As Hello Kitty marks her 40th birthday with an LA convention in her honour, we meet the grown-up super-fans obsessed with the cartoon feline.
‘YOU KNOW WHEN YOU’RE SMALL AND TINY THINGS like magical erasers or little notepads are fascinating?’ asks Gina Garcia, 47, full of wide-eyed wonder. ‘That’s how Hello Kitty makes me feel. Being here is like getting to eat cupcakes for breakfast,’ she enthuses. Perhaps this explains why she, her sister TaggyLee Bowers, 39, and 25,000 other fans have gathered in LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art for a four-day bacchanalia celebrating the 40th birthday of the world’s most famous cat.
Hello Kitty first appeared on a coin purse in Japan in November 1974, arriving in the US in 1976. Four decades on and that purse is on display today, valued at £10,000, and flanked by a crowd of predominantly twenty- and thirtysomething women, who’ve travelled from as far afield as New Zealand and Malaysia to see it.
Tickets to Hello Kitty Con (at £19 each) sold out immediately, with black-market tickets advertised on Craigslist and eBay for
as much as £570. No wonder, then, that with more than 50,000 different products in more than 130 countries, Sanrio, the company
behind Hello Kitty, now sells over £5 billion – $8 billion – worth of merchandise annually.
Garcia and Bowers are representative of the typical Hello Kitty consumer, first introduced to the brand when they were children in the 70s and 80s. As Bowers explains, ‘Hello Kitty and I were conceived in the same year. She just turned 40 and I turn 40 next year, so I’ve known her since birth!’
Today, amid the hordes of people buying merchandise, including Hello Kitty lunch boxes, sushi-making kits, jewellery and even toilet paper, the sisters have just completed a workshop with designer Paul Frank to craft a Hello Kitty picture from felt. Next up, a cupcake-making class. So far, so childlike.
But what makes grown women develop an attachment to an infantile character? ‘It is often to soothe anxiety via fantasy,’ explains psychologist Dr Ian Kerner. ‘A passion that includes dressing up as a cartoon character is a way of drawing attention to the child-like parts of us that still crave care,’ he says. ‘Perhaps because, when they were young, their youth was not recognised enough. Dressing up at a convention is normalising these desires in the presence of others.’
What is intriguing about adult Hello Kitty fans is their
total devotion to the brand. Bowers, a primary-school teacher from Oakland, is wearing a dress she’s made out of Hello Kitty fabric. ‘My sister probably grew up a little when she started her own family,’ Bowers admits sheepishly. ‘But I just never lost interest. Getting my Hello Kitty fix helps me switch off from everything else.’ Garcia adds, ‘We have to be adults all the time and this is a fantasy escape; a bit of nostalgia and respite from everyday life.’
It’s a feeling echoed by San Francisco-based Elizabeth Lau, 34, who spent nine months and £95 collecting 62 Hello Kitty plush toys that she bought on eBay and hand-stitched to her corseted dress. ‘I have a membership card for the Hello Kitty birthday club dating back to 1982, so I can proudly say that I’ve loved her since at least the age of two,’ says Lau. ‘I have no idea how much stuff I own – socks, make-up, even paperclips – but I have Hello Kitty items with me at all times, from my purse to my cell-phone case. It’s become part of my daily life.’
Taking the dress-up theme one step further, Alicia De Anda, 31, an admin assistant from California, is wearing a pair of
Hello Kitty-inspired emoji ears that cost £44. ‘It sounds crazy, but they link to your brainwaves through attachments on your forehead and they light up to display your emotions. They were a birthday gift from my husband and I wear them all the time now. He is very understanding. Our entire kitchen is filled with Hello Kitty appliances and utensils and it’s painted in three shades of pink.’
With sales evenly split between adults and children, the Hello Kitty market continues to expand as fans hand their collections down to the next generation. Hello Kitty and her pals also provide a sense of community. Like fans of cosplay or comic books, followers share Instagram images and arrange meet-ups with fellow Hello Kitty junkies. To become a member of the official fan club, applicants must be approved by existing members and assessed on their knowledge of Kitty, her boyfriend Dear Daniel, and other characters such as My Melody, Badtz-Maru and Pochacco.
A marketing dream, there are 29 other brands that have stands at the convention’s marketplace, Super Supermarket, including Sephora and Beats by Dre. Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry later stop by to purchase clothes, the latter getting a tiny Hello Kitty tattoo on her middle finger.
Jamie Rivadeåneira, owner of fashion brand Japan LA, which has stocked many Hello Kitty collections, says, ‘People try to intellectualise it and say, “Oh, Hello Kitty doesn’t have eyebrows or a mouth so you can project your feelings on to her,” or they try to turn it fetish-y, like you’re a child who never wants to grow up. But it’s not that deep. It’s just fun.’
However, Manhattan-based marriage and family therapist
Dr Paul Hokemeyer says, ‘There’s a huge sexual aspect that gets overlooked here. When mature women regress into infantile roles, they are unconsciously expressing their desire to be dominated by a stronger, more mature and even disciplining sexual partner. Central to this is the element of drag that is visually apparent in the exaggerated nature of their mannerisms, dress and make-up.’
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that there are men in attendance. Terry Wolbert is a 46-year-old artist who’s wearing a white wig, cat ears, Hello Kitty earrings, a pink blazer and foam whiskers. He’s also dyed his moustache pink for the occasion. ‘I consider Hello Kitty a part of my life and culture,’ he says. ‘And when I go to something like this, I dedicate 100 per cent.’
Wolbert is here with his friend Robin Roberts Gibson, a 50-year-old purchasing manager for an interior design firm, who’s thrilled to have him along since her husband wasn’t willing to accompany her. At the convention’s Saturday-night party at hip hotel The Line, the pair chat to a balding, bespectacled software engineer from San Francisco, who goes by the moniker HKGuy.
‘I’d really like to stop and talk to you,’ he says politely, ‘but the night’s just getting too crazy.’ With that, surrounded by a crowd of other excitable super-fans, he heads off in an elevator that will take them to the exclusive in-suite after-party to which journalists are not invited. ‘Come and find me tomorrow,’ he says. And, with that, the elevator door closes and HKGuy and his entourage disappear into the night.
Just as those fans disappear, a new crop appears. Among them, a Waikiki-raised artist wearing a dress made out of Hello Kitty Post-its, a redhead from the South who’s in LA for the first time after winning tickets on Facebook and a gay guy who explains that his husband is building him a special Hello Kitty room in their new house.
What becomes clear after spending four days with thousands of Hello Kitty fans is that there is no ‘typical’ fan. There were firemen, doctors, restaurant owners and celebrities, babies, pregnant women and elderly people wearing cat ears. After the bonding, the tattoos (free for the first 25 entrants), the parties, the shopping and the play, they all flit back to their regular lives where the costumes and whiskers must go back into the closet.