LOS ANGELES (CNN) — They come from all over the world wearing her apparel or even dressed as her lookalike.
It is, after all, the first convention for an icon whose image of irrepressible cuteness can send its worshippers swooning.
Hello Kitty is celebrating its 40th year in grand fashion in one of downtown Los Angeles’ classiest museums, and there are so many exhibits and so much merchandise for sale in the Museum of Contemporary Art that Hello Kitty fans are finding it hard to say goodbye.
Even songstress Katy Perry made an appearance to receive a Hello Kitty tattoo on her finger.
As celebratory as it is, the owners of Hello Kitty forbid any use of Happy Birthday Kitty salutations.
Instead, they insist on calling the first “Hello Kitty Con” an anniversary party. Though the icon’s official “birthday” is November 1, the faithful never use an age for her, explains University of Hawaii professor Christine R. Yano, who’s written a book about Hello Kitty.
“We are celebrating Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary, and it’s just a global gathering of Hello Kitty fans from around the world to celebrate their love for Hello Kitty,” said Dave Marchi, senior director of marketing for the Japanese firm Sanrio, owner of the character and its global merchandising.
“Hello Kitty means so much to so many people in many different ways,” he added. “But I think it’s easily explained she’s just an ambassador of happiness, and she connects with people emotionally so she’s all about happiness and friendship and fun.”
Hello billion of dollars in sales
Hello Kitty is also big business: she did more than $8 billion in retail business in 2013, Marchi said.
That’s a lot of T-shirts, purses, notes, stickers, backpacks, school supplies, pencils and so on — all bearing the icon’s image.
And more is being added to the lucrative kitty with $30 tickets for adults and $20 tickets for children 6 to 12 for the festival.
“Hello Kitty is a citizen of the world, we like to say,” said Janet Hsu, president of Sanrio Inc. “I think her message of representing friendship, kindness, is really contagious and it’s growing. ”
Not surprisingly, enthusiasts are stampeding to the conference site, which includes the participation of the Japanese American National Museum in the nearby Little Tokyo neighborhood, where an exhibit shows the brand’s influence on art and culture.
“This has been overwhelming,” Hsu said. “Over the course of the four days, we have sold over 25,000 tickets. We wished we could of actually had more people come, but the fire marshal gave us the no, no!, and it’s just 100,000 square feet of just eye candy.”
Alexis Hernandez, who’s been collecting Hello Kitty items since childhood, said she felt like she was in a fantasy land.
“It’s just amazing to walk around here and see only Hello Kitty,” Hernandez said.
The kitty appeals to men, too.
Gary Slaughter, who traveled more than 100 miles from San Diego, became a Hello Kitty fan about two years ago when one of his friends introduced him to the character.
“Hello Kitty makes everyone happy. She makes me happy, so it was a natural thing,” Slaughter said.
Another gentleman, Allan Tea, got a free tattoo bearing the character’s image on his bicep.
“Hello Kitty is forever. She really doesn’t have no gender. As you can see from the Con, millions of people love her,” Tea said.
He also bought merchandise with an unusual pairing: Hello Kitty with a snake.
“What I got was a Hello Kitty wrapped around with a snake,” Tea said. “The reason I like the snake is because I’m a snake in the Asian culture (calendar), so I think it was a good fit with Hello Kitty.”
Hello from another continent
Jessica Perez, 40, flew almost 8,000 miles from Lima, Peru, to attend the conference because she’s been dreaming about this event.
“She’s my friend, my companion. She’s with me at home, at the office and people who know me know that I’m her fan,” Perez said.
The event comes two months after the Hello Kitty world was rocked with the revelation that the icon isn’t a cat at all.
The image is really a cartoon character of a little girl with strong feline features, according to Yano, who is visiting professor of Japanese studies at Harvard and an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii.
The anthropologist’s declaration was, let’s say, “cataclysmic” for the international icon.
Yano, who’s among the guest speakers at the conference, tried to explain the soul of the character. She wrote a book last year entitled “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific.”
“Hello Kitty obviously takes the form of a cat but in spirit, she more inhabits the presence — and the internal of the heart-felt presence — of a girl. A little girl. Your best friend. And now a kind of global icon celebrity,” Yano said.
“Hello Kitty is supposed to be a perpetual third-grader. She’s very friendly, she likes to travel, she likes her mother’s apple pie, so she’s kind of like a homebody but has an adventurous spirit,” Yano said.
Perhaps, it’s a good thing that Hello Kitty represents a little girl and not a little cat.
If it were a feline, its 40 years would equate to 177 human years old.
Hardly a kitty any more.