following month. I went from almost receiving a free Mary Kay car, to being demoted—sayonara, Red Jacket.
My nightly tears turned into panic attacks.
I continued trying to build back my business at the tail-end of the pregnancy, but it didn’t make a difference. To boot, I’d been on a cliff’s edge for gestational diabetes the entire pregnancy.
In September 2013—one year after we purchased our home, and one year of me working that Mary Kay business like it was the only professional option I had—I had the baby. It was the roughest labor and birthing experience yet. Brian encouraged me to take some time off after, but I wouldn’t. I “had” to keep going—I needed to see it through.
But within the following month, the abdominal pain began. It became so intense, I could barely walk most days.
Another recruit quit. Then another.
An old high school acquaintance I’d reached out to on Facebook previously—who was a regular customer but said “the opportunity” to be a distributor wasn’t for her—called to get together for dinner. I made it my mission to recruit her before we departed. She was super social, and I saw her reaching out as a saving grace to build things back up.
I was completely unaware that our entire world was about to come crashing down that same night.
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