Hello Kitty celebrates 30th birthday

Hello Kitty, the Japanese pop culture curiosity with an international following, celebrates her 30th birthday Monday.

Hello Kitty, the silent but cute Japanese pop culture curiosity with an international following, celebrated her 30th birthday Monday.

In addition to the official birthday celebrations scheduled for Sanrio's Tokyo theme park, the company has also sponsored a travelling art exhibit, which features depictions of Kitty as seen through the eyes of 60 artists and designers from around the world.

To celebrate her 30th anniversary, UNICEF named Hello Kitty its "Special Friend of Children." Sanrio is holding an internet charity auction of one-of-a-kind Kitty-adorned creations – like a customized Airstream trailer and a framed picture coloured by Sidney Poitier – to raise money for the UN children's agency's "Go Girls" Third World education campaign.

The cat's birthday season will end with a bang at a star-studded gala in Los Angeles on Nov. 10.

Created in 1974 by designer Yuko Shimizu, Hello Kitty began as just another logo character for Sanrio, a Japanese company that made children's trinkets like coin purses, stickers and stationary sets.

However, the simply drawn, bubble-headed white cat with the red bow by her ear outlasted other Sanrio characters like the Little Twin Stars, My Melody and Tuxedo Sam to become arguably the world's most famous feline character.

Her likeness is now festooned on tens of thousands of consumer products a year – ranging from T-shirts to candy to pen-and-pencil sets – and sold in approximately 60 countries worldwide.

At the end of its 2003 fiscal year, Sanrio reported that Hello Kitty products accounted for half of its total $9.5 billion US sales worldwide.

Hello Kitty's continuing appeal

Company representatives continue to marvel at Kitty's continued attraction.

"Characters' popularity usually begins to ebb after five years," Kyoko Obata, a company spokesperson told the Associated Press.

However, since the 1980s, when maturing fans demanded Hello Kitty products appropriate for teens and adults, the company expanded Kitty's image and began plastering her on more grown-up products, ranging from cellphones to high definition televisions to adult battery-operated massagers.

"We have been trying to do new things with Kitty every five years," Obata said.

The moneymaking Asian import also crossed over to North America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She now counts such celebrity fans as Mariah Carey, jewelry designer Tarina Tarantino and singer Lisa Loeb, whose album Hello Lisa pays homage to Kitty on its album cover and throughout the liner notes.

Called everything from a post-feminist icon to a "corporate whore" by the anti-consumerism crowd, Kitty has been studied by international marketers as well as anthropologists following the Japanese "culture of cute."

"How did a cartoon character so simple in design – a round head, button nose, a red ribbon and no mouth – achieve near cult-like status internationally?" journalists Ken Belson and Brian Bremner ask in their 2004 book Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon.

"She is very reflective," Belson told the Boston Globe. "You are invited to superimpose on her your emotions."