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Hello Kitty going strong at 30

Tokyo, Oct. 15 (Reuters): She struts the catwalk at New York fashion shows and she’s best friends with Mariah Carey and Cameron Diaz.

She makes $500 million a year, but prefers relaxing at home with friends and baking cakes in her spare time. Hello Kitty, one of Japan’s most famous character brands and cultural exports, may be heading for her 30th birthday, but the silky feline is showing no signs of her age.

“This is going to be Hello Kitty’s biggest year ever,” says Bill Hensley, head of US marketing for Hello Kitty’s Japanese creator, Sanrio Co Ltd.

The cute white cat with the pink bow on her ear accounts for half of Sanrio’s annual revenues of $1 billion, and is emblazoned on over 20,000 goods — everything from toasters and handbags to adult toys — in some 40 countries. Hello Kitty even has her own theme park.

But while Kitty’s international profile is bigger than ever, Sanrio is battling to fight off the effects of brand fatigue and a shrinking market in Japan, where the company still gets over 80 per cent of its sales.

“From cutlery and coffee cups to the toilet seat cover, almost everything in my one-room apartment was Hello Kitty, even the curtains, of course,” says Tomoko Taniai, a 25-year old Tokyoite and ex-Kitty lover. “But after a while, on TV and in magazines it was just Kitty, Kitty, Kitty. I couldn’t keep up anymore.”

So how did a mouthless cat with no story line become an international brand sensation'

“I just like her because she is like the Mona Lisa, you never know if she is smiling or if she is sad,” says a fan on Kitty Realm, an Internet message board where Hello Kitty aficionados meet to purr about her lovable quirks. Unlike other popular characters such as Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh, whose images remain strictly controlled by their owners, Kitty’s designers have been given largely free rein by Sanrio.

She can be seen playing the piano, riding a Harley Davidson, and wearing anything from a Hawaiian Hula skirt to a traditional Korean wedding dress. Some say this adaptability is the key to her universal appeal.

“There’s no ‘Hello Kitty — The Movie,’ there’s just the brand image, and in a sense Hello Kitty is the purest brand image on the market. She just is,” says New York Times reporter Ken Belson.

With high-profile friends including singers Mariah Carey and Lisa Loeb, Hello Kitty is also attracting a whole new set of adult fans. Loeb, 35, who tells fans on her website that her growing Kitty collection includes leg warmers and a waffle maker, titled her last album “Hello Lisa” and plastered the cute cat on the cover.

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