In “Climbing a Ladder Made of Lipstick,” Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske looks at the day-to-day life of immigrant entrepreneurs who are transforming that quintessential American business, Mary Kay cosmetics. She follows Altagracia Valdez as the 60 year-old abuela tries to sell enough makeup to get health insurance, higher commissions, and a “perfect pink Cadillac.”

As Valdez strives, Hennessy-Fiske touches on issues faced by anyone who makes a living near the bottom of the corporate ladder. When Valdez’s boss says, “Sometimes a woman can have an empty stomach, but she has to have lipstick,” we understand the financial trade-offs confronting her clients. And just in case anyone reads the dilemma as hypothetical, Hennessy-Fiske follows up with a quote about what owning that lipstick really means: “Maybe you buy a little less milk.”

Hennessy-Fiske’s scope takes in the larger Latino community: in one scene, Valdez signs up a recruit in a payday loan store that advertises “We Buy and Sell Pesos.” In another, Valdez climbs a rickety staircase in her JCPenney pumps. Valdez may be a victim of domestic abuse, but Hennessy-Fiske uses the Mary Kay matron to paint a complex picture of a survivor.

Hennessy-Fiske says she carried the Mary Kay idea in her head for years. She worked and reworked the story, getting feedback from colleagues on her use of verbs, sentence length, and Spanish phrasing. Finding the right subject and engaging every resource in the newsroom can create a Cadillac of a story.

Read “Climbing a Ladder Made of Lipstick,” by Molly Hennessy-Fiske

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