At 30, Japan's Hello Kitty puts on new face in art show

— Quintessentially cute, and incredibly lucrative, Hello Kitty is turning 30, and what better place to celebrate than atop Venus de Milo.

The playful character with the yellow nose and ribbon in her hair, as seen through the eyes of about 60 artists, is celebrating on the road in traveling exhibitions taking her into new territory -- to the excitement of fans.

"We asked the artists to create their own version of Kitty because we wanted to create a new dimension," said Yo Kato of Digital Hollywood Entertainment, which planned the shows that opened July 31 at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum and the Laforet Museum.

American fashion designer Jeremy Scott created "Hello De Milo," a replica of "Venus de Milo" with Kitty's noggin in place of its own. In another piece, Japanese artist Nagi Noda made a stuffed doll with half its body as Hello Kitty and half a panda.

Created in 1974 by Yuko Shimizu, a Sanrio Co. designer, Hello Kitty started out adorning purses and exploded into an alternative universe of commercial goods that are popular among young people around the world.

There aren't many consumer segments where the Kitty doesn't pop up. She adorns clothing, housewares, cosmetics, jewelry, toys of all sorts, paper goods and electronics ranging from waffle irons to computers.

Hello Kitty had her first hit as a coin purse and more products followed. A turning point came in 1987, when a high school girl sent Sanrio a letter bemoaning the dearth of Kitty products for teens.

Trying to tap into an older market, Sanrio launched a line of products in more somber black and white, then in the 1990s came out with cell phone carrying cases and other products that set off the broad-based "Kitty Boom."

Mariah Carey and Britney Spears, among other stars, are on record as Kitty admirers, and Sanrio has allowed cities to put the character's face on cookie packages, stationery and cell phone straps with local logos.

Sanrio says the strength of the Kitty cult is unusual.

"Characters' popularity usually begin to ebb after five years. We have been trying to do new things with Kitty every five years," said Kyoko Obata, a company spokeswoman.

The art exhibits are now traveling Japan, and Kitty remains big money.

The character generated about half of Sanrio's total $9.5 billion in sales in the fiscal year 2003, which ended March 2004. Every year, there are about 50,000 kinds of Hello Kitty goods sold in about 60 countries, including licensed merchandise.

Hello Kitty birthday events and special edition goods abound this year. On Nov. 1, her official birthday, celebrations are planned at Sanrio's theme park in a Tokyo suburb.

Fifty sets of gold coins priced at $4,500 have been sold out, and Sanrio is taking orders for a $27,300 Hello Kitty platinum and diamond tiara.

The cat is also serving as Special Friend of Children for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, to help get more girls in school in developing countries this year.

As for the art exhibitions, the artists were free to do anything they liked -- and they did. One Japanese actress, Kyoko Koizumi, is featured barebacked, showing off an elaborate Kitty tattoo.

Typical among Hello Kitty's fans is Airi Isobe, 16-year-old high school student who has collected 400 Hello Kitty cell phone straps with her mother.

Despite the wide range of products with her hero's face on it on display at the Mori Museum in Tokyo, Isobe said she's a bit of a traditionalist.

"I like the regular Kitty best," she said.


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