The acorn from which an empire grew: the first Hello Kitty item/Gillian G. Gaar
The welcoming committee at Hello Kitty Con 2014/Gillian G. Gaar

It’s 10 minutes into the last day of Hello Kitty Con 2014, and the line at the Hello Kitty Friendship Station Pop-Up Shop is so long it’ll be at least a two-to-three hour wait before you can gain entry and purchase items emblazoned with the character celebrating her 40th anniversary. The Hello Kitty Tattoo Shop (providing real, permanent tattoos) is at capacity; there’s no line yet at the booth offering temporary tattoos, but there soon will be. The penny stretcher also stands alone at the moment. But eventually the crowds will come, and a staffer will be dispatched to hold up a sign helpfully reading “Line Ends Here,” as everyone patiently awaits their chance to place two quarters and a penny in the machine, turn a crank, and receive an elongated penny with an “exclusive” Hello Kitty Con design stamped on it. There are four different designs, and everyone wants one of each, so the line moves slowly.

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Kira and Taryn using the Hello Kitty penny stretcher/Gillian G. Gaar

“Exclusive” is one of the key words at this event, which is being held at the Geffen Contemporary At MOCA in Los Angeles (the other most frequently heard word is “supercute”). When I asked attendees what they most wanted to do at Hello Kitty Con, they invariably responded they’d be making a beeline for the exclusive 40th anniversary merchandise only available at the convention. And the demand for HKC 2014 merch has only increased now that the con is over. The Hello Kitty Con bobblehead that sold for $22 at the convention is going for over three times that much on eBay. The desire to acquire is unquenchable for Hello Kitty fans; Prince Robbie, founder of cosmetics company Adam Haus, appeared on the panel “Guys Love Hello Kitty Too!” and admitted that while he’ll buy two of the same item, planning to sell one later, he’ll end up keeping both, unable to part with any of his collection.

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Just put a Hello Kitty bow on a cupcake, and it becomes supercute/Gillian G. Gaar

Who could ever have imagined that the wide-eyed, mouthless feline created as a cute—sorry, supercute—design to place on products marketed to children would become the kind of global and cultural phenomenon that brings in over $8 billion a year? In 1974 Ikuko Shimizu, a designer for Japan-based Sanrio Co., Ltd., created a character, then known as “the white kitten with no name,” wearing blue overalls and a red bow on her left ear. In March 1975, the first product featuring the icon was released: a small child’s coin purse, sitting between a bottle of milk and a bowl with a goldfish in it. Above her was the single word: “Hello!” Interestingly, though the purse was only released in Japan, the greeting was in English, not Japanese—an early sign of international crossover potential.

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Hello Kitty fashion at the pre-opening event/Gillian G. Gaar

The kitten eventually received a name and a backstory. According to Sanrio’s official biography, her full name is Kitty White (“Hello Kitty” is her nickname), she was born in London on November 1, and has a twin sister named Mimmy (the yellow bow on her right ear is how you differentiate the two). She made her U.S. debut in 1976, and for the next decade cultivated an audience among the preteen set. By the ’90s, she’d worked her way over into the alternative scene as a symbol of retro kitsch—Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a Hello Kitty fan. But her mainstream popularity really blossomed in the new century; Lady Gaga captured international headlines in 2009 for her Hello Kitty-themed photo shoot in honor of the character’s 35th anniversary, which featured her posing with a bejeweled Kitty head strategically placed over her crotch in one photo, and elsewhere wearing a dress fashioned out of Kitty stuffed toys.

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Holding the first-ever Hello Kitty convention in the U.S. is a means of adding more luster to Kitty’s star. Japan might be home to two Sanrio theme parks (Puroland and Harmonyland) and Korea and Taiwan have Hello Kitty Cafés (one will open in Southern California next year), but L.A. received the honor of hosting Hello Kitty Con 2014, held October 30–November 2, with MOCA located, not coincidentally, next door to the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), which is currently hosting the exhibition “Hello! Exploring The Supercute World Of Hello Kitty.”

