It started long before I was tall enough to see over a steering wheel.
“Mary Kay’s your name?” neighbors would tease me. “Must be your pink Cadillac parked out front!”
“Yep!” I’d answer back. “I’m Mary Kay, like the cosmetics!”
By the time I hit kindergarten, rising skin-care company Mary Kay Inc. had made the pink Cadillac its calling card. The “trophies on wheels,” as founder Mary Kay Ash called them, have been awarded annually to the company’s top saleswomen — and a very few salesmen — since 1969.
The cars came in the same pale pink as the packaging of Mary Kay’s cleansers and creams, a shade chosen so her products would stand out in American bathrooms.
“Back in the early 1960s, when Mary Kay founded the company, everyone’s bathroom was white,” author Jennifer Bickel Cook told The Post. “She wanted to have pretty jars that would look good with white.
“If women left the jars out on their counters, they would always be reminded to use their Mary Kay.”
In “Pass It On” (Brown Books), out Tuesday, Cook — a 45-year employee who established the Mary Kay Museum in 1993 — gives an affectionate account of her former boss’ life and work.
“She was teeny-tiny, about 5 feet tall,” Cook recalled. “And you would not believe how charismatic a little great-grandmother like Mary Kay could be. She would have women in tears, just with her aura.”
Two decades after Ash’s death in 2001, Mary Kay Inc. is still one of the world’s largest multilevel marketing outfits, with $3.5 billion in annual revenues. More than three million “beauty consultants” in 36 countries run sales sessions — billed as “skin care classes” — in clients’ homes, promoting an extensive line of cosmetics. Years after Ash perfected the party-sale model — and her technique is still being adopted by brands like Pampered Chef and LuLaRoe.
But what set Mary Kay Inc. apart was Ash’s indomitable, feisty spirit — and her faith-based values that, Cook said, remain at the company’s core.
“She believed in putting God first, family second and career third, and she taught us to do the same,” Cook said.
There were no Cadillacs, pink or otherwise, in Ash’s hardscrabble childhood. Born Mary Kathlyn Wagner in 1918 in minuscule Hot Wells, Texas, the future makeup magnate spent her formative years caring for her invalid father while her mother worked long hours as a restaurant manager.
When Ash’s first husband left her and their three children in the early 1940s, she turned to door-to-door sales, hawking books, gift items and cleaning supplies to a captive audience of housewives. She quickly discovered a knack for the in-home sales strategies that companies like Tupperware pioneered shortly after World War II.
At age 45, frustrated after too many of her male trainees were promoted above her, Ash launched her own company. Her nine saleswomen operated out of a small Dallas storefront in 1963, where her pink-packaged potions were an immediate hit. Within five years, the sales force had grown to 3,000, and Ash was looking to expand her brand.
“In 1968, when it came time for her to get a new car, Mary Kay took the company’s lip and eye palette to a Cadillac dealer,” Cook said. She requested a paint job to match the compact’s signature pink case.
“The dealer told her, ‘That is crazy,’ ” Cook recounted. “He said, ‘You’ll be back here in two weeks asking me to paint the car back again.’ ”
But Ash insisted — “and when she drove that pink Cadillac back to the office, everybody went wild for it,” Cook laughed.
“It became a sensation here in Dallas. When she would come to a red light, everybody would just wave her through.”
The next year, Ash leased out pink Cadillacs to the company’s top five sales directors — rolling billboards that promoted Mary Kay Inc. everywhere they went.
As her saleswomen vied to win the coveted cars, Ash kept expanding the program. In 1973, 52 of the rose-hued vehicles were tooling around America’s roads.
By then, the Cadillacs shared the highways with a fleet of petal-pink 18-wheelers that transported Mary Kay products from distribution centers in California, Georgia, Illinois, Texas and New Jersey.
“We were all so proud of those pink trucks,” Cook recalled. “And of course back then the truck drivers were teased mercilessly for driving pink trucks at a time when that was really not macho.
