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Hello Kitty Doesn't Need a Mouth
to Say She's Turned 30

San Francisco Chronicle
by Elizabeth Blish Hughes

December 26, 2004


Hello Kitty hit the Big 3-O in 2004. It was an event made notable by who she is not.

A celebrity from her first appearance in Japan on a comfortingly small coin purse, she’s made it through her teens and twenties without bad boyfriends, multiple marriages, lesbian lip-locks, rehab rebounds or wardrobe malfunctions. Indeed, her bow never slips,
and she never misspeaks because – we’re skipping a feminist examination here – she has no mouth. For the record, she has no cartoon show, no movies, no platinum albums, no embarrassing sex tapes and no plans to create any of the above.

Hello Kitty just is, an all-things to all-people Zen magnificence and that’s why she’s loved. Sweetly innocent, “with style, manners and brains” as one reviewer described her on From preschoolers’ backpacks to their grandmothers’ gimme caps, Hello Kitty rules.

Indeed, Hello Kitty lures fans into spending $4 billion on her worldwide annually, $500 million of that in North America, which might be a reason why Sanrio, her creators, went all out for her birthday year. There was a Hollywood gala, an online charity auction of items
created by famous folks under the Kitty’s spell and special events galore, including the Hello Kitty Boardfest which was the next-to-last stop on the 2004 Surfing America Tour and attracted the top female surfers and skateboarders. Hello Kitty may have her roots in Japan’s cult of the insufferably cute but she that doesn’t mean she’s not sporty.

“She’s the ultimate be anything girl,” said Bill Hensley, marketing director for Sanrio, Inc. which has had its North American headquarters in South San Francisco for about 25 years. Ever practical, the Kitty herself must have noticed the nearby airport with direct
flights to Japan and the availability of warehouse space.

Like every celebrity, Hello Kitty has a backstory. She was born in London on November 1, 1974 to George and Mary White. The Kitty is the height of seven apples, and has been as long as anybody can remember. She likes to make cookies and friends. She has an official Web site, many fan sites and a twin sister, Mimmy, which might explain why you
think you see the Kitty everywhere, leading the global expansion of Japan’s popular culture with manga, anime like “Cowboy Bebop” and “Spirited Away,” and Takashi Murakami’s ultrapop bags for Louis Vuitton.

Then again, Hello Kitty is everywhere. On a good day, she rocks with more than 3.4 million Google hits and some 18,000 items on eBay, including several identical “new in box” vibrators that start at $50. Her creators at Sanrio have granted over 400 licenses worldwide which means if you want her image to be the first thing you see in the morning, no problem. Just decide when upon waking you want to register what you see: an alarm clock, bedding, pajamas, slippers, a plush toilet seat cover, a bathroom rug, a shower curtain, a soap holder, towels, a rechargeable electric toothbrush, a 4-cup coffee maker, a
toaster that reproduce that fabulous face on each slice, a microwave, a waffle iron and a 13-inch sized TV/DVD combo. Pink dominates. However, the Hello Kitty hair crimper is red. It heat presses a Hello Kitty image on tresses. There’s also a Hello Kitty curling iron. It just curls.

You can leave the house but you can’t escape the Hello Kitty universe. Floor mats to fit all cars. Tri-band wireless phones. Computer mice. MP3 players. A laptop (only in Japan). A customized all-Kitty Airstream trailer. It sold for about $60,000 on a Yahoo auction conducted to benefit Target’s St. Jude’s House and UNICEF, Hello Kitty’s pet charity
since 1984 when she first became involved with the annual trick-or-treat program.

In recognition of her fund-raising efforts for girls’ education worldwide, Hello Kitty now serves as a Global UNICEF Special Friend of Children. She’s worked to build the Halloween drive beyond those traditional orange milk cartons kids shake door-to-door. Last year, the Kitty worked on fundraisers with schools and all told, helped raise $4
million, according to Deanna Helmig, deputy director of corporate partnerships and alliances at the U.S. Fund for Unicef.

For her 30th birthday, Hello Kitty agreed to donate a minimum of $150,000 to the Unicef Schoolgirls Campaign, “Go Girls!” which is dedicated to lowering the barriers that keep girls from attending schools in places like sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Hello
Kitty understands that educating girls means educating their future children as well.

“Even though she doesn’t have a mouth, she’s still a great voice for Unicef,” said Helmig who said none of the material purchased with funds raised by Hello Kitty carry her brand.

Nor does she think using Hello Kitty as a fundraiser discounts UNICEF’s message. “It’s important to communicate what the situation is for children who are less fortunate to children who can afford her items. She encourages kids to help other kids. It’s a great message.”

The Kitty’s also a blast to work with, Helmig says. At the recent lighting of the UNICEF snowflake over the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan, “little kids, you expect them to start screaming with excitement when they see her, but to see adults, even grown men, do the same thing … . She greeted every person. There’s no rock star ego for Hello Kitty.”

How could there be? Despite that seemingly glam London birthplace, Kitty’s beginnings are those of an everycat. In 1974, a young Sanrio designer named Yuko Shimizu created Kitty, giving her a simple look, a round head, button nose, a red ribbon perched in front of one ear. She omitted a mouth, which turned Kitty into an international presence because she speaks to everyone from the heart, according to Sanrio.

The first product, that clear vinyl coin purse, sold for about the yen equivalent of $1. Kitty hit Japan at the right time, when children and youth were first tasting the prosperity that boomed into the gold-flecked sushi excesses of the next decade. In the 1980s, as the
first generation of Hello Kitty fans grew up, Sanrio adapted by expanding her reach from things like that coin purse, stationary and erasers to higher priced items. A pink crystal-encrusted Judith Leiber minaudiere appeared on eBay recently with a $4,400 “buy it now” price.

That’s peanuts compared to the 10.5 million yen (US$102,790) that Reuters reported was paid for one-of-a-kind diamond studded Queen Hello Kitty doll created to celebrate her 30th birthday and the 100th anniversary of Japan’s exclusive Mitsukoshi department store.

With the expanded product line, came new Kitty fans. Singer Lisa Loeb, who featured the Kitty on the cover of her 2002 release “Hello Lisa” remembers she and her friends loved the character as children, “because she was stylish and cute, and you could find tiny stationary sets and pencils with her face on them.” Loeb, with a seemingly endless roster
of entertainment and design types, has since come to appreciate “the irony in seeing Hello Kitty’s cute face on items you see every day like a coffee pot or a toaster.”

Loeb’s partial to Hello Kitty rice steamer and watch. She works with Hello Kitty on fund-raising. “Sometimes I take my feminism for granted. I went to a very challenging all-girls’school that taught me I could do anything; I didn’t realize other girls weren’t getting that message,” she said of her education at the exclusive Hockaday School near Dallas.

Loeb also defends Kitty against those who dislike her overweening girlishness, something that sets 12-year-old Natalie Sayre of Montara on edge. “She’s too pink, she’s too furry. She’s only there to attract attention to herself.”

Cute, in Loeb’s mind, doesn’t mean helpless. “I think that if something is girly or cute, that doesn’t make it not feminist. Feminism is about being strong and about being all you want to be.” Kitty, particularly with her work for education “empowers” girls, says Loeb.

And Kitty brings a smile to life as an adult. “People love to buy Hello Kitty items, and that’s consumerism,” said Loeb, “but I still think that it’s OK to use Hello Kitty to help bring attention to a good cause.”