Dr. Christine Yano, author of “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific,” lectures at Hello Kitty Con/Gillian G. Gaar

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Thankfully, a media preview is held the night before opening, which allows us a chance to look around before the hordes descend. But our collective bias is already apparent; I stand in the media line with people like Jenn Guhit, of the blog Hello Kitty Foodie (“A happy food blog full of sugar, spice, and Hello Kitty nice”), who’s suitably attired for the occasion in a Hello Kitty dress, ears, and purse (I play it more discretely, wearing only Hello Kitty earrings and sneakers). Even Jeffrey S. (who keeps his last name to himself), who runs the Hello Kitty Hell blog—“One man’s life with cute overload”—is there, as the result of a losing a bet, he grumbles. Nonetheless, judging by the comments left on his blog and Facebook page, a number of Kitty fans peruse his site anyway, to see the pictures he posts. For a True Believer, you can never get enough of the Kitty.

The Hello Kitty apple from the swag bag/Gillian G. Gaar

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As we mill around the site sipping Hello Kitty cocktails (vodka and pink lemonade) and snacking on Hello Kitty cupcakes (festooned with her signature red bow), something else becomes apparent: Hello Kitty really does put people in a better mood. The staff are smiling as they hand you your gift bag (filled with Kitty swag, including a Hello Kitty-emblazoned apple from Melissa’s Produce), direct you from one attraction to another, happily snap your picture in front of the displays in the “Art Corner” (featuring pieces from modern artists like POSE and vintage-style work from Globe Poster), or assure you that, yes, there’s still time to get a personal hand-drawn Hello Kitty illustration from Yuko Yamaguchi, the Kitty’s designer since 1980. I quickly get in line for a drawing. Afterward, I’m interviewed about the experience by Japan broadcasting network NHK.

Yuko Yamaguchi doing the author’s drawing/Gillian G. Gaar

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The final piece/Gillian G. Gaar

When the VIPs arrive for the second half of the evening, the mood becomes even more celebratory. Yoshiki Hayashi, pianist and drummer with Japanese metal band X Japan is on hand to play a special Hello Kitty song—sweet piano pop, as opposed to the more raucous stuff X Japan produces—and we’re all given wristbands that light up during the performance. The event’s press release hinted at the possibility of celebrity sightings, none of whom I see. It hardly seems to matter; everyone’s going around taking pictures of anything with a Hello Kitty on it (even the cupcakes). But I do meet up with Allison Wolfe, whom I met back in her Bratmobile days and who now performs with L.A. band Sex Stains. And I’m recognized by rock documentarian Stephen Kijak (I once gave a rave to his second film, Cinemania), who’s on hand to film Yoshiki for an upcoming X Japan doc. The good spirits are infectious.

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Allison Wolfe gets her Hello Kitty on/Gillian G. Gaar
Rock doc director Stephen Kijak/Gillian G. Gaar

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Yoshiki, from X Japan, performed a special Hello Kitty song at the pre-opening party/Gillian G. Gaar

It’s the calmest experience I’ll have for the next four days. With my media pass, I’m able to stroll up around 9 a.m. for the 10 a.m. convention opening. But fans who don’t want to miss out on getting first crack at the event start lining up around 4 a.m. One of those is Makenzie Flores from Houston, Texas, determined to acquire a Hello Kitty tattoo. Those slots filled up fast—only 25 were guaranteed each day—but Makenzie was lucky. She even got a bonus, as she entered in the daily Tattoo Contest and came in third, winning a stuffed Hello Kitty. I asked if the wait was worth it. “Yes!” she exclaimed.

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Pink-haired Makenzie got in line at 4 a.m. to get a free Hello Kitty tattoo/Gillian G. Gaar
Makenzie’s prize-winning tattoo/Gillian G. Gaar

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It’s impossible to get into the Friendship Station Pop-Up Shop—after waiting in a four-hour line to get into the con, not many want to wait in another three-hour line—but you can wander around the Super Supermarket, with 29 vendors hawking an amazing array of Kitty-themed items, along with the expected clothing, candy, and toys. A 3-D printer from MakerBot churns out an army of replica Hello Kittys. There’s a limited-edition Spam Musubi Hello Kitty Kit; Hello Kitty headphones from Beats by Dr. Dre; a Hello Kitty steering-wheel cover from Plasticolor Chroma; Hello Kitty golf bags from MMA Sports. Put Hello Kitty on it, and it will sell seems to be the thinking.