“But they loved their jobs, and they loved Mary Kay,” she said — and the real-life Mary Kay often dropped in at the distribution hubs to chat with her employees.
On one of those visits, the founder unexpectedly announced a new uniform for drivers: pale pink jumpsuits with the Mary Kay logo stitched onto the back.
The news sparked an uproar, according to the book “More Than a Pink Cadillac” by Jim Underwood.
“We’ll be laughed out of every truck stop from here to Los Angeles!” the men protested.
At that, Ash broke into peals of laughter.
“She just wanted to see the reaction,” Cook said. “She loved to banter with the drivers, knowing the teasing that they got.”
Early on, Ash often hosted her sales directors at her lakeside Dallas home, opening every room in the house to them. In 1969, as a group of new recruits admired the sunken marble tub that graced the founder’s bathroom, two of the women hopped in for an impromptu photo session.
Their mischief-making launched a company tradition that continues to this day.
“That is so much fun for them,” Cook chuckled. “Somehow it became a legend among the sales directors that if you don’t get in the tub, you won’t be successful.”
Eventually the company bought a pink heart-shaped tub especially for sales director photo ops.
“Whenever they train the new directors in Dallas, they bring the tub out and put it in the museum,” Cook said. “And a staff member is always there to take their picture.
“Traditions like that are important — they’re bonding,” she said. “Companies that don’t have traditions are really missing out.”
In the 1980s, Mary Kay Inc. began an international expansion, starting with Argentina and the Dominican Republic. Ash’s Spanish-language tutor, Gladys Reyes, helped launch Mary Kay Cosmeticos de Mexico in 1986.
“Mary Kay’s philosophies are perfect for the Latin woman,” Reyes tells Cook in the book. “Family and faith are so very important to them.”
Mary Kay had a street name dedicated in her honor. Barry McCoy Values that appealed to tradition-minded American women in the 1960s and ’70s now attract Muslims in Malaysia and Catholics in the Philippines to sell Mary Kay products in their countries.
“In a more traditional society, this is a way of being able to keep that role of wife, mother and spiritual leader of the house, but also have a fulfilling career,” Cook said.
Meanwhile, as the Iron Curtain crumbled in the late 1980s, Mary Kay Inc. helped women in Poland, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia take their first steps toward economic independence.
“First we get freedom, then we get Mary Kay!” a saleswoman from the former East Germany shouted when Ash visited shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Oh, she loved that,” Cook said. “As she understood it, those women were so appreciative of the opportunity for financial freedom, for building a business — something they’d never had before.”
Back in the States, Ash spared no expense to build a posh pink mansion in the tony Dallas neighborhood of Old Preston Hollow. The 12,000-square-foot, classically styled pile featured six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, sweeping staircases, a library, three living rooms — one with a 40-foot ceiling — and a courtyard pool surrounded by Corinthian columns and faux Greek statuary.
Ash filled the house with coral carpets, floor-to-ceiling curtains in salmon-colored silk, fuchsia furnishings and a master bath crowned with a rose-quartz toilet and a pink marble soaking tub.
But the construction was rushed and the work was shoddy. When Ash welcomed the company’s top saleswomen to her new home in 1986, a sudden rainstorm revealed that the builder had never sealed the windows.
Pass It On is out on Tuesday.
“Water poured through the ceiling from the library upstairs,” Cook writes, “and Mary Kay and her staff ran around with towels and pots trying to halt the damage.” A few hours later, a section of drywall collapsed completely.
In 1990, Ash decamped to her former home with the photo-op bathtub, living there until her death in 2001.
The fleet of pink trucks was disbanded in 2003, and the pink mansion — which moldered for years as absentee owners struggled to sell it — was razed in 2017.
But Mary Kay Inc. still thrives.
“One of her goals was that, when she passed away, the company would go on,” Cook said. “She knew that so many companies are founder-based, and once the founder passes on, the company dissolves.
“But I think that women love sisterhood, and this really is a sisterhood,” she said. “They’re out with other women, they host their meetings, and they develop bonds that are always there.”
This content was originally published here.