Editor's note: Advice Columnist Wanted: Riverfront Times seeks an author to pen "Ask a Cougar!" Follow this link for details.
She summarized her m.o. within the first five minutes of our telephone conversation: "If I can smell you," she said, "I'm gonna wanna do you."
Six days later she has a Busch in hand when we arrive at Venice Café, her watering hole of choice in Benton Park. Her given name is Debra Reed, but she goes by "Ginger" after Memorial Day and "Scarlett" come winter.
"First of all," she says, pulling some notes from her Kate Spade purse, "the sex is great — uninhibited. They've got stamina — without drugs — and they're always telling you how limber you are. I had one guy recently, we were making out, and he stops and says, 'Where did you learn to kiss like that?' I'm like: Dude, I've been kissing since before you were born!
"Sweaty, mmm-hmm," Reed goes on. "Sweaty. Uninhibited. Sex.
"Next: I'm not averse to using 'em and losing 'em. I don't think there's a double standard any more. I mean, older men have always gone after younger chicks and nobody bats an eye. The majority of mankind does it — and they're usually married and using the young girls on the side.
"I really have nothing wrong with being the alpha chick and treating the young guys like prey."
Quite the opener, if Unreal dares say.
But let's back up a minute, shall we? This is a sociological, not a sexual, mission.
On safari for two weeks now, we've been prowling clubs and cyberspace for a certain breed of woman: self-confident, aggressive and independent, whose natural habitat contains a firm mattress and an economy-size box of condoms. A "cougar," in popular parlance, she bags younger quarry with willful abandon.
We found Reed on backpage.com. "Likes to camp, float and sit by the river with a big-ass bonfire roaring, loves swaying [her] small hips to classic rock 'n roll," her ad read. Innocent enough.
It called for a guy age 30-45. Reed is divorced, childless and 53.
Though she didn't label herself a cougar, Reed identifies completely with the term and was thrilled to regale Unreal with some of the most intimate details of her exploits in the wild. It was 150 minutes of storytelling that would make our mother (who's 55) clap her hand to her chest and faint dead away. Oh, and all the while, Reed informed us, she was going commando. ("I think I might have two pairs of underwear," she confides.)
A strawberry blonde with wispy bangs, a Barbie-doll wave and plastic-framed, fuck-me librarian glasses, Reed boasts hourglass hips, toned, freckled calves and 38D breasts. No pinup, per se, but certainly no slouch. She says her last tryst lasted more than six hours; she never even slept before heading for work at Saint Louis Bread Co. the following morning.
The date started at a gay bar in Soulard — something different. The exotic factor, Reed says, upped the titillation factor. "We went home and had sex all night long. We went from different pieces of furniture — couch, bed, shower — with cigarette breaks and cocktails. We threw some porn into the mix — young guys dig that. And toys, lots of toys, and that just keeps it going."
Reed tells Unreal she has pursued young studs exclusively for five years now. The last one, age 32, hung around for seven months. "He was a punkass mama's boy who lived at home with his mother and sister but came to my house every weekend, including Christmas," says Reed. "His mother was 52. I met her. She used to drop him off at my house when she couldn't stand his shit any more.
"But I didn't take care of him," Reed emphasizes. "It was sex. 'Tommy Tiger,' I called him. He was just a maniac in the sack."
The breakup was ugly, though not in the emotional sense. Tommy stole something from her and lied about it, Reed says. She retaliated by calling his girlfriend and announcing, "Your boyfriend's been fucking me for months."
Hang on, Unreal interjects. Girlfriend?
"Pshaw," replies Reed. Later, she clarifies: "I don't do married, but girlfriends are OK. They're a dime a dozen."
When it comes to the courtship phase, Reed is pretty old-fashioned. She doesn't send photos via the Internet, preferring the anticipation of a blind date. PDAs (public displays of affection) are a no-no, excepting a subtle brush of her hair or hand. Don't even think about ingratiating yourself with "honey" or "babe" before your first meeting.
She likes a cologne-wearing guy with clean fingernails. Manscaping is optional. ("There was a point I said I'd never do a guy with hair on his back, and then I did, and it was awesome, and I thought: What was I thinking?")
But once in the bedroom, Reed's animal instincts take over. "My philosophy when it comes to oral [sex] is, 'You do me, I'll do you.'" Cosmo has provided some great tips and techniques over the years, Reed says, likening herself to Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, the 1972 porn classic. "I don't insist on [protection]," Reed adds. "I inspect. I look around. I squeeze."
Reed is long past worrying about getting knocked up — just one of many perks she has to offer a younger gentleman. "I've got experience, and I'm not needy. I don't have any baggage, and because I have no baggage, my body is nice," she sums up.
"After women have children, their nipples get darker," says she. "Mine are still pink.
