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
‘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.’
‘WE HAVE TO BE ADULTS ALL THE TIME
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.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT
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.
CLOCKWISE FROM BELOW LEFT
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.