The key to the Mary Kay philosophy is simple: Remember the Invisible Sign.

The Invisible Sign is what Mary Kay Ash, founder and chairman of the board of Mary Kay Cosmetics, imagines she sees attached to every new person she meets. The Sign says, "MAKE ME FEEL IMPORTANT!" So Mary Kay does.

She calls people by their first names (and insists they call her Mary Kay), and she says the names with all the respect and seriousness due high, honorary titles.

If you're an interviewer, she writes you a thank-you letter filled with exclamations of gratitude and admiration, and she signs it "Love, Mary Kay."

And if you meet her on a receiving line she will always try to say something personal.

"It might be only a comment such as, 'I love your hair,' " she writes in her new book, "Mary Kay on People Management," "or, 'What a beautiful dress you're wearing,' but I give each person my undivided attention, and I don't allow anything to distract me."

It's not hard for Mary Kay to remember the Sign because, as she says, "I don't think God had time to make a nobody -- just a somebody."

That's one of Mary Kay's favorite lines, and it's often followed by the statement, "We all have the capacity for greatness." The great-grandmother from Dallas, who won't reveal her age, revealed her own capacity for greatness by starting a cosmetics business in 1963 with nine saleswomen and building it into a company with sales of more than $300 million a year. She now has 200,000 men and women (but mostly women) selling her cosmetics around the country.

Just now she is sitting in a room at the Washington Regent Hotel. As if the force of her personality alone could influence such things, the walls and furniture are all in a pale mauve that blends perfectly with her pink Ultrasuede suit, her pink blush, her deep pink lipstick and her ring that looks like a sunburst of big pink diamonds.

She has, she says, helped thousands of women change their lives. The consultants, as they are called, sell cosmetics at "Mary Kay beauty parties," a flexible career that doesn't interfere with their dedication to their families and God, a career that allows them to help other women look better. It also allows them to work their way toward winning a pink Cadillac.

"I am working for the economic liberation of women," says Mary Kay, "but I think God knew what he was doing when he made men and women, and I think we're supposed to remain female."

Mary Kay is given to saying things like that, definitive things, things that don't brook qualification. When the Republicans were in Dallas in August, Mary Kay took the opportunity to say she thought the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have stood when he shot John Kennedy, should be ripped down and replaced with a parking lot. There's nothing reticent about Mary Kay, especially at this point in her life.

"Being a great-grandmother," she says, "one has to realize that time is not forever. I wanted to get on paper the philosophy of our company, because as it grows, and when the day comes when I'm not here any more, some of that's going to get lost."

Mary Kay's philosophy rests on faith -- faith in religion, in patriotism, in success and in the power of friendliness. They are beliefs held in place with the same determination that controls the blond hairdo rising from her forehead like a metallic superstructure.

"If you don't think we live in the best company," she says, stumbles for a second, then corrects herself, "country in the world, then just take a little trip around the world and find out."

Mary Kay just went abroad herself, to "open England" for her company, but what she found disappointed her. Outfitting her consultants with their cases full of Mary Kay Cosmetics just wasn't the same over there.

"Here's a democratic country, supposedly, but amazing -- little things, that you just never would even think of," she says. "One of the things that just surprised me to pieces was, over here if a girl wants to become a consultant, we just say, 'That's wonderful! Here's the agreement, the case is $85 and let's get started.' Over there, I have to give you the agreement, I have to wait seven days before I take your check.

"A cooling-off period, they call it. Well, in seven days, your husband or your mother-in-law can talk you out of it. And really, it's dangerous. If you by chance signed an agreement here, you gave your check for $85 and tomorrow you changed your mind, I would send you your check back. But to have to wait, government-wise, seven days, before I can even take your check for your case and even let you get started while you're excited . . .

"You know, women are impetuous, and some of the best decisions I've ever made were the impetuous ones. I knew it was right and I did it. If I had seven days to think about it, I probably would have . . ." She pauses for a second to consider where she'd be now if she'd had to wait seven days. Then her mind settles on the perfect metaphor for the problem.

"Ever look at a dress and think, 'Gee, that's gorgeous, I want that dress,' " she asks, "and then you go home and wait till tomorrow and talk yourself out of it?"

Case proved.

Mary Kay's beliefs influence everything she does. For example, she doesn't give out autographed 8-by-10 glossies to her employes. It's not that they wouldn't like the pictures, it's just that, once again, Mary Kay thought of a better way.

She gives them autographed $1 bills.

And she doesn't just sign her name. She also writes "Matthew 25:14-25," a little reading suggestion. It is a parable that compares the path to the kingdom of heaven to a faithful servant who invests his master's money wisely and is rewarded.

