Decked out in Hello Kitty earrings and Hello Kitty flats, Jo Ann Pinedo hit the first official convention celebrating the iconic character, feeling instantly connected with other fans.
"Being 47 and liking Hello Kitty, you can only share that with certain people," said Pinedo, a strategic planning consultant. "It’s very cool that people can just be themselves and not hide the fact they like something that started out as just for kids."
Hello Kitty Con marks the 40th anniversary of the Sanrio character. Organizers say 25,000 convention-goers will pack the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Little Tokyo over a four-day run that ends Sunday.
Sanrio timed the event to coincide with a Hello Kitty art retrospective next door at the Japanese American National Museum and a weeks-long Hello Kitty scavenger hunt where fans can pick up collectible pins by eating at partnering restaurants.
The sold-out convention is by far the largest affair, featuring Hello Kitty dance performances and costume contests. There are shops to buy special edition items, like Hello Kitty headphones made by Beats or a makeup collection from Sephora, along with lessons on how to decorate Hello Kitty cupcakes or arrange flowers like Hello Kitty.
There are even five tattoo artists on hand to give Hello Kitty ink to fans willing to wait hours in line.
"I don’t know why I’ve never gotten one before, but I’m so happy I did today," said commodities buyer Letitia Koppes, who was one of the first to get a free tattoo.
Out of more than 70 designs from Chicago tattoo artist Mario Desa, Koppes requested the one of a cupcake decorated to look like Hello Kitty. She said she cherishes the positive memories of childhood the character evokes.
"We used to exchange stickers, erasers, pens, pencils," Koppes, 41, said. "Every time somebody would get something new, we would have to show it off. We’d get so excited."
Still a business
The Hello Kitty kingdom is built on so much love and nostalgia that it’s easy to forget the character is a global industry.
"She’s available in over 70 different countries and growing. Currently doing $8 billion retail globally," said Dave Marchi, Sanrio’s senior director of brand management and marketing.
There are thousands of Hello Kitty products to buy. Name something — it probably exists.
"You can wake up in your Hello Kitty bed with your Hello Kitty sheets, take a shower with Hello Kitty soap, wear a Hello Kitty shower cap. Make coffee with your Hello Kitty coffeemaker and have dinner in your Hello Kitty kitchen," Marchi said.
Despite the Hello Kitty fandom on display at the convention, Sanrio struggles to stay buzz-worthy when there's Disney and other Japanese competitors. Hello Kitty used to be the top-grossing character in Japan. It’s now in third place.
But the company got a big jolt of publicity this summer when news outlets reported that Hello Kitty is really…gasp...a girl — from England, no less.
"Sanrio, as a company, we always reference Hello Kitty as a little girl," Marchi said. "We don’t reference her as a cat in the traditional sense. She doesn’t walk on all fours or drink milk or eat cat food."
Never too late to be a fan
Around the convention, some fans say they’re still not sold on the notion of Hello Kitty as a little girl.
"I kept saying if she’s a girl, then I’m a cat," said Kathy Nagel of Mission Viejo.
Nagel, 50, became a fan later than most — in her 30s. So did her friend Staci Feinberg from Newbury Park.
"As an adult you’re just busy dealing with the stress and mundaneness of adult life, and she’s just a bright spot," Feinberg said.
Feinberg has decorated her home with Hello Kitty products. Even her car is decked out.
"I have a very cool, bling Hello Kitty face hanging from my rear-view mirror," she said. "I have a great sticker on my window: She’s wearing tiara and it says 'If the tiara fits.'"
This does not go over well with her teenage boys. They make her drop them off two blocks from school.
Not just for women
Hello Kitty Con heavily skews toward women. But there are some male superfans. Hello Kitty collector Marty Garrett of San Francisco spoke on a panel at the convention, called "Guys Love Hello Kitty Too!"
"Unfortunately, I think we live in a very sexist society, and one would think that if someone likes Hello Kitty, it would be rare," Garrett said.
Garrett is also a fourth-grade teacher who decorates his classroom with Hello Kitty keepsakes and gives out Hello Kitty prizes.
"One of the rules I have in my classroom is to act as a positive male role model," Garrett said. "It’s OK for Mr. Garrett to like cute things and it’s OK for my students to not have that macho pressure of trying to fill that societal norm."
Most guys at Hello Kitty Con, though, seem to be there at the behest of their girlfriends and wives.
Bernard Paraiso smiled as his girlfriend Aimmie Macahilas described the Hello Kitty kitchen she envisioned for their home in Seattle.
"I want all the pots to have her face on it," Macahilas said. "Basically things to look at but not to use. Is that weird?"
Not to Paraiso, who said he’s cool with her plan. Even though he gets grief from his brothers.
"But they know," Paraiso said. "They know that I love her."