On the eve of the first-ever National Cougar Convention, Richard Gosse, CEO of the San Rafael&–based Single Professionals Society, was feeling a little tense. The event had sold out days prior, meaning an estimated 300 cougars—women 40 and older who prefer to date younger men—and cubs, the aforementioned younger men, were due to arrive in a mere 20 minutes. A sold-out party almost never happens, he told me, wolfing down a plate of food near the long greeting table at the entrance to the bar at Dinah's Garden Hotel in Palo Alto. "I'm working like a dog," he mumbled between forkfuls.
Gosse, a self-described "singles advocate," says that ordinarily the single is a more elusive creature, one who never commits until the last second to attending mixers. That night, however, something very different was about to happen—tickets gone, international guests flying in, media descending from as far away as New York City. "People are going to be trying to bust in here," he predicted.
I decided to attend in part because I love the concept of a convention, a place where a single aspect of life is revealed in all its subtleties and nuances for a brief moment, like an exotic flower that blooms for only one day. But what was so interesting about the cougar herself? It felt sort of like a subculture at first. A whiff of sexual deviancy hung around the concept, and I, a mere millennial, intended to find out all its dirty little secrets.
Once the cougars began to circulate aimlessly between the tiki-themed bar and the display booths for American Laser Centers and Cardeaux Cosmetics (maker of the "cougar kit"), no one was quite ready to talk seriously on the topic, least of all Leslie Lang. "I'm a standup comic," she said. "I came here for material."
Her friends were a little more serious. "I want someone who doesn't want to go to bed at 10 o'clock," said Edith Espinola. "Men have been doing this for years. I think now it's our turn. They leave us no choice."
"I like it," said their friend Amelia Wong, with deep sincerity. "Very passionate."
On the cub side, it was hard to pry out an answer that went beyond "They know what they want" and "They don't play games," as if someone had given them cue cards on the way in. A smartly dressed Stanford student gave a very high-concept and barely understandable response. "I tend toward condescension and deference. It's a really nice combination," he said, and then went into some kind of carrot-peeling metaphor. He lost me after that.
"Maybe the girls my age aren't taking care of their men the way they should," a stewed twenty-something told me a tad accusatorily. Between comments like his, which implied that all women in their 20s are "game players," and the idea that the husbands of these women had left them for someone in my age group, I was starting to feel like the enemy.
The notion that I was part of an enemy camp increased once I began to gather how many suspect motivations were gathered in the room. In addition to the band from L.A. filming a reality TV installment for their website and the gaggle of students filming with palm-sized digital cameras for a "school project," there were oodles of media—the Associated Press, Details magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and . . . me. When Lang grabbed the collar of a passing cub to lick his face or when a blonde whipped her black skirt too high up her leg, camera flashes popped paparazzi-style. That's probably when things started to get a little weird.
I was beginning to come up with a not-so-nice answer to my original question: Why are we so interested in the cougar? From reading the accounts by my fellow journalists that came out afterward, the answer seems to be that we want to laugh at them.
"Are you kidding me? Enter shudder, shake of head and look of pity and embarrassment for those participating women here," wrote one reporter for Examiner.com. "If I'm trying to get some 23-year-old mama's boy to go ice skating with me, please put me out of my misery," blogged a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. The comments posted under a photo spread of the cougars are not reprintable, just vicious.
Nevertheless, I did notice something at the crowning of Miss Cougar America. Each cub had been given a token to bestow upon his favorite cougar, but the vote tabulation process had the chaos of a livestock auction, with only three or four cougars able to hear above the din that it was time to cash in the tokens they'd collected from cubs. A 42-year-old named Gloria Navarro ultimately took the title with 13 tokens, and was fairly shoved from the stage into an adjacent hallway for the ensuing media blitz.
"Diane, I won!" she hollered to a friend. "I'm taking my friend Diane," she said of the single cougar cruise she'd won along with her new title. "She hung in there with me through my divorce. I was a soccer mom and now I'm a cougar!" And sure, she looked a little silly jumping up and down to Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." while party-crashing teens leapt in to have their photo taken with her. But she seemed to be having a really great time.
It reminded me of the conversation I'd had earlier with Birgita Cameron and Rita Sangha, ambassador cougars from London who'd come in part to promote Sangha's cougar life-coaching business. "My longtime partner and I were together for 20 years. We had two children," Cameron said. "I broke it off and I lost my home. He also wouldn't let me see my children, and all sorts of things like that. It was really hard being on my own."
"A lot of these women, their husbands left them in their 30s, 40s and 50s," Sangha added. "It can really knock your confidence."
So maybe that's some people's definition of desperate. But watching these cougars—yes, behaving like girls; yes, with a serious amount of cleavage showing—made the case for taking public action in the face of a host of forces telling you to just fade away. Staying home alone seemed like a more private and perhaps more dignified but ultimately sadder way to pass a Friday evening.
Gosse told me at one point, "There are a lot of hot cougars out there. I've known this for decades." Since he won't say how old he is, I'm not entirely sure how far back the information-gathering goes, but the point is that ever since the invention of birth control, we've managed to turn our reproductive urges on their heads, so women in the sunset of their reproductive years should be able to party as long as they like. Even after being rolled in past relationships and marriages, cougars are still game to meet someone new. The sooner we get used to it, the sooner a cougar convention or a night at home with a quart of Häagen-Dazs might cease to be the only two options.
At the tail end of the evening, I ran into Espinola again, now a little tipsy but clearly having a lovely time. Though the cubs and party crashers were making the scene increasingly ugly, Espinola at least made me feel a great deal better about the presence of the press. "I met this great guy, his name is Chris, he's a reporter covering the story," she said. "We exchanged numbers both ways. I'll probably call him on Monday or Tuesday."
The first-ever Sonoma County Cougar Party is slated for Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 7pm&–9pm. $10. 415.407.9962.