It's a parable just made for Mary Kay, touching on hard work, business savvy, loyalty, trust and success. It's what Mary Kay believes in, and she fits it all on the face of a $1 bill.

It was her patriotism, even more than her celebrity status in Dallas, that made Mary Kay one of the most popular interviews during the convention in her hometown this summer. She loved the convention, but refuses to say whether more than its patriotic fervor appealed to her.

"I take no Republican or Democratic stands, I don't take partisan stands," she says, "for the simple reason that we have 200,000 women and I really feel that they're intelligent people and they can make their own decisions, and I have no business telling them what to do, so I don't take anybody's side. I could sway my people very easily, and I don't want to."

Mary Kay has cultivated the affection of her consultants into something approaching the cosmetic world's cult of personality. Her face is everywhere, smiling from her stationery, from all the company's publications. Her words are reprinted again and again. She hands out small pink cards that remind executives to appreciate the women in the field. Her book is filled with maxims she has tested through the years: "If a woman feels pretty on the outside, she becomes prettier on the inside too," and, "You can't rest on your laurels, for nothing wilts faster than a laurel rested upon."

When she appeared on a television show in Washington recently, her consultants filled the studio.

"You would have thought I was their long-lost mother," she says. "Because I am their long-lost mother, because that's the attitude that I take towards any one of them, whatever they may need or whatever I can do to help them. They come up to me and say, 'I am going to be a VIP which means selling $3,600 of cosmetics in conjunction with a group of other women for three consecutive months by next month,' and I say, 'All right, do it. I'll be watching you.' Things like that."

Things like that include setting certain standards, like making sure your nails are done before going out to sell Mary Kay cosmetics.

"If you have six women sitting here about to be told how to be beautiful -- if the person standing there isn't, you're going to start saying, 'Who is she telling me?' Right?"

After all, as Mary Kay says, "We're selling femininity." And even though she knows what it's like to be passed over for a job because she is a woman, Mary Kay has nothing against femininity.

"I have found it is an asset to be female in a man's world. I sit on a couple of boards, and they're all men on those boards. The first thing I try to do when I go to those board meetings is to try to look as good as I possibly can and as pretty as I can.

"And I go in and I expect to be treated with all the respect and dignity as if the queen of England had just arrived. I want them to pull out my chair, to do anything else that would be a courtesy that they extend to a woman, even in this age. I still want them to open the door for me, and whatnot. Then, I keep my mouth shut until I know exactly what I'm talking about, and when I do finally say something, they look around as if E.F. Hutton was talking."

And much to Mary Kay's relief, this kind of femininity is back.

"In the early '60s, you'll remember, that was the time when women burned their bras," she says, "put on their low-heeled shoes, cut their hair short like a man and took off all their makeup and went around trying to act just like a man, lowered their voices, et cetera. They found out fairly quickly it did not work.

"Now, you will notice, they wear their pin-stripe suits and all that, but they still have high heels, they look nice, they have the latest hairdo, and they're wearing makeup and they look attractive even in their suits. Well-dressed. Businesslike, but well-dressed, and they stopped that foolishness they started in the early '60s.

"In our company, nobody wears pantsuits or pants. The women are all dressed in dresses, and everybody looks terrific, and everyone wears makeup. People constantly comment on how beautiful everyone looks."

The beautiful world of Mary Kay is packed with beautiful objects. Pink Cadillacs, diamond rings, diamond-incrusted pins shaped like bumblebees, fur coats, new Oldsmobile Firenzas -- all are prizes women can win by selling Mary Kay products.

Her relationship with pink (pink is now pretty much synonymous with Mary Kay in certain circles) began when her business was first starting. "I wanted a cosmetic that was so pretty you would leave it out on your dressing table," she says. "Right at the beginning we put it on a mirrored tray. You could easily put it in the middle of your dining-room table and it would look nice."

Pink was so perfect, when Mary Kay went to pick the color for her new car, she took her makeup case with her, pointed to it, and got a pink car.

"They painted it that delicate shade of pink and it became a sensation in Dallas," she says. "You drive up to an intersection and I don't care if the traffic is going in eight directions, they stop and let you through, the waters part."

There are now about 750 pink Mary Kay Cadillacs driving along the roads of America, "trophies on wheels" Mary Kay calls them, sources of pride to her employes and pretty good advertising, too.

But Mary Kay knows there's a limit to how far you can take pink. Manage everything as well as you please, make your employes as happy as you can, there are still some facts no manager can overlook.

The company is now building a Dallas "campus" to centralize all national management and manufacturing plants. The buildings will probably have gold glass.

"We did look into pink glass," Mary Kay says. "Pink glass is not very pretty. It's a little depressing, in fact."