In news more shocking than discovering that Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the American Dream are all make-believe, we learned today that Hello Kitty is not a cat. That's right: Despite her cat ears and whiskers, she is in fact a little British girl in the third grade named Kitty White. Oh, and she has a twin named Mimmy.
If you were a weirdo kid like me, you've probably known about the name and twin thing for years now. But . . . she's not a cat?! And she's British? What? How . . . ?
Let's step back in time to learn more about this not-cat cat who started a revolution.
Sanrio launched its first character in 1962. And get this—it was a strawberry. Not to be confused with the Strawberry King that was introduced in 1975, this was actually nothing more than a design. In fact, Sanrio wasn't even incorporated yet: Sanrio Greetings Co., Ltd. was established at the end of the decade, in 1969.
Some important stuff happened for Sanrio's business in this decade. First of all, they opened up their first "gift gate" shop in Tokyo in 1971. More importantly, they introduced a certain cultural-phenomonen cat (that wasn't actually a cat).
Designer Ikuko Shimizu wanted to create an image that would fare well with preteen girls, and developed Kitty White, aka Hello Kitty, in 1974. The not-cat was joined by her parental units, Mary and George White, and twin Mimmy. Mimmy is clearly a black sheep and little is known about her, except that she wears a yellow bow over her right non-cat ear. Which is, obviously, very different from Hello Kitty's red on the left. The first Hello Kitty item—a coin purse—was officially launched in 1975.
Meanwhile, Sanrio produced a short animated film called Little Jumbo. From what I saw, it looks like it's about a boy and his elephant. But knowing the lying nature of Sanrio, it's likely about talking biscuits. Sanrio continued to drop such films throughout the decade. The animated longer movie Metamorphoses was released in the U.S. in 1978, and was described as similar to Disney's Fantasia.
The decade of acid-washed genes and Molly Ringwald lip biting fared well for Sanrio. In 1980, the company branched out to Germany, and in 1984, Sanrio moved to the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. A year later, Sanrio released a TV show called Button Nose based on a character that looks suspiciously like a Precious Moments figurine.
Noticing a trend of cute overload yet? If you retched instead of nodding, you're right! It's called kawaii in Japan. This describes a movement of a cutesy trend that focuses on childlike attributes like vulnerability and lovability. Apparently, adulthood in Japan isn't coveted the way it is out here, and everyone wants to hang on to the fun of their youth. Hence, kawaii mania.
This is when things got crazy. First, a Sanrio amusement park called Harmonyland opened in 1991, with Hello Kitty as its star. Then, in 1993, Hello Kitty got a boyfriend. His name is Dear Daniel and he's perpetually on an African safari with his dad. How convenient, Kitty.
In feel-good news, Hello Kitty became the face of child goodwill for UNICEF in Japan. The brand also experienced a resurgence, as kids and teens began embracing the girl-that-suspiciously-looks-like-a-cat as a retro design. Coolness!
2000s to Present
More characters have been introduced over the past decade-plus, but the company has seen a decline in profits. Remember this, because it becomes important in a second. Nevertheless, a Hello Kitty maternity hospital opened in Taiwan in 2008.
Now that my brain (and hopefully yours) is full of the teensy non-kitty, I have to wonder: Is this whole "Hello Kitty is a girl" thing merely a publicity stunt to regain interest in the product? The justifications for her humanness aren't terribly persuasive: "She's never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however." The existence of her obvious cat ears and whiskers are entirely ignored.
Because of this "news," Hello Kitty is now massively trending across the web. It's too soon to gather data, but I'd bet that Sanrio sales will see a boost. When you look at the company's recent sharp decline, it's an understandable move, if dubious.
At least now, the Hello Kitty fanatics of the world can start pretending that they knew she was a kid the whole time. Tumblr should be fun.