An overworked waiter slaps menus on the table and scurries away. Four of us are bar-hopping on a girls’ night out; we’re famished and a little cranky after an hour-long wait for a table at Javier’s Cantina & Grill in Newport Coast. Our server’s abrupt treatment doesn’t help. My flamboyant friend Gina opens her menu and lets out a frustrated squeak as she tries to focus on the tiny type.
Across the table, a vivacious Sherry asks, “Can you read it? I forgot to bring glasses.” Gina throws her head back in a laugh. “We don’t need glasses; we need young guys.” She pauses. “You’re only as old as the man you’re sleeping with.”
We laugh in unison. Of the four of us at the table—all single and over 45—three date younger men. Gina recently broke off a relationship with a man 16 years younger; Sherry has been dating a man 25 years her junior for nearly a year; I occasionally date younger men of varying ages.
Honestly, it has advantages far superior to eliminating the need for reading glasses.
The term “cougar” has been used to describe middle-aged women who date younger men, but as far as I’m concerned, “wily fox” is more appropriate. A partial list of advantages: Many young guys look great; they’re not threatened by a woman’s success; they’re attentive and caring; they’re not bogged down with ex-wives and children; they like to have fun; they’re adventurous.
Men have been playing the May-December game for years and few have looked askance. Nobody cares that Clint Eastwood is 78 and wife Dina Ruiz Eastwood is 35 years younger; or that Michael Douglas is 64 and Catherine Zeta-Jones is only 39; or that 66-year-old Harrison Ford is 22 years older than longtime squeeze Calista Flockhart.
But when a woman takes the lead in the same kind of passion play, the world titters. What’s wrong with this picture?
“Years ago, women were burned as witches; some things never change,” says Valerie Gibson, author of the 2002 book “Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.”
Gibson, a five-times-divorced redhead who formerly wrote a sex and relationship column for the Toronto Sun, travels the talk-show circuit discussing her book and the benefits of the cougar lifestyle.
“The world is horrified by a woman who is strong sexually. It’s the last taboo,” says Gibson, who works hard to ensure her body is lithe and her attitude sexy and playful. “As soon as we get to a certain age—say 50-plus—society decrees that we should disappear into a closet somewhere, our hair should turn gray, and we should spend our time knitting booties.”
Gibson is cagey about her age, but not about the term “cougar,” which she says she likes because the animal is strong, beautiful, and in control of its environment. Although she says she coined the term, some say it was first used in a Canadian hockey team locker room to describe female groupies. But everyone agrees Gibson’s the one who popularized the label, and she defends the American cougar with passion.
“We’re strong, we look great, and we’re in control of our sexual lives. We decide who to date. The mantra of a cougar is: ‘Don’t call me; I’ll call you.’ ” And in Gibson’s case, the call won’t be to an older man. “Older men like servants; I’m not a servant.”
The same day I talk with Gibson I embark on a hunt for Orange County’s notable cougar dens. My first stop is Spaghettini Grill & Jazz Club in Seal Beach, where the bar offers a Cougar Cosmo, a pleasing concoction of Belvedere Vodka, Grand Marnier, lime, and passion fruit juice (natch). The vibe is good, the crowd lively, and the music sinewy. I raise the subject of cougars with a couple of regulars in their early 50s.
“I hate that term,” says Cynthia, an attractive woman who looks at least 15 years younger than her chronological age. She raises her voice to speak over a wailing sax. “It has a negative connotation.”
But the topic also elicits some quick, enthusiastic comments. Why do they like younger men? I ask.
“Because they’re cute to look at up close,” says Que, a statuesque, strawberry-blond dentist dressed in a tight red sweater.
“Because they smell good,” says Cynthia, a slightly built DJ wearing a brown vamp top.
“Because you’re in control of the situation,” says Que.
“Because they have stamina,” Cynthia adds with a laugh.
The next evening, a Friday, I wade into a noisy crowd at Gulfstream in Newport Beach. Crab cakes and blackened sea bass are flying out of the kitchen. I like the warm, happy scene here. A young crowd is ensconced at wooden tables out on the sand patio. I move back inside, where the patrons seem to be of more diverse ages. I search for a place to sit, then notice three 40-plus women at a cocktail table near a window. I approach and open a conversation about cougars. Although they find younger men attractive and have plenty to say about women their age, they don’t like the term either. But the concept?
“Women in their 40s are awesome,” says Nancy, a well-dressed brunette in a business suit. “We have it together: We have our own money, we know what we want, we’re sexy.” She speaks graphically about the pluses of having sex with younger men. Suffice to say, her themes included endurance and playfulness.
Sandra Klein, an Orange County psychologist whose practice includes clients involved in age-gap relationships, sees it as an equality issue: “Men have been connecting with younger women for years, now women are trying it on. And many can afford to do so. A woman of means can tell her husband to pack sand if she doesn’t like what he’s doing. She doesn’t feel bound by tradition the way earlier generations did.”
