Explosion of Cute: Inside the Superfan Mania of Hello Kitty Con 2014
In honor of the cute, cat child's 40th anniversary, an L.A. convention is bringing together Hello Kitty's biggest fans for a weekend of happiness…and oh so much consumption.
It’s days before Halloween and I’m at the party that goes way beyond dressing up. This is about a way of life. I’m at the first-ever Hello Kitty Con 2014 dedicated to the tiny, chameleon-esque cat child and held at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in downtown Los Angeles. The Geffen building is a 55,000 square foot exhibition space, and it’s been filled to the whiskers with Hello Kitty love, super-consuming and super-cute. The prevailing color is pink; the headgear: red bows and ears; the guests: super giddy.
“This is, like, the pinnacle of our Sanrio experience,” says San Francisco-based collector and enthusiast Marty Garrett, who travelled to Los Angeles with his equally excited wife to participate in the conference and sit on a panel called “Guys Love Hello Kitty Too!” Sanrio, the billion-dollar Japanese company behind Hello Kitty and a universe of other characters cute as crackers began planning Hello Kitty Con 2014 in honor of the perpetual third grader’s 40th birthday. At the same time, they have mounted an exhibition with the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), conveniently located right next door to MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary.
And I’m there. I’m taking it all in. Overwhelming? Yes! I’ve never really been a Hello Kitty fan, but immersing myself in the nerve center of obsession insanity and drowning myself in a surrender to cute can be totally fascinating. There’s a word that keeps coming up at this conference: “I’ve been struggling over kawaii,” I say to Dave. “I know it means cute, but does that do the word justice?” His eyes light up a little, “Oh—no, it doesn’t. It’s way beyond cute,” he says. “When I ask my Japanese colleagues, they say it’s something you can’t really describe, like a feeling. Some say it’s like hunger; some say it’s like love. It’s something really deep.”
(I’ve since been corrected that kawaii does not have those subtleties, according to Christine Yano, Ph.D., the curator of the exhibition next door at JANM. “Kawaii is basically cute.” Then she asks me, “Who told you that?” I tell her it was someone from Sanrio. “I thought so!” she says. “That’s a good brand manager,” I think to myself. “Hunger, love, uncontrolled, yet non-sexualized, desire—this is a supercute brand strategy.”)
But back to the party! Happiness everywhere! On opening night, Chrissa Sparkles, a self-professed Hello Kitty fan and one of the moderators of the discussion panels sprinkled throughout the weekend on topics ranging from Sanrio designers to rabid superfans, flits about wearing white patent leather stripper pumps and a pink satin one-piece bustier studded with blossoms, her cotton-candy pink curls pinched back with a Hello Kitty barrette, her nails flashing diamonds and pearls. A flock of young women dressed in Lolita style, the fashion subculture out of Japan that merges school girl skirts and socks with Victorian grande dame ruffles, files into the building. Live models in Hello Kitty-themed evening wear designed by fashion brands like Fiori Couture, A-Morir, Mother of London, Abigail Greydanus, and more, arrange themselves between mannequins clad in similar couture for a display called Lovely Kitty Wonder curated by Stephiee Nguyen of JapanLA, a Melrose Avenue pop culture shop for cute fashions. (Mother of London wrapped one mannequin face in a full mask encrusted with rhinestones so big I couldn’t at first comprehend the Hello Kitty pattern it portrayed—it looked more like a fascinating, blinged-out Jason mask from the Friday the 13th horror films.)
Also in attendance on opening night is Yuko Yamaguchi, Hello Kitty’s head designer (and Sanrio’s cutest mature adult, as far as I can tell, with her red cat-ear-like pigtails). She’s holding court, making and signing custom caricatures of the feline of the hour. Street artists Dabs Myla (a husband and wife team) and POSE (aka Jordan Nickel) cavort in the Art Corner, a spacious room of graffiti, neon posters, and scenery, for photo ops. In the main room of the Geffen, Sanrio has set up what they call Friendship Village with a stage for hourly performances and various interactive stations, like a telephone-booth-like box that blows paper “dollars” around. Visitors take turns trying to catch the green paper to win a Hello Kitty cupcake stand. (I saw a young woman do it. It wasn’t so hard.) Through a door adjacent to this is the arcade filled with Hello Kitty-infused activities: a fortune telling machine, spin-the-wheel prizes, video games, and the Mystical Cave where a wave of the hand scatters flowers over a large video screen. There is a mini-salon station that applies sparkles onto willing attendees nails. The bathrooms have Hello Kitty-printed toilet paper. And in what’s called the HK Ink room, anyone over the age of 18 can get a tattoo—a real, ink-and-needle, painful, tattoo—as long as it’s selected from five gorgeous flash sheets full of Hello Kitty designs specially made for the event, like Hello Kitty as a butterfly, riding an anchor, or transformed into a really spectacular Day of the Dead calavera skull.
I see a couple holding each other and longingly looking at flash sheets on the wall. “You guys going to get tattoos?” I ask. “We want to,” he says. “Did you plan on this or is this a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing?” I ask. “We just decided,” she says, “but they’re not taking any more appointments. We have to come back tomorrow.” Perhaps, once in awhile, scarcity will breed rational thinking, too.
