Celeb sisters Kyoko and Mika Kano have taken Japan by storm, but can they win over the West? Chris Betros and Maki Nibayashi spend an evening with the divine duo.

These days its seems no trendy Tokyo event is complete without a bedazzling but brief appearance from the two buxom beauties known as the Kano shimai, or the Kano sisters. Whether it’s a stroll down the red velvet carpet at Cannes or a few waves from a Jaguar X-type at a massive Tokyo launch party or stealing the limelight from stars like Paul Hogan, the curvy duo are without a doubt Japan's darlings du jour. But with their hop aboard international marketing agency IMG's bandwagon and recent brush with foreign media such as The New York Times, Details, Time International and British television, all that is about to change.

For the last few years, Kyoko and Mika Kano have been the staple of TV shows, magazines and tabloids in Japan, the paparazzi trailing on their Gucci heels. Despite lacking the usual skills that catapult unknowns to instant stardom in Japan, such as acting, singing or dancing, the sultry sisters have fashioned an empire out of simply being themselves. Self-proclaimed "beauty and life consultants," Mika and Kyoko dole out advice to female fans across the country on everything from health to kissing. Their books, photobooks, videos, DVDs, CDs and calendars typically fly off the shelves. When they’re not producing their bestselling products, they spend time giving lectures, attending gala events and endorsing all sorts of products for companies such as Microsoft, cosmetic maker DHC, Takara Toy Co, and Nisshin.

The world is not enough
Now the sisters, who already spend about half the year overseas, are set to take their business beyond Japan's borders, and part of that plan is making friends with the Western media. The pretty pair, who were named honorary Bond girls by Fox Japan earlier this year, agreed to an interview and apropos 007 photo shoot with Metropolis, just one of the English publications that recently have come knocking on their door. Just weeks earlier, Brett Ratner, director of Rush Hour 2, had already schmoozed the siblings into possibly lending some glamour to Rush Hour 3, which he plans to film in Tokyo.

“As we expand our business overseas, I don't know what the reaction will be. Maybe some people won't like us at first, but we at least want to have our name out there."

When the lights are finally dimmed in the hidden Roppongi studio, the TV interviews are over and the photographer, subjects and editors are satisfied that all is right, a quick trip in the Kanos’ black Mercedes to a nearby restaurant sees the sisters ready to talk about their step into the global limelight. Once the foie gras, sashimi salad, roast chicken and wine have been ordered, Kyoko and Mika are ready to get down to the business of setting the record straight. While Mika’s interest is clearly piqued by Ratner’s recent offer-"I used to write movie reviews for a magazine," she says, citing the James Bond and Godfather films as her favorites-movie and television cameos are not their primary goal. According to the Kanos, taking their ever-expanding media enterprise to foreign shores is the priority.

"We want to enhance our international exposure by more than just being on TV or in magazines," Kyoko says, switching back and forth between English and Japanese. "One of the reasons we joined IMG was so people outside Japan could get to know us and what we do." But what exactly is it that they do?

Although they have acted and released a salsa CD, they’re not actresses, models or singers, and yet they are far more than the glamorous women in risqué gowns whom we often see turning up at gala events. Rather, the sisters are professional businesswomen and brilliant marketers who consistently keep the press captivated with a carefully cultivated aura of mystery about their past. Both Kyoko and Mika devote hours each day to keeping a firm grip on every aspect of their lives and business. They’re totally unlike anything Japan's showbiz world has seen before, and they’ve struck a chord with Japan's young women, who send them hundreds of thousands of fan letters a year.

Kyoko, who has mastered the art of the interview, handles much of the publicity for the sisters, styles all their shoots and appearances, and writes most of their books. Mika might be a former Miss Japan, and claim to be shy, but behind the scenes her head for planning means she keeps them both on schedule. She’s also the designated driver, happy behind the wheel of their black Benz and, according to their aide, she knows the best parking spots around.

View to a thrill

In between the public appearances, meetings, TV spots, trips to the gym and preparations for their vacation, the sisters generously gave us a day to get to know them better. Clad in their own clothes, the sisters were highly professional when it came to playing femmes fatales for our fashion shoot. The honorary Bond girls were happy to get glammed up and demonstrated an attention to detail that kept things running smoothly. Even the camera crews and chatty Bond boy didn’t distract them from concentrating fully on each shot. At ease brandishing crossbows or revolvers, the girls have been known to fire off a few rounds while on vacation in LA-Kyoko even claims to be something of a crack shot. In true Bond girl fashion she lets slip that she’s turned her hands to karate and boxing and she once swam with sharks at an Australian aquarium, convincing the management that she was more than a match for the oversize fish. Mika, on the other hand, is more likely to give 007 a run for his money on the fairway: She tees off at many of the world’s best golf courses and often plays for charity. “But I’m not going to tell you my handicap," she modestly adds. “It’s a secret.”

"A lot of what is written about us isn't true. Our lawyers warned us we would have to live with that.”

The comparisons to always-ambitious Madonna made by the Japanese media are unsurprising. "We are a bit like her," agrees Kyoko. "A lot of people don't like her because she tries to do everything differently. But she's in control. It's part of her character. It's the same for us. As we expand our business overseas, I don't know what the reaction will be. Maybe some people won't like us at first, but we at least want to have our name out there."