And the trend has affected the types of clients who make their way to the Newport Beach office of cosmetic surgeon Terry Dubrow. “I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of fortysomething women doing early nip/tucks because they’re dating younger men,” Dubrow says.
In the past, he says, most of his patients having a lower face-lift were 55 or older. “Now I see women 43 to 50 who tell me they’re dating a thirtysomething guy and they want to feel better about themselves.” Another surprise: “The younger men who pick them up from post-op are very nice guys, supportive, and doting. And the women control the relationship.”
Whatever the dynamics of the connection, May-December pairings are a growing phenomenon. A number of Web sites designed to help young men and older women connect. To test the waters, I signed up my dog Darby (neglecting to mention his gender or species, or furnish a photo) on one such site and immediately got four responses from men in my hometown looking for a date. Here’s one of the e-mails: “I’m new to this site and looking to fulfill a fantasy. You see I’ve always wanted to get with someone more experienced than me. Also, you live real close. If you’re interested let me know.”
One of the oldest sites, www.urbancougar.com, was founded by former Newport Beach resident Jeremy Mape and a friend in 2003. It gets about 50,000 to 60,000 visitors a month, says Mape, who calls Orange County a hotbed of cougar activity. “Only Scottsdale [Ariz.] may exceed it.”
What’s driving all this? Part of it is a change among men. Says Mape: “Older women love the freedom they find with a younger man; they love his spontaneity and the way he reminds them of their youth. Younger men like the stability they find with an older woman. Younger women are too confused; there’s too much drama in the relationship.”
His Web site refers to young men as “cubs”; to young wannabe women as “cougars-in-training,” or CITs; to married women as “domesticated cougars”; and tries to screen out harshly judgmental terms such as “battle cats” for aging cougars and “kittens” for young women who pursue older men.
Later in the week, I continue my search for cougar habitats and chat up a waiter at Code, a new club near John Wayne Airport. At 30, Irvine resident Eric Leversen wasn’t even born when Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson seduced Dustin Hoffman’s Ben in the 1967 film “The Graduate.” But Leversen is much more sophisticated than the awkward Ben. He has dated women as old as 48. (“She looked 32.”) He likes them because “they’re secure in who they are. I’m looking for a good time and so are they. Maybe at one time it would have seemed slutty. But not anymore. The double standard is going away.”
Leversen, who frequents cougar bars, says he’s amazed at how good some of the older women look. “They must be at the gym nonstop. They have better bodies than younger women.”
It’s Friday night at 3-Thirty-3 Waterfront in Newport Beach. The parking lot is jammed. I spend 20 minutes in a queue outside, then shoulder my way through a crowd of about 150 imbibers crammed around the sleek bar, finally finding a few inches of space. The bayside restaurant boasts a great view, but not at this time of night. The partiers wedged against me aren’t tourists; they’re locals looking for a good time. And they appear to be finding it.
I spot two flashy blond women, mid-40s, seated at the bar. I can’t overhear the conversation, but a balding, paunchy man in his 50s is trying to get their attention. They ignore him. Repeatedly. Then a tall, younger hunk casually slides his shoulder between them at the bar and offers a wide smile to the woman on the left. They talk a few minutes and she moves away with him, disappearing into the crowd. I silently wish them luck.
Cougars in History
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor (1122-1204) was one of 12th-century Europe’s most powerful women. She was the queen consort of both Louis VII of France and Henry II of England,
11 years her junior.
Her 10 children included Kings Richard I (“The Lionheart”) and John
This 16th-century queen of England (1533-1603) never married, but like many female royals, she had much younger “favorites” (a term that preceded “boy toy”
by several centuries). Among them were
Sirs Walter Raleigh,
19 years younger, and Francis Drake, seven years younger. Her last favorite was Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex. She was 60; he was 21.
The Prussian-born empress of Russia (1729-1796) had an eye for young lovers, including Russian statesman Grigory Potemkin, 10
Celebrated French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), who used the pen name Colette, is best known in the United States for her novel “Gigi,” which became a Lerner and Loewe stage and screen musical. Among her lovers, male and female, was stepson Bertrand de Jouvenal, who was
16 when the 44-year-old writer seduced him.
(The age of consent
in France is 15.)
The buxom blond screenwriter and
actress (1893-1980) invited men young and old to “Come up and
see me sometime.”
By 1935, when she was in her early 40s, she
was one of the highest-paid women in the United States.
The American philosopher (1905-1982) and author of “The Fountainhead” (1943) and “Atlas Shrugged” (1957) was married when she began an affair with a friend’s husband 27 years her junior. Helen Mirren played Rand in a 1999 film. (In real life,
Mirren dated Liam Neeson, seven years younger.)
The singer and talk-show host (1916-1994) shocked many in the late ’70s when she began a long relationship with
actor Burt Reynolds,
20 years her junior.
The Unofficial Rule Book
Tips from Valerie Gibson, author of “Cougar:
A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men”
MAINTAIN CONTROL The cougar sets the pace of the relationship from the start. The game is always played by her rules.
