LOS ANGELES — At just five apples high with her telltale red bow propped on the left side of her head, she’s an icon of global pop culture featured on everything from Band-Aids, T-shirts and backpacks to airplanes, curling irons and a dress donned by Lady Gaga.
She also turned 40 this year, and this month Los Angeles is the center for all things Hello Kitty.
In celebration of the Sanrio Co. character’s 40th anniversary, the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles is featuring “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty,” the first Hello Kitty exhibition in North America, which opened Oct. 11.
The world’s first ever Hello Kitty convention featuring workshops, panels, fashion and a number of other events kicks off just three weeks later on Oct. 30 until Nov. 2 at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, located next to JANM, and will include admission to the museum exhibition.
Greg Kimura, president and chief executive officer of JANM, said the museum wanted to host the exhibition because it fit with his vision to do larger exhibits related to Japanese and Japanese American culture that speak to heritage, but also draw in the younger Japanese American generations, as well as others outside of the Japanese American community.
“We’ve done shows on Japanese tattoo, on sports and baseball, but the rise of kawaii (cute) culture and the rise of Japanese pop culture really is embodied in this character of Hello Kitty,” he said.
The exhibition, which runs through next April, features two components: a retrospective including over 500 rare and iconic Hello Kitty items from the Sanrio archives, and an art gallery featuring mixed media works from 40 different artists.
The retrospective, curated by Christine Yano, a professor at the University of Hawaii who authored “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific,” features items such as a replica of the tiny, plastic coin purse Hello Kitty debuted on in 1974, a timeline of Hello Kitty plush dolls, and the one-of-a-kind Hello Kitty dress worn in 2009 by Lady Gaga.
Yano started her research on Hello Kitty in 1998 in an effort to understand the pop culture phenomenon.
“I think what has made her so popular is a combination of the simplicity and elegance of her design; it’s an abstract design, that leaves space for a lot of interpretation,” she said. “There’s also the flexibility with which Sanrio has placed this character in different kinds of situations.”
Yano said, however, that it is difficult to more explain specifically Hello Kitty’s worldwide popularity.
“I think no one can say exactly why she is so popular because then it would be a formula, and if we identified the formula, then everyone would copy it. I don’t think there is such a thing,” she said.
Hello Kitty’s worldwide appeal took center stage in late August when an Los Angeles Times story quoting Yano revealed that Hello Kitty is in fact a girl, not a cat. The news went viral and many took to social media to express their disbelief and outrage.
“When the whole controversy over whether Hello Kitty is a cat or not came out, for a while it was the top trending topic on Twitter,” JANM’s Kimura said. “Two days later, it had been covered by 150-plus major news outlets in the United States, Europe and Asia.”
“To me, it was a token of how big it (the exhibition) was going to be and peoples’ passion for Hello Kitty,” he added.
In looking at Hello Kitty’s history, Kimura said the character made her way to the United States at a time when Japanese things were not thought of as cool, in an environment where racism and prejudice against things related to Japanese heritage, ancestry and culture still existed.
So Hello Kitty was embraced by Japanese American girls “as the first really cute, positive cultural icon that spoke to them, that they recognized because of its connection to Japanese cultural idioms and tropes like the maneki neko,” a figurine thought to bring good luck, he said.
“I just find it fascinating and wonderful when I hear people talk about how much she means to them and the impact she’s had on their lives,” he added. “I certainly hear this from generations of Japanese American women who really connected with her in a way, because of her Japanese origins, that they didn’t with other characters or brands.”
For Jamie Rivadeneira, curator of the art component of the exhibition and founder and owner of the pop culture boutique JapanLA, Hello Kitty has been part of her life since she was a little girl, and that was part of her motivation for starting JapanLA, as well as inspiration for curating the art gallery.
“If you’re not a Hello Kitty fan, it’s kind of hard to explain that feeling, that love and nostalgia you get, so the exhibition is really special because it helps explain all that,” she said.