It's hard to believe that Hello Kitty -- that darling, iconic, six-whiskered sweet-face -- is celebrating her 40th anniversary. And right off the bat, you need to know something important: she's not a cat. An "official" bio, released in August by parent company Sanrio, is perfectly clear:
"As tall as five apples, and as heavy as three, Hello Kitty is a bright girl with a heart of gold. She loves to bake cookies and play the piano, and dreams of one day becoming a pianist or maybe even a poet. She has a gift for music and English, and a soft spot for Mama's apple pie. Hello Kitty and her twin sister, Mimmy, are the best of friends."
Live and learn. And boy, she looks darn good for a 40-year-old. But the revelation does not, in the least, put a damper on the hoopla that surrounds this big anniversary. There's an all-out super fan convention, a serious museum exhibition, surprise personal appearances (did you catch her at Yankee Stadium this summer?) and much more.
After all, this is the face that launched thousands of tchotchkes -- everything from school supplies to bowling balls to beauty products. And plenty of expensive stuff has been Kittyfied: Judith Leiber made a tiny, bejeweled bag that sold for close to $4,000, and Lady Gaga famously wore a couture dress comprising cuddly Kitty toys to mark the 35th birthday celebration. "There are some 50,000 Hello Kitty items in the market at any time," estimates Sanrio President and COO Janet Hsu.
Kitty's a cultural force to be reckoned with, the innocent little face of an estimated multibillion dollar brand. Created in 1974 by Yuko Shimizu, a Sanrio designer, Kitty's introduction to the world was delivered on a clear, vinyl coin purse. Two years later she arrived in the United States and her popularity has continued to skyrocket. While Sanrio doesn't release sales figures, Hsu says there's been tremendous growth in revenue globally. "One of things we can talk about," Hsu says, "is that her fan base is growing and growing. Her audience on social media is over 19 million. And she's multigenerational."
This seems to be true. Leslie Schwartz, 53, of Old Brookville remembers owning Hello Kitty stuff when she was a teen. "I had a notebook and matching pencil." When her daughter Meredith, now 28, was a girl they went to FAO Schwarz, the toy mecca, and purchased a plush doll and melamine bowl, plate and cup. Schwartz is now shopping for her granddaughter Caroline's first birthday. "I know Meredith would be thrilled if I got her Hello Kitty."
So what is the appeal? "I think her design is so simple that you can change her easily and make her be whatever you want her to be," says Jamie Rivadeneira, the co-curator of "Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty," an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. "She doesn't have a mouth so she doesn't speak any language, which means she's relatable to anyone," adds Rivadeneira. "She has whatever personality you project on her."
Says Schwartz: "She's everything good. There's a sweetness to her -- it's simple like a smiley face."
Hsu adds, "There's a special connection between her and her fans. She has a very Zen-like disposition." As for not having a mouth? "She speaks from the heart."
LOS ANGELES IS KITTY CITY
If you feel like traveling to celebrate Hello Kitty's big milestone, Los Angeles is becoming Kitty city. Hello Kitty Con, a fan convention presented with Target, runs Oct. 30 through Nov. 2, with panel discussions, workshops, a retrospective and much more. There's even a Hello Kitty Super Supermarket. For info and tickets, go to sanrio.com.
Super fans should also check out The Japanese American National Museum (JANM), which is hosting "Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty," an exhibition on view through April 26 that celebrates Kitty's influence on art and culture. Iconic pieces from Sanrio's archives will be on display along with 40-mixed media works by contemporary artists. For more info go to janm.org.