"You have no idea how many men point that out."
Yes, Unreal has had quite a month.
It began with an e-mail from a 43-year-old woman who'd been an inveterate cougar for years without knowing there was a word for it, and, by the way, would we like to know how she's perfected the art?
Frankly, it seemed a little too...obvious.
Heck, only a few weeks earlier Saturday Night Live had run a cougarific skit featuring three fortysomething TV hosts decked out in spray tans and slinky tops who waxed rhapsodic about "blowjoys" and the importance of the pelvic exercises known as Kegels. Wearing a skin-tight cougartard, "guest" Cameron Diaz pawed a young boy toy in tennis whites, played by none other than Ashton Kutcher, who in real life is married to Demi Moore, fifteen years his senior.
And last summer brought NBC's reality show Age of Love, pitting twentysomethings against fortysomethings vying for a 31-year-old fella's heart. E! Entertainment ran an entire series called 25 Hottest Cougar Tales. And ABC's Primetime ran a cougar segment three years ago. Not to mention the more than a dozen respectable daily newspapers that've run stories on the cougar phenomenon, all of them trumpeting Anne Bancroft in The Graduate as the beguiling precursor to a movement that today finds its apotheosis in Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall.
By God, no less an authority than the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) weighed in this past February in its eponymous monthly magazine, pathetically relying on statistics from a 2003 survey to back up the "trend."
Cougars = mainstream?
To kill this cat once and for all, we hightailed it to the University City Public Library and checked out the 2002 tome Cougar, written by Canadian journalist Valerie Gibson.
"Did you see How I Met Your Mother last night?" the librarian asked when we handed her the book. "Jane Seymour played a" — her voice dropped to a whisper — "cougar, and Neil Patrick Harris was her...prey!"
Oh, yeah? Funny stuff?
"I just found out what the word meant!" The librarian looked down, then up at Unreal. Her face blushed beet-red. "Are you—?"
Nope! Just doing research.
"Well, this is my generation. I'm 43 and single, and I had a 21-year-old guy hit on me recently and I was telling a friend, and she was like, 'Ooh, are you a cougar?!'
"I'm not, but I sort of thought: Is it necessary to name it? I mean, I think it comes down to women who wanted it both ways, with careers and families — they got their careers and now they don't have kids. All the men their age want to date younger women, and they're looking around and going, 'You know what, the young guys want it: Why not?'"
Great point. Still, we were having trouble getting past the fact that yet another fortysomething St. Louisan had just gotten hip to the term.
Can you see how many people have checked out the book? we asked.
"Five," she said.
Back at the office we logged on to the website urbancougar.com which features a "Cougar of the Month" and tracks "cougar dens" across the United States.
We rubbed our sweaty palms together, clicked on "Missouri" and pictured ourself on a flying carpet to the nearest coug-lair.
Up came a restaurant called re:Verse. In Kansas City.
And St. Louis?
Time to go hunting.
Cindy Capps opens the door to her Florissant apartment wearing a T-shirt imprinted with "Camp Angel Fire, Subservient Boy Instructor."
"I got it at a thrift store," she chirps. "I thought it was perfect for the occasion!"
Capps has long auburn hair and a twiggy frame festooned with tattoos. A single mom and artist who pays the rent by waiting tables, she penned the aforementioned e-mail that sent Unreal a-cougarin'. Two nights before our arrival at her pad, she brought home a 22-year-old and her nosy neighbor, who was sitting outside, asked, "Is that your son?"
Capps, 43, doesn't recall ever dating a man her age. Her husband, from whom she separated in 2004, was twelve years her junior. Her most recent boyfriend was 34. They split in March. He was pulling stupid shit like driving drunk, she says. Besides, he wanted kids.
Capps was working one night not long after the breakup when she heard some male colleagues laughing about a couple of "cougars." She went home, logged onto urbandictionary.com and learned she belonged to a trendy, wild human subspecies.
The revelation was empowering.
"Society says you're old and dried up by the time you've turned 40, and it's such horseshit," Capps says. "We need to celebrate women taking control of their sexual desires. Nobody's getting hurt in these relationships — and shhhh, nobody's gonna tell."
Working in bars and restaurants, Capps had often bagged her prey across the table. But over the next two months, she tracked the personal ads on craigslist.com and discovered dozens, if not hundreds, of men looking for older women.
She decided to give ol' cyberspace a spin.
On May 20, a little after midnight, Capps placed her first ad, entitled "Cougar looking for young stud."
"I like it when you say 'yes, ma'am,'" she wrote.
The first reply, which popped in mere minutes later, came from a "tall skinny white 33 year old church pastor, brown hair, green eyes, witty, godly and well hung...."