One of the most prized items of the HK Con sits in a small, dimly-lit room towards the back of the building, displayed with all the pomp of the Hope diamond on blue velvet in a huge glass box. It’s the original Hello Kitty clear vinyl coin purse, not much bigger than a large strawberry, introduced in 1975 by Sanrio—the genuine, super-rare, first Sanrio product that spawned the superfan mania. It portrays a tiny Hello Kitty, with her auspicious side whiskers, button of a nose, and red bow, sitting next to a bottle of milk and a goldfish in a bowl. “Hello!” is printed above her head, and her black dots for eyes lance cute-spears into the center of my gut. Two guards watch over the purse at all times, and, when I inquire as to the price, one tells me the value is unknown, while the other offers, “Maybe 10,000.” It’s not for sale, of course, but fans can commemorate the experience in a photo-op with a scaled-up version of the original.
While the purse isn’t available for purchase, there are plenty of opportunities for conference-goers to spend their Benjamins acquiring new pieces for their Hello Kitty collections. The Super Supermarket is packed with “exhibitors and friends” selling Hello Kitty versions of their products, like Beats by Dr. Dre, Sephora, Bedhead Pajamas, Ty plush toys, and—yes—SPAM (selling a special Hello Kitty/SPAM musubi kit—I had to buy two). Upstairs in the Hello Kitty Friendship Station (aka the Sanrio pop-up shop), you can buy everything new from the official Hello Kitty line. And downstairs, the Vintage Village is filled with certified authentic Hello Kitty products from the beginning of Kitty time, like a Hello Kitty hourglass sand timer from the 1970s ($48), her 1980s candy house ($130), and her musical TV from 1976 ($80).
I suddenly feel a pang of urgency and ask one of the shopkeepers what would happen if everyone buys everything all at once from the Vintage Village, as I suspect they will with such a treasure trove. “Oh, we have more,” she says. “But we only have doubles of a few things, so lots of this stuff is unique. Once it’s bought, it’s gone.” This is like a Hello Kitty E-bay heaven.
It is about time to see some celebrities, I think. Actor Erik Estrada is expected to show, as are a slew of people from the Vanderpump Rules reality show, and rumor has it Ireland Baldwin, Alec’s daughter, has an appointment to get a tattoo (as of my last report, she had yet to do so).
I venture outside and, low and behold, there is Estrada—posing with a gaggle of Lolitas and putting on his cardboard Hello Kitty bow-crown that the Lolitas are offering to anyone with a head. Singer Lisa Loeb is also in the house, as well as 11-year-old actress Quevenzhane Wallis, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, and a seventh grader named Lauren Rojas who sent a Hello Kitty doll up to the edge of space via weather balloon as a project for her school’s science fair. Later that night, Yoshiki, the singer from the hit glam-metal band X-Japan, will take to the stage to debut his Hello Kitty theme song—not glam metal, not raucous, but an uplifting, true pop song, danceable—while the entire audience wears remotely controlled wristbands that glow blue, purple, red, and white, connecting the crowd in a synchronized light.
Back inside the conference hall, standing dumbfounded and overwhelmed in the middle of Friendship Village, I imagine this spectacle over the following days, overrun with Kitty flair adorning fans of all ages, women and men, who will turn out to let out their inner cat, flaunt their cutest cute, and shop, shop, and shop. The Hello Kitty Con was sold out weeks ago, and all the workshops for flower arranging, scrapbooking, and cookie decorating, among other super cute and creative activities, are standby only. Even the lectures and panels (at least the ones I attend on “Cute Culture” and how “Guys Love Hello Kitty Too!”) are well attended.
Then, all of a sudden, I see her. It is Hello Kitty in person! She has entered the building, her big white head bobbing and tilting as she walks—almost skips—across the room. My heart literally flutters. Hello, Kitty! And then she is gone, back to her safe room away from the crowds. This will be her routine for the conference: short visits to her fans, an occasional performance onstage, and then back to her Hello Kitty green room.
But I’m left astonished, wondering: how does she do it? My heart—of all hearts—is all aflutter like a school girl? It took me by surprise. “Is she coming back?” I ask the guard outside the green room. “She won’t come out if people are standing here waiting for her,” the guard says. She is everywhere and nowhere, this little marshmallow-headed kitty.
The next day I ask the super fans on the “Guys Love Hello Kitty Too!” panel why she had no competition at the time in their lives when they were getting into Hello Kitty. What about Strawberry Shortcake? Mickey Mouse? Tin Tin? “The other characters talk too much,” says Prince Robbie, the founder of a small cosmetics company called Adam Haus who wears barely visible Hello Kitty contact lenses over his dark eyes. He fell in love with Hello Kitty as a teen when he was going through his goth phase—and she was too.
Hello Kitty is everywhere, but, just enough, not there too. After an eight-hour immersion in Hello Kitty over the course of two days, I, however, have had enough, and look forward to some not-so-cute things in the real world, like maybe driving my car to the CVS and buying some aspirin. But she’s there for you when you want her, and she will continue to be there, silent and cute, ready to be whatever you want her to be. Hello.