Kind of like the Japanese Martha Stewarts of beauty and lifestyle, the sisters offer advice and guidance on a myriad of topics, claiming to lead by example. Their latest endorsement of health supplements available at conbini extends their relationship with beauty company DHC. In fact, the sisters were the ones who convinced the company to diversify into vitamins, taking advantage of the consultancy clause they included in their contract. Kyoko, who’s studied kanpo (Chinese medicine) for 15 years, makes it clear at dinner that nutrition is important and the best way to get your vitamins is through food. Both sisters love sweets and eschew the image of the dieting celebrity, preferring to exercise rather than cut back on elegant cuisine.

Slowed down by the two TV crews filming the shoot, our interview/dinner begins after 10:30pm, late by some standards but not unusual for the girls, who regularly don’t eat and work until the wee hours. Though they quite like to cook-Kyoko tries to make a “healing hot pot” dish once a month-their punishing schedule means they don’t have much time in the kitchen.

The question hanging in the air is whether they will be able to convert their success in Japan to success overseas, where they will be able to exercise less control over what media says about them. “Revealing” is an adjective the media applies to the Kanos’ clothing rather than their willingness to talk about their past, which they closely guard. Being mysterious, the sisters acknowledge, is a double-edged sword that has resulted in all sorts of bizarre things being written about them. "There is a price we have to pay," admits Kyoko. "A lot of what is written about us isn't true. Our lawyers warned us we would have to live with that. We are getting used to it, but it is still quite disturbing.” One author, who wrote about Kyoko’s lifestyle from the perspective of a pet cat(!), recently paid out ¥5 million in damages after she successfully sued for defamation.

Role models

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Mika shows off her "innocent beauty"

The question of image is constant, and both women are ambivalent about media labels such as mysterious, gorgeous and goddess. "Those sorts of words can be a plus or a minus," Kyoko says. "Sometimes the word mysterious has a bad image, depending on the person. If they talk about us as mysterious and gorgeous, that's fine because it is part of our character, but it's not the only part." Smart, independent and confident are words that the pair say are more applicable to them. "We like to live our own way, do things in our own style, and it works." It certainly does. Their products sell like hotcakes. When their latest collection of sexy shots, "Loving," went on sale, publisher Pony Canyon’s website got over a million hits, overloading the server.

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The sisters' latest bestselling collection of hot shots - "Loving"

Conscious of their responsibility as role models, the Kanos caution that, despite being lifestyle consultants, they don't preach to anyone. "My message to young women is to be yourself," Kyoko says, with Mika nodding in agreement. "Your life is your own. You should make your own choices and be responsible for them. If women take hints from our lifestyle, that's fine, but we have never advised anyone on what they should do, wear, or how they should look. We’d never do that." Lamenting the position of women in Japanese society, which is “still male-dominated, especially in companies," Kyoko adds that titles have no relevance to her. And rather than be drawn into revealing what she thinks of Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka or PM Koizumi, Kyoko answers diplomatically by saying, "It's difficult to give you an answer because the Japanese political system is so different." Adding that politics is “just served up on a platter," Kyoko maintains that they’re much more “touched by issues which are from the heart."

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Mika goes Latin in her salsa music video

Something like last month's terror attacks in the US hit home with the Kanos, who react swiftly to tragedy. After the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Mika donated ¥1 million of her own money. Like most people around the world, they were numb with shock when they saw the carnage of terrorism on TV, and the sisters had no hesitation in contacting IMG to ask what they could do to help the victims. "The tragedy felt so real. We can't think of it as something that just happened to somebody else," Kyoko explains. "We go to the States a lot on US airlines. It could have happened to us. It doesn't matter what line of business you're in-when something like that happens, you do what you can, even if it is just giving out bottles of water to thirsty people." It’s a side to the sisters most people don't see in Japan, but the desire to reach out and help others is what is closest to their hearts, say the duo.

Kiss and tell
So what's in the cards for the Kanos in the future? Marriage, perhaps? "Marriage has a different meaning in many countries," Kyoko replies. "In Japan, marriage means nothing to me. Too many people want to get married just for the sake of getting married. Marriage only works if you meet the right life partner, but in Japan, a lot of people don't even bother to look for the right partner. They’re just so stuck on the word marriage and the system, and I can't believe in that. But if someone comes along with qualities that match how I feel, then that would be wonderful." Mika agrees, "I don't have a strong desire to get married just for the sake of getting married, but if I meet someone who has the same beliefs and ideas and if we can walk together toward the same goals, good."

While wedding bells may be some way off, there are plenty of new projects keeping the two busy. Later this year the sisters will finally get their own home page, bringing them into the Internet era, an area still unfamiliar to the two of them. Mika seems to be the most technically minded-she’s the one who can program the VCR, and her cell phone even plays the Mission: Impossible theme.

The nonstop attention can be quite overwhelming sometimes, Kyoko admits, especially when they are overseas where the paparazzi are even more persistent than at home. "We like to meet fans but when one comes up and shakes your hand, then they all want to," Kyoko says. "It can get scary." But that's a small price to pay for being a Kano. After all, like 007 nemesis Goldfinger, they’re the girls with the Midas touch.

“Loving” as well as the rest of the Kano sisters’ books, videos DVDs and CDs, are available at local bookstores and www.amazon.co.jp  

For a chance to win autographed copies of their work, don’t miss the annual Metropolis Halloween party.

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