Capps didn't reply. "Godly" creeped her out. (She's Wiccan.) Instead, she watched as a dozen more e-mails poured in. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 33. Many sent photos of themselves. Naked.
Six days later Capps posted a new ad, aiming to home in on her type: "Cougar seeks young artsy/hippie dude." Again the replies flooded in.
She struck up some e-mail relationships, went on several dates and summoned one fellow, 26, to her home. Dissatisfied by their initial tryst — he was bossy in the sack — Capps rebuffed his subsequent (and graphic) e-come-ons.
But she was hooked on the hunt.
These days, she reports, she's working on organizing a cougar-themed speed-dating event.
"I had no idea there was this subculture of willing 'victims,' if you will," Capps says with a laugh. "It's not illegal, it's not immoral. I think anyone who looks down their nose at it feels a tinge of jealousy."
Knowing the cougar's habits is imperative for a successful safari. As Unreal learned through many an outing this past month, they don't go out after tornado warnings or during thunderstorms. On the bar scene, they run in packs and tend to hibernate Saturday through Tuesday.
Brio, in Frontenac, is rumored to be a sure bet Wednesday through Friday, though pedigree prevails. ("It's very much a little Frontenac club," a bartender imparts.)
Harry's, downtown, is hit-and-miss. Beware the broads circle-dancing, purses stacked on the pavement. It may scream Cougar Central, but it's likely to be an old ladies' night out.
Strip malls in Chesterfield dominate on Wednesday nights, and once a month cougars congregate at Parties in the Park in Clayton, then around Cardwell's afterward. Friday at Café Eau in the Chase Park Plaza is a sure thing.
But Thursday is definitely coug day.
In the city the party begins at Failoni's on Manchester Avenue at about 6 p.m. — right after the cougs drop the kids at the ex's and the moment the band starts. (Tip: Cougars looooove live music.)
We found them there recently in white jorts and jean dresses, wearing spiked heels and mucho mousse, drinking cherry bombs and blowjob shots. "It's like happy hour at Jurassic Park, isn't it?" remarks a 52-year-old white guy watching the cellulite and Botox glisten on the dance floor.
Down the street the Jive & Wail piano bar is providing some new competition for Failoni's by advertising "Cougar Night" in area publications including St. Louis Magazine and Alive.
Unreal is chaperoned by Cindy Capps and a woman named Sherry, who'd seen an online ad Capps placed in search of fellow cougars. "I didn't know what it was," Sherry says. "I'm 44; I work at home. I'm not here to get laid, but I am curious. I guess it's nice to know that I've got other options than a 55-year-old.
"Let me clarify," she adds. "I'm married, but I'm miserable."
The pickings are slim by the time we arrive at nine, so we move eastward down Manchester to yet another known haunt, JackSons'. Firefighters and bikers congregate outside. A young stud grabs Capps' buttocks as she walks in.
At JackSons' on this night, the prowling cougar can find everything from a metrosexual plastic surgeon to a meaty demolition man. The dance floor is a sweaty mess of long hair and miniskirts that seem to outnumber the young lads two to one. It's far too loud for conversation, but you can watch the cougars and their prey sign their ages to each other. Kind of like preschoolers learning to count. (Only less cute.)
Unreal spots a face we recognize at the bar: a young stud, no more than 26, who was making the rounds back at Failoni's. Ah, if we could only pick his cougar-centric brain for a minute. Instead, it is one long hour, watching him cup his cougar's tail as he nuzzles his head in her neckline.
Having found the bar scene hard to, um, penetrate, Unreal posts online ads of our own. The 21 cougs and coug-lovers who reply have more than a few stories to share.
Dr. Elliott is as good as any to begin with. (That's not his real name.) He says he's 47, with a practice based at St. Anthony's Medical Center. He dates women up to age 65 and prefers the ones who speak the King's English. These he finds at art museums, bookstores and charity functions.
Dr. Elliott's last fling involved a 64-year-old widow of a fellow doc. It began with a pool "party" at her house, he says, where he was the only guest. "We moved to the hot tub, which she suggested would be much more enjoyable if there were no clothes involved. We continued to the bedroom, where she was a tigress."
A 27-year-old married man from Madison, Wisconsin, T.N. replies to Unreal's ad before coming to town on business. We converse for a good 45 minutes before he's finally able to admit why he likes having an older woman on the side: "Blowjobs. My wife does not like giving them. In fact, she is dead set against them. I love her for who she is, but it sucks. Pun intended."
There's the 26-year-old Marine who lost his virginity 10 years ago to his 36-year-old married neighbor, the 24-year-old who stalks the wives of outstate hunters the first weekend of deer season, the 21-year-old who offers to "trade" himself in exchange for granting an interview.