An excerpt from “Hello Kitty’s Supercute Friendship Tour,” set to hit the road in 2015/Gillian G. Gaar

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But is that really all it takes? Admittedly, most people at HKC are there to snag that special item. But that doesn’t take you into the heart of Hello Kitty’s raison d’être, what it is that’s really brought us all together. Curiously, you won’t find a line all weekend to see HKC’s most iconic item, the thing that started it all: that plastic children’s coin purse. One would think more people would’ve come to pay homage to the purse, displayed in a special room with low lighting, and safely ensconced in a climate-controlled display case, like the crown jewels. It’s truly the little acorn from which a mighty empire has grown.

Vivian and Camille as two other Sanrio characters, Kiki and Lala, aka the Little Twin Stars/Gillian G. Gaar

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There is some insight to be found at the JANM exhibit, with its wide-ranging collection of Hello Kitty artifacts (which includes a vibrator, euphemistically referred to as a “massage wand”) and the artwork she’s inspired. She’s clearly not just a children’s character, as Mickey Mouse has remained. Her expressionless face allows her to be placed into an infinite variety of settings, the viewer encouraged to read what you like into the end result. What does it mean to see Kitty transformed into a destructive force like Godzilla, for example?

Mark Nagata’s “Hello Kitty Kaiju”/Gillian G. Gaar

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Colin Christian’s “Super Space Titan Kitty”/Gillian G. Gaar
The Hello Kitty “massage wands”/Gillian G. Gaar

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HKC’s panels and lectures, most featuring people who work at or with Sanrio, dug even deeper into all things Kitty. Apparently shopping was too great a lure for HKC attendees; seats were readily available for all the panels and lectures, aside from the Q&As with Yuko Yamaguchi. At the artists’ panel (featuring Paul Frank, Aiko, and POSE, each of whom have done Hello Kitty designs), all agreed Kitty’s lack of a mouth meant she couldn’t be pigeonholed. And there was much admiration about the powerful impact she makes, considering her simple design; “Simple’s not easy to do,” said Paul Frank.

Artist Paul Frank and Sanrio Creative Manager Sarah Lee/Gillian G. Gaar

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Yuko, through a translator, explained she felt the key to Hello Kitty could come from the stories that could be created about her, an approach meant to tap directly into your emotions. She didn’t become Hello Kitty’s designer because she was the best artist, she said, “but because I had the best imagination.” That imagination has since opened up Kitty’s world; she now has a boyfriend (Dear Daniel) and kitty of her own (Charmmy Kitty). Yuko, who calls Hello Kitty her “partner in life,” also brushed aside the recent controversy of whether Hello Kitty is a cat. “She’s not a cat,” she told the audience at one Q&A. “And she’s not a human. She’s Hello Kitty.”

Yuko looks for more Hello Kitty items at the Sanrio Vintage Shoppe/Gillian G. Gaar

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At the “Hello Kitty Is My Boss” panel, Sanrio employees were as giddy about being able to work for Kitty as Kitty fans were excited to be attending HKC. In his desire to “make every part of my day as cute as possible,” creative director Bobby Saygan jovially insisted, “Every day things are better with Hello Kitty!” Creative manager Sarah Lee agreed. “We’ll go, ‘How can we add Hello Kitty to that?’” she explained. “‘She’ll make it all fine!’”

Sanrio Creative Director Bobby Saygan adds some cute to his day/Gillian G. Gaar

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And that’s the secret: Don’t underestimate the power of supercute. As I walked around L.A. that weekend, I could see the spirit of Hello Kitty in action. A man on the subway nudged me to say he liked my sneakers. A woman stopped me to ask about my HKC T-shirt, smiling as she shared her love of Kitty. Whenever I pulled out a Hello Kitty item I’d bought, or showed a picture I’d taken next to one of her images, the response was an instantaneous “Oh, how cute!” What if everyday life was like that: What if compliments and niceties weren’t the exception but the rule? How much happier would we feel about ourselves and others? Maybe the sentiment expressed at the “Hello Kitty Is My Boss” panel—“The language of Hello Kitty and the language of friendship is universal”—is a greater truth than we realize.

The philosophy of Hello Kitty/Gillian G. Gaar

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