Inside the world of a Hello Kitty su­per­fan

As HELLO KITTY marks her 40th birth­day with an LA con­ven­tion in her hon­our, we meet the grown-up su­per­fans ob­sessed with the car­toon fe­line

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - mc

‘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.’ 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.

purse in Ja­pan in Novem­ber 1974, ar­riv­ing in the US in 1976. Four decades on and that purse is on dis­play to­day, val­ued at $15 000 of pre­dom­i­nantly 20- and 30-some­thing women, who have trav­elled from as far as New Zealand and Malaysia. The $29 (about R320) tick­ets to Hello Kitty Con sold out im­me­di­ately, with black-mar­ket tick­ets ad­ver­tised on the in­ter­net for as much as $890 (about R9 900). No won­der, then, that with more than 50 000 prod­ucts in more than 130 coun­tries, San­rio, the company be­hind Hello Kitty, sells more than $8 bil­lion (about R90 bil­lion) worth of mer­chan­dise an­nu­ally.

Gina and Tag­gyLee rep­re­sent the brand as chil­dren in the 70s and 80s. As Tag­gyLee says, ‘Hello Kitty and I were con­ceived in the same year… 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,’ says psy­chol­o­gist Dr Ian Kerner. ‘Dress­ing up as a car­toon character is a way of draw­ing at­ten­tion to the child­like parts of us that still crave care,’ he says. ‘Per­haps when they were young their youth was not recog­nised enough. Dress­ing up at a con­ven­tion is nor­mal­is­ing th­ese de­sires in the pres­ence of oth­ers.’


and this is a fan­tasy es­cape; a bit of nostal­gia…’

What is in­trigu­ing about adult Hello Kitty fans is their to­tal de­vo­tion to the brand. Tag­gyLee, 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,’ Tag­gyLee says sheep­ishly. ‘But I just never lost in­ter­est. else.’ Gina says, ‘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 $148 (about R1 600) col­lect­ing 62 Hello Kitty plush toys that she bought on eBay and hand­stitched 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,’ she says. ‘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 cell­phone 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 Kit­tyin­spired emoji ears that cost $68 (about R750). ‘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 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 (dress­ing up in cos­tumes or role play) or comic books, fol­low­ers share In­sta­gram images and ar­range meet-ups with fel­low Hello Kitty junkies. To be­come 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 stopped by to buy clothes, the lat­ter get­ting a tiny Hello Kitty tat­too on 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 sub­con­sciously 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 my­self to it 100%.’

Terry is here with his friend Robin Roberts Gib­son, a 50-year 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 su­per­fans, 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 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 says 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’ own­ers and celebri­ties, ba­bies, preg­nant women and el­derly peo­ple all wear­ing cat ears. After the bond­ing, the tat­toos (free shop­ping and the play, they all re­turn to their reg­u­lar lives where the cos­tumes and whiskers must go back into the closet.


Thuy Nguyen, 36, (left) ar­rives at the Hello Kitty Con from Dal­las with her sis­ter Anni, 27; Hello Kitty fan El­iz­a­beth Lau, 34, hails from San Francisco; sis­ters Tag­gyLee Bow­ers, 39, from Oak­land, and Gina Gar­cia, 47, work on craft projects with Paul Frank at Hello Kitty Con.


A fan looks at vi­bra­tors at Hello Kitty Con; friends Brandi Van­der­laan, 34, and Kiah Oster­buhr, 25, came from Seat­tle to at­tend Hello Kitty Con and made their skirts out of var­i­ous plushies; a fan sport­ing a Hello Kitty bag that matches her hair; fans take a selfie at Hello Kitty Con.

ABOVE ‘Mie’, 23, from San Francisco, is a cos­play enthusiast and worked at Hello Kitty Con as a greeter. RIGHT Ali­cia De Anda, 31, takes the nail art class, wear­ing emoji ears that pick up her feel­ings and moves.

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