Forget pin money: hundreds of Avon ladies and Tupperware hostesses are making very nice careers out of direct selling.
"Ding-dong. Avon calling...." If the old TV ad rings bells with you, you may have an outdated and altogether too homey image of a cosmetics company that has a market in 125 countries, and sells 8 million lipsticks a year in the UK alone. And if you imagine that the immaculately made- up woman on your doorstep is in it merely for pin money, you could be very wrong. She may make a very handsome living from direct sales. Indeed, today's representative may be tomorrow's company president. Sandy Mountford, now head of Avon in the UK, got her foot in the door this way.

As for Tupperware, the company last year achieved sales of pounds 933m worldwide, and top reps these days turn up in company cars. Betterware, meanwhile, which began in 1928 with a salesman and a sample case, now employs 12,000.

These operations, although founded by men, are almost entirely female affairs. The chemist Earl Tupper pioneered plastics parties in the 1950s, while an encyclopaedia salesman, David McConnell, found his give-away fragrances were more popular than his books in the 1880s. He hired the first ever Avon lady, the fierce-looking Mrs PFE Albee, to sell door to door. Today there are 150,000 Mrs Albees up and down the country. When Avon calls, think multinational. And if the Tupperware woman starts talking of markets, think India and China, not fruit and veg.

When Barbara Leonard, 48, first told her husband Bill that she thought she would try to sell Tupperware, he told her not to be silly and gave it one month. She now admits it was a bit of a whim: she had, after all, just attended her first Tupperware party a few weeks earlier. "I hadn't gone with any intention of joining, and I didn't have a clue what Tupperware was."

She was not, she claims, the best saleswoman in the world, but stuck with it and turned herself from a person who "watches it happen" to someone who "makes it happen". Two years later she was promoted to "manager" for her team. She gained her promotion and passed her driving test in the same week - which is just as well, since by now she had a company car. She then found she was pregnant, and told her boss she couldn't accept her new job. "They said 'Don't do anything silly; take it a day at a time,' " Sound advice. She was a manager for 16 years. Bill, meanwhile, began to see the benefits, not just in terms of income, but of perks such as the holidays in Barbados and Los Angeles her impressive sales earned her (in one year alone, Barbara and her team sold a third of a million pounds' worth of goods). In 1990, the Leonards were offered the distributorship franchise for northern Scotland. They now have 14 managers and scores of saleswomen working for them. For four out of the past five years, the distributorship has sold more than pounds 1m-worth of products.

"Tupperware has become a way of life. It's changed things beyond our dreams and given us a standard of living we never would have had," said Barbara, who drives a Mercedes and earns more than she ever dreamt she would. She still does the odd party to keep her hand in: "You're only as good as last week's sales."

Jeanette Campkin didn't know a soul when she moved to Northampton five years ago at the age of 32. Every day she took her two children to school and went back home. Most of her neighbours worked. Then, one day, she asked another mum about getting an Avon brochure. That one question changed her life. The current rep was moving, and within a week someone asked her if she'd like to sell Avon. "I'd not really thought about it, to tell the truth. I was a travel consultant before. But I was lonely and someone came along, and I thought it was a way of making new friends." Today she has 220 people on her list, and quite a few have become pals. "I can go into the village and always meet somebody I know. It is a social life. You're a completely different person."

Jeanette is in the President's Club, which means she is successful but not among the very top Avon saleswomen. One of her campaigns, which lasts three weeks, will bring in at least pounds 300 in orders. She works four to five hours a week, and Sunday is her busiest day. Sometimes she takes her children, now aged seven and 10, along with her, and her husband, a college lecturer, helps too. The money she earns pays for "the luxuries and the little extra things for the children", but it is not her main motivation. "I'd be lost without it. I can't imagine not going to see these people. You do become hooked. I'd miss the cups of tea. If it wasn't for Avon, I'd probably still just be going up and down to the school."

Elaine Proctor, 27, has just taken delivery of her new P-reg company car with all the extras - her second since she started selling Tupperware two years ago. "To qualify for a car, you have to have sales of pounds 4,000 a month. It comes taxed and insured, with AA membership. The only thing I've got to do is to put petrol in it."

Elaine, who knew nothing of Tupperware until she got involved, is now completely sold, on the product ("The new Snack Attack range for kids is excellent") and the company. She says she is treated like royalty and her descriptions of all-expenses-paid trips sound fit for a princess.

She has two children, aged five and three, and a husband in the RAF. She lives in Llantwit Major, and has 16 people in her Tupperware team. She does between three and eight parties a week, and her 20-25 working hours are organised around her family.

She would never go back to her old job as a clerk for the water board. "There is no chance. I can have as many holidays as I want, and still earn as much money as I used to in a full-time job, or I can earn a lot more." Her life has been transformed. "We're just having a holiday in Majorca, and we're planning a move to a bigger house. We just wouldn't do things like that if I wasn't doing Tupperware."

David Brown, 28, posts 1,100 Betterware catalogues through doors in Merseyside each week, and in the three years he's been working for the company, his sales have risen from pounds 500 a week to pounds 1,000. "I believe I'm among the highest, in the top 20," he says. Out of 12,000 salespeople, that's not bad. His area covers 10,000 homes and he tries to get to all of them over a period of seven or eight weeks. "I've never been self-employed before. I was a salesman for a firm." He works about 40 hours a week, spread over six days. The only fixed hours are 5.30pm to 7.30pm - when most people are at home. "It gets me out and about. I like the walking, that's good exercise. I like talking to people. Sales is really just meeting people. It's not foot-in-the-door stuff."

Some customers may order pounds 60-worth of household goods and cleaning gear in one week. One thing he likes about Betterware is that the harder you work, the more money you make. Last year his turnover was pounds 53,000 and he thinks he can rise by another pounds 10,000 at least. "I view it as a career."

Sandy Mountford moved to Calgary, Canada, some 17 years ago, and was desperate to find the local Avon representative with whom to place an order. She rang and made an appointment for someone to drop off a brochure. "One-and-a-half hours later I had been signed up as a representative. My first campaign sales were $600, my second campaign was $2,300. I really enjoyed it. It was a wonderful way to meet people."

Nine months later, she was flipping through the newspaper and saw an ad for an Avon area manager. She applied, got the job, and, at the age of 34, began working her way up the Avon career ladder. She was posted to Montreal, Chicago and New York, before coming to Britain as UK president. She was born in Canada but grew up in England, so, at the age of 50, is on home ground -in a top job, too.

One of her goals is to update Avon's image. She sees her company as "modern, innovative and on the edge of technology", but admits that most people probably do not. "In the UK they don't see us as who we are. It's a huge, huge company. For instance, Avon is the number one fragrance-seller here. Did you know that?"

Sandy's two children are now in their twenties "Most of my career with Avon I was a single parent and provider for my family," she says. She never thought she'd be a company president - "not in a million years!" - but then Avon called.