In a 2004 article in the Japan Times, a Sanrio designer describes Hello Kitty’s target demographic thusly: “The fans of Kitty, when I first started drawing her in 1980, were around 10 years old,” Yuko Yamaguchi says. “Today, the average age of core Hello Kitty fans, I think, is about 34.” The assertion isn’t supported by any definitive breakdown in sales figures, but Sanrio doesn’t exactly have to open the books for us to know who is buying these days. One need only look at the products: Apparently there’s money to be made from slapping Kitty’s mug on a $246 digital video camera. One of the bestsellers on the Sanrio site right now is the Hello Kitty UNICEF t-shirt—size Adult Large. Kitty isn’t even a child herself anymore, celebrating her 32nd birthday this year.
We wonder if you can have it both ways: sell to kids, while still reaching out to fully grown women nostalgic for their mouthless childhood friend, or those hoping to play up the licentious Lolita angle. We search for answers at Sanrio’s “Breakfast with Hello Kitty,” an opportunity to meet and eat with the billion-dollar fat cat at—oddly enough—the Times Square nightclub Show, and survey the Sanrio products.
Hello Kitty is for kids. We look to the buffet, and have never seen so much teeny tiny pink food in our life. It is a breakfast of desserts, not unlike what you’d imagine Hello Kitty and her friends Badtz-Maru and Chococat to blow through every morning in Sanrioland: itsy-bitsy cupcakes and Lilliputian-sized waffle cones, topped or filled with some sort of pink icing. All the bagels have been cut in half to keep with the miniature theme, with little to spread on them but a pinky-orange cream cheese. All around the room, reporters are semi-successfully trying to negotiate their goblets of pink champagne while munching on chunks of watermelon and strawberries, speared on pigmy popsicle sticks. After pouring ourselves some coffee, we could find nothing but strawberry-colored milk to mix in, next to a container of pink sugar crystals.
Hello Kitty is for adults. Although we’ll never see Sanrio racing to promote that Hello Kitty vibrator, it is interesting to see what products do have Sanrio’s explicit approval. At a table crammed with island-themed totes, there is a cotton g-string printed with the image of Hello Kitty on the front—she is wearing a teeny skirt, an attached piece of metallic fabric, that you can lift up. The Chococat thong counterpart lies across the room, on a table of faux-vintage Hello Kitty tees. In the center of the room is a mannequin wearing a white string bikini, with a rhinestone Hello Kitty face over the right boob. One hopes this is for adults, but it is more likely part of the Hello Kitty Juniors swimwear line.
For Kitty’s older audience, there is Momoberry, described as “Hello Kitty with a twist—breezy, quirky, stylish, a little older, surprisingly sophisticated and of course very pink.” Included in the Momoberry franchise is La Petite Parfumette, a line of limited-edition and custom-blended scents, and the Hello Kitty collection from Judith Leiber, reportedly making a killing at Neiman-Marcus—even though the Lieber purse showcased at the Breakfast, with Hello Kitty’s visage constructed from 17 karats of diamonds, is priced at a whopping $60,000. Another table houses Kimora Lee Simmon’s most recent collaboration with Sanrio, the Hello Kitty Diamond Watch Collection, retailing for $1475-$3250. “These were done for the Golden Globes,” a spokeswoman for the line says, and gestures to another case of Kimora gems.
Hello Kitty is for sullen teenage girls. The big news this year, Sanrio top brass announces to us from the stage, is the partnership between Fender and Sanrio. Behold, the Hello Kitty Stratocasters, the Badtz-Maru Bronco bass, guitar straps, cases, even the guitar picks with the image of Hello Kitty performing. The phrase “girl empowerment” is inevitably dropped. In a press release, Fender expresses its enthusiasm: “By teaming up with the Hello Kitty brand,” Richard McDonald, Fender’s senior vice president of marketing says, “we hope to show young women just how much fun playing the guitar can be.” Fender and Hello Kitty have even enlisted the help of a well-known female songwriter to promote the new partnership, one who can inspire young girls to pick up the axe. Who will it be, we wonder?
An announcement is made, and to the left of the stage, a gigantic video screen is filled by the horn-rimmed, ceaselessly chipper face of none other than Lisa Loeb. Though unfortunately not able to join us today—too busy promoting the new Very Best of Lisa Loeb album and filming her upcoming show for E!, she just happens to let drop—Lisa is very excited to be part of it all! Loeb is one of Hello Kitty’s avid adult collectors, and a look at the Collector’s Corner at HelloKitty.com confirms this—Loeb, proud owner of a Hello Kitty rice steamer, proud owner of a Hello Kitty coffee maker that she makes coffee in every day, and a blue waffle maker that she saves “for special occasions.”
Hello Kitty is for no one. Hello Kitty is for everyone. In their book, Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon, authors Ken Belson and Brian Bemner describe Hello Kitty’s ability to appeal to all: “With few exceptions, her creators at Sanrio Ltd. have shied away from developing any story to her life, instead leaving her personality to the eyes and minds of the beholder. This Zen-like technique, intentionally or not, has allowed Kitty to become at once the princess of purity to toddlers, a cuddly playmate for young girls and a walk down memory lane for adults yearning for another taste of childhood.”
Sanrio itself ties Kitty’s lack of mouth in with her universality: “Hello Kitty speaks from her heart,” the official Sanrio FAQ says, explaining Kitty’s mouthlessness. “She is Sanrio’s ambassador to the world who isn’t bound to one certain language.”
Without a mouth, Kitty can exclude no one. But on the other hand, do we really want more women, even if they’re cats, unable to speak up for themselves?