My heart is pounding and my forehead beads with sweat. My arm aches from carrying the generous gift bag I’ve been handed, but that doesn’t stop me from grabbing a champagne flute while I write another email to another publicist for Japan’s top superstar: Hello Kitty.
It’s her fortieth birthday party, and parent company Sanrio was celebrating in style in Los Angeles last weekend with the sold-out Hello Kitty Con at The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Little Tokyo location, held in conjunction with Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty, an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum next door.
The weekend’s events are almost ever, and I’m euphoric but fumbling after having the literal time of my life, fanning out with other HK-devotees, attending panels on “Cute Culture,” and interviewing execs from Sanrio, the Disney to Hello Kitty’s Mickey Mouse. Yet one thing remains to be settled:
Hey girl! Congrats on another great event. One question about tomorrow: is there anyway I can set up a Hello Kitty tattoo appointment through you? It’s totally okay if that is something we can’t make happen, but I really, really want a tattoo.
A couple days earlier I may have been consulting the website of a nonprofit for those emerging from gang life for info on removing old tattoos, but at the convention everything changed. I needed a Hello Kitty tat, and in my most desperate attempt to abuse media credentials yet, I tried whatever I could to get it.
This included loitering both inside and outside of pop-up tattoo parlor HK Ink where some of the best tattoo artists in the country had gathered to ink designs by Chicago-artist Mario Desa. “She’s almost like a constant escape for them,” Desa observed, reflecting on the never ending stream of fans he tattooed over the weekend. Options included a sexy Hello Kitty Vixen wearing a green wig along with Kitty iconography, like her red bow, tiny umbrellas, and a tea set.
I wanted Hello Kitty as a mermaid on my hip—that was for sure. After being encouraged by other convention attendees to cut the line and demand an appointment, I tried to win over the tattoo parlor receptionist with my usual moves—batted eyelashes, a head-tilted smile, and soul-searching eye contact.
The truly devoted had lined up at three in the morning to make sure they got inked. And while the convention abounded with positive vibes, the line for tats was the only complaint. Every person I spoke to seemed to want one. In some ways I probably didn’t deserve one—I don’t have much patience for lines.
Why did this cartoon cat make so many yearn to get her permanently embossed on our bodies? What about her is special enough to fuel four full Convention days and a pair of exclusive parties?
To be honest, I kind of already new, but the convention reaffirmed the feeling: Hello Kitty is a sex-less seductress, a global ambassador of love and friendship that draws the entire world in with her signature wink. She’s a symbol of intimacy, and better yet, authentic intimacy. Instantly her winking face establishes a connection between her and consumers, evoking shared humor and trust, the founding blocks of any positive relationship. Since her debut in 1974, Hello Kitty has appeared in more personal places than I could ever list (although the Hello! exhibit is pretty amazing at doing so), from jet planes and maternity wards to socks and purses. From there, she’s inserted into countless more situations and thousands more memories.
“I was hysterical after my dad left on a business trip, so mom took me to get a little Hello Kitty purse,“ says Erin Shaw, an Angeleno in her thirties whom I met at the conference, recalling her first, toddler-aged encounter with the brand. "I carried it for years. Hello Kitty is part of my personal culture, and I’ve always felt compelled to share her with my close family.” She’s now “proud” to see her four-year-old daughter Olivia “latch on” to her obsession as well.
Like Olivia, "back-to-school shopping” wasn’t really back-to-school shopping for me without a trip to Sanrio Surprises at the Northridge mall in suburban LA, where I would stock up on coin purses, pencils, erasers, small notebooks, and gum. These items were elegantly designed and almost everyone could find a little something, even for just a few bucks. My friends and I would strategize about how to best spend our paltry life savings on these small purchases, items that could transform mundane necessities into vectors of incentive and reward. Me at age 6: I will go to school if I get to bring a Hello Kitty backpack. Me at age 12: I will take out my contacts if I get to deposit them into a Hello Kitty contact case. Me at age 15, bored in class: I will take notes in class if I get to do so on pink, lined Hello Kitty paper that smells like strawberries.
While Hello Kitty doesn’t age, her consumers do and so do their needs. Me last year: I will go to the gym if I get a Hello Kitty gym bag. Me, ideally in 5 to 10 years: I will make my own superfood smoothie if I get to use my Hello Kitty knives to chop the fruit and my Hello Kitty blender to blend it.
This year I got Hello Kitty wine. The opening party featured endless glasses of different varieties and an emotional performance at a translucent piano by Japanese metal musician Yoshiki. The celebration necessarily extended beyond the confines of Little Tokyo, the historically Japanese section of downtown L.A. There were themed rooms at the trendy Line Hotel in Koreatown, where acclaimed chef Roy Choi served Hello Kitty-shaped spam musubi and honey bourbon cocktails named after Hello Kitty’s twin sister Mimmy. A special “Hungry Hunt” was enacted across Los Angeles, during which fans could order special Hello Kitty items from local restaurants.
The entire weekend felt like stepping into Hello Kitty’s actual world, and the superabundance of stimuli had people’s emotions running wild. Convention DJ Sosupersam told me she saw a marriage proposal happen. Another couple, waiting outside the sold-out event, was on the verge of breaking up after the guy revealed he had given his girlfriend’s passes to an alleged “little girl.“ (To make up for it, he painted her a "Pink Power” Hello Kitty mural on a wall near the event.)