GET HIS NUMBER If she meets a man in a bar and he asks if she’d like to get a drink, the answer is: “Well, what’s your number?” In other words, “I’ll call you; don’t you call me.”
REMAIN INDEPENDENT Younger women aren’t; they want relationships to grow and commitment to evolve. A cougar may wish for this, too, but she doesn’t let the relationship dominate her life. She’s too busy.
BE ALOOF An older woman’s detachment makes her a challenge to a younger man, which keeps him interested. Let him beg.
The Modern Era
Madonna, 50, and Guy Ritchie, 10 years younger, found the road to happiness too bumpy and divorced last year.
Priscilla Presley, 63, made music with
Marco Garibaldi, 11 years younger.
Halle Berry, 42, began dating top model Gabriel Aubry, 10 years younger, in 2006.
Kim Cattrall, 52, dates younger men, just like her “Sex and the City”
character, Samantha Jones.
Eva Longoria Parker, 33, and Tony Parker, seven years younger, were married in Paris in 2007.
Katie Couric, 52, met squeeze Brooks Perlin, 17 years younger, at a charity fundraiser.
Jennifer Aniston, 40, and John Mayer, nine years younger, began dating last summer. She’s developing a movie, “Pumas,” about aspiring cougars, she tells Vogue.
Susan Sarandon, 62, and Tim Robbins, 12 years younger, have been together since playing lovers in the 1988 film “Bull Durham.”
Mariah Carey, 39, and Nick Cannon, 11 years younger, were married last year.
Paula Abdul, 46, and J.T. Torregiani celebrated her 45th birthday at his L.A. restaurant, Ketchup. He’s 12 years younger.
Cameron Diaz, 36, and Justin Timberlake, eight years younger, were together for four years before splitting.
Sheryl Crow, 47, and cyclist Lance Armstrong, 10 years younger, went separate ways after three years together.
Cher, now 62, dated Tom Cruise,
16 years younger, and Rob Camiletti, 18 years younger.
Demi Moore, 46, Hollywood’s current best-known cougar, married actor Ashton Kutcher in 2005. He’s 15 years younger.
Ivana Trump, 60, and Italian actor-model Rossano Rubicondi, 23 years younger, were wed last year. And she’s reportedly filed for divorce.
Prowling Orange County
5717 E. Santa Ana Canyon Road, Anaheim Hills, 714-974-5400,
The fun never stops at this down-home restaurant and lounge. There’s karaoke, entertainment, an ample dance floor, pool tables, and lots of mingling singles. But if you’re expecting an upscale venue, you’ll be disappointed. The crowd is decidedly older overall, but many twenty- and thirtysomething guys join the mix, drawn by the club’s reputation. $10 cover after 8 p.m.
850 Avocado Ave., Newport Beach, 949-718-0188, www.hillstone.com.
The chic seafood restaurant and bar is lively and fun, and its location near Fashion Island makes it a good stop after shopping. Watch oysters or crab cakes emerge from the exhibition kitchen, hang out by the fire on the sand patio, or chat up some new friends by the piano bar.
Cantina & Grill
Crystal Cove Promenade, 7832
E. Coast Highway, Newport Coast, 949-494-1239; Irvine Spectrum Center, 45 Fortune Drive #400, Irvine, 949-872-2101; www.javiers-cantina.com.
There isn’t a dance floor, a DJ, or live music at either O.C. location, but both have what
it takes to draw an oh-so-cool crowd (despite owner Javier Sosa’s polite rejection of
Orange Coast’s Best Cougar Bar accolade following the July 2008 issue). The newer restaurant, which opened about a year ago in Crystal Cove, has a spectacular view of the coast and an indoor-outdoor lounge that’s usually packed.
The Irvine Spectrum Center restaurant provides another meeting ground.
8112 E. Coast Highway,
Newport Coast, 949-376-6990,
Once a hot spot, the upscale Ocean Club lost some of its clientele when Javier’s opened last year in the same shopping center. But it’s still an elegant, old-Manhattan sort of place to meet, and it has loyal followers. Piano entertainment nightly in the O bar.
3224 E. Coast Highway,
Corona del Mar, 949-640-7440,
At 43, this venerable pub-style restaurant is of the same generation as many of its patrons. From the outside, it’s hard to imagine how many partiers can be stuffed inside the tiny building; once indoors, it’s even harder to believe, considering most are jammed around the bar. Live music most nights, and a well-deserved reputation as a meeting place.
Grill & Jazz Club
3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach, 562-596-2199, www.spaghettini.com.
Celebrate the May-December lifestyle at this restaurant. Try a Cougar Cosmo, then join the fun in the lounge. Live jazz six nights a week.
333 Bayside Drive (at East Coast Highway), Newport Beach, 949-673-8464, www.3thirty3nb.com.
This attractively designed restaurant and lounge draws a trendy crowd of varying ages. The bar scene grabs all the attention, but the tapas-style food is tasty and the kitchen stays open until 1:15 a.m. nightly. There’s no dance floor and you’ll only hear music from 3 to 6 p.m. Sundays.
This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.