June 21, 2005 2:53 PM PDT

Hello Kitty's guide to business success

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is almost at zero. Piracy is also a huge problem--nearly $800 million worth of counterfeits, mostly from China. TV shows and theme parks have been only sporadically successful.

There are also detractors who see the character as an embodiment of crass commercialism, antifeminism and Japanese aggression.

Still, the merchandise mill keeps churning out new wares. Last November, when Kitty officially turned 30, one company produced 200,000 commemorative coin sets. Another made $30,000 solid platinum statues, and all 12 were sold, said Belson. In Singapore, McDonalds' customers rioted while waiting in line for Happy Meals featuring Kitty and Dear Daniel, her often absent companion.

"Sanrio will stick Kitty on practically anything," Belson said.

The only three products Kitty won't grace are tobacco, alcohol (except the beaujolais) and firearms, though Sanrio did make a keychain on which she holds a skeet-shooting rifle. It even produced the infamous Hello Kitty vibrator. ("They called it a personal massager," Belson explained.)

What is the secret of the success? "Her eyes are very wide apart, which is safe for kids. Her nose is not beady," Belson said. "When Mickey Mouse came out, he looked more like a rat, but they softened him up."

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