It seemed like a lame excuse, since, if anything, the convention made it resoundingly clear that the character’s appeal extended far beyond little girls or Asians or females or any one category. These days she’s almost as popular in Latin America as she is in Japan. (There are four Sanrio stores just in El Salvador.) She’s as adored by grown up riot grrrls and rock and rollers as artists and corporations. She’s had her own macaroons at Ladurée, her own jeans at Diesel, and even a Playboy-inspired collection at Paris boutique Collete.
It’s this omnipresence and agency that makes Hello Kitty so addictive. She shows her consumers how easy it is to traverse across all worlds if our identity and message is rooted in one simple thing: love.
“This morning when we opened the convention, it was tearful for us,” Sanrio president Janet Hsu tells me when we meet up at the entrance to the Hello Kitty exhibition on the first day of the convention. “Hello Kitty was created to make people happy… I have a dream job.”
Indeed, it seems fated that she would rise to the top of this company. She’s been a superfan herself since childhood. What’s more, Hsu and Hello Kitty both were born November 1st and have twin sisters. In a stranger coincidence, she says she became pregnant with all of her children during major anniversary years for Sanrio. “You would think since I’m immersed at this level, that I would get sick of it. But no,“ she says adding, "Whenever you talk to people that work at Sanrio, there’s happiness. It’s contagious.”
Hsu and team at Sanrio are constantly looking for new ways to spread this happiness to their millions of fans, usually in the form of a new product: more than 50,000 Hello Kitty products are now available in 15,000 retail shops in 70 different countries. And while Hsu says Sanrio’s licensing team is still small, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot of work to do: Hello Kitty is the sixth largest brand licensor in the world, retailing $8 billion in sales of licensed merchandise worldwide in 2013.
“We know a lot about our diehard fans’ identities and talk to them a lot,“ Hsu said as we strolled around the museum’s lobby. "Sanrio isn’t the company who thinks we know our consumers by hiring a consultancy firm to do a research project. […] We go directly to the people, who tell us what they want and what they believe to be the essence of the brand.”
The truest essence of the brand lives on in 86-year-old Sanrio founder Shintaro Tsuji, who still functions as the company’s CEO. Tsuji is an accomplished businessman known for writing fairytale literature. His only ideology seems to be that we should all smile and socialize. As he wrote in a note included in the official Hello Kitty Convention booklet, “We cannot live alone. It is imperative that families and friends help one another through communication… By exchanging small gifts with greeting cards attached to them, we can nurture friendship.”
Tsuji is a noted romantic, who in 2008 told the Japanese Times he was suspended for writing love stories as a junior high student in late 1930s Japan. The same interview delves into Tsuji’s loss of his mother to leukemia as a young boy and his decision to study chemistry instead of literature in college in order to avoid military service. In 1960, he founded the Yamanashi Silk Center and began producing products with characters limited to a bear, dog, and strawberry. In 1973, the business rebranded as Sanrio (Japanese for “pure river”) and the first Hello Kitty coin purse was born the next year. She emerged into reality whole—wearing her signature red bow and blue overalls, head turned sideways to always face her new friends, and mouthless, to the dismay of some feminist critics.
I’m almost as tired of the no-mouth controversy as I am of the rumor that she’s not a cat. Hello Kitty’s a female feline abstraction who speaks from the heart and doesn’t repeat her friends’ secrets (as well as a a proven feminist). With no mouth, we’re able to better absorb Hello Kitty into our own identity, which is right where she aims to be.
“She is mine because I’m making her, and I’m also hers,” Christine Yano told me, channeling the subconscious of many Hello Kitty consumers. An anthropologist at University of Hawaii, Yano has made a career of studying HK and her fans. She curated the exhibition, wrote the book Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific,, and took a break from her residency at Harvard to lecture on the proliferation of Japanese cuteness (kawaii culture) during the Convention.
“Buying Hello Kitty is not just an external act, but a personal act, an act of emotion and devotion,” Yano explained. “And just when you think you have a handle of Hello Kitty, she changes.” Or she changes opinions. Yano originally started her research because she couldn’t believe how many middle-aged women were obsessed with HK. But when I tell her that I thought Sanrio was the smartest company in the world, she leaned in and said, "That’s how I feel too, and that’s what I’ve come to learn in the research.”
No wonder I wanted the tattoo so bad. Talking to Yano, I’m happy to learn that only the most intelligent company in the world could have lured me in the powerful way Sanrio has. I’m a Hello Kitty life-er because, like her, I love love. And while I still haven’t proved how real my HK love is by getting any ink, my relationship with her, and Sanrio in general, feels more personal than ever. The Convention gave me an opportunity to come clean about my kind-of-secret fandom and to publicly celebrate my lifelong confidante.
No matter how much of her spirit resides in my own head, Hello Kitty’s not just mine—she’s everyone’s. She’s designed that way. Though Sanrio’s motto remains, “Small Gift, Big Smile,” Hello Kitty’s power to connect people is no small gift.
Tierney Finster is a writer and actress based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.