And let's not leave out 35-year-old Cordell Calhoun, an electrician who exclusively hounds cougars over 60. Calhoun finds fertile territory early mornings at the grocery store — specifically in the produce section. "It sounds crazy, but I'm looking for the gray hair, the worn skin tone and wrinkles, and the saggy boobies," he says.
Yep, sounds crazy.
Calhoun likes to open with a flirty line. Like: "Sure looks like you'll be making something tasty tonight!" If the lady bites, he'll drop something like: "Oh, you remind me of my grandmother. She used to make everything from scratch." Before long it's: "Well, I'd sure love to taste that sometime. You ever need to fill a seat at the table, you just call me and I'll come running."
Calhoun appreciates the fact that your typical cougar has no use for postcoital cuddling; they're more likely to offer a snack or a glass of iced tea. "You don't really miss them [after it's over], but you do think about them," he says.
Unreal's favorite male interviewee may have been Anthony Moore, a 30-year-old divorced computer programmer. "I don't do butt-love," he says one night while tailing cougars at Café Eau. "I am fundamentally against butt-love. I draw the line at butt-love.
"However, I will do butt-love on request," he concedes.
"I'm like a DJ in that respect."
The cougars, mind you, are just as adventurous as the prey they stalk. Take DeeAnne Grant, 38, a self-described thick chick, divorced with three kids. She tells Unreal she dated a 21-year-old for two years intermittently while diddling other young studs. One of the more memorable occasions transpired when an eighteen-year-old and a nineteen-year-old helped her move.
"They came up with a plan to tag-team me," she recounts. "I said, 'Let's just do it one after the other.'"
Then there's Gina T., 43, who took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Unreal after a three-hour morning romp through the mud of Falling Springs Park in Cahokia with a 26-year-old Marine she's been seeing for the past two months. (What is it with Marines?) "We're doing little sightseeing tours, exploring the area," she says. "Along the way we've ended up doing it in a stairwell, a restroom and, Lord help me, a church!"
Gina's married with two kids at home, and her husband knows she fools around. She says he gave her his blessing three years ago and that the arrangement has worked out splendidly. The kids have no idea Mom's messing around, because the guys aren't allowed to call after 3 p.m. Plus, the dalliances have exposed her to the kinds of activities her teens could be up to. And sex with her husband is gradually improving, she reports.
"But the best part is, I carry myself differently. I've changed not just my whole personality, but my appearance, too. I keep my nails long and painted. I never leave the house without a little bit of makeup. I feel the confidence coming out of my body. I walk out the door, look in the mirror and say, 'That's right! Who's gonna whistle at this bitch today?'"
It was at a dinner party back in 1997 when Elspeth Sage's 21-year-old nephew called her a "cougar." At the time, Sage was on the near side of 40 (but barely). She and a pal (who prefers to go unnamed for "security" purposes) began inquiring about the term's origin and before long had traced it back, anecdotally, to 1982, when the Vancouver Canucks took to calling the foxy older women who procured front-row seats at their hockey games "cougars."
"We found it really funny," recalls Sage, who's now 49. "But we also loved the association, because a cougar is a really magnificent animal, so attuned to odors and scents and tastes."
Sage and her friend promptly created a website, cougardate.com, and posted a "Cougar Manifesto." Salient points: The most successful cougars "married well and got huge divorce settlements. Lesser cougars were feminists who clawed their way to the top and made their own money." Cougars love shopping, dinner-party planning and traveling. Other characteristics include "a penchant for home decorating, an interest in dogs (the only other species they can live with), an avid consumption of home products such as tinfoil and Cheez Whiz, and a limited interest in technology."
Ten years in, cougardate.com gets 60,000 hits a day, Sage claims. "And all we did was put a name to something which had been going on for thousands of years."
A more tasteful moniker, surely, than its precursor, MILF (Mother I'd Like to Fuck), which entered the frat-boy lexicon following the 1999 release of American Pie.
"Now, doesn't that crass acronym make 'cougar' so much nicer?" posits Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer of American dictionaries for Oxford University Press. "Now someone can more politely say, 'I'd like to be cougared by your mom.'"
Lindberg should know. She was on a panel of lexicographers that chose cougar as one of five runners-up for the 2007 Word of the Year. (The winner: locavore. One could argue that the two are related, but we'll leave that for another story.) The Word of the Year gets to be included in the next edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary.
"Cougar," says Lindberg, was a shoo-in finalist. "It has spawned a verb: to be cougared, which is fantastic, and another term: for the young men who find this condition of being cougared so desirable that they are actively becoming cougar hunters," she elaborates. "How much more evidence do we need to say this is a word worth paying attention to?"
Lindberg adds that cougar is likely to be a strong contender for 2008 Word of the Year. As she puts it, "Cougar is climbing."
The Oxford definition is concise: "An older woman who romantically pursues younger men." The user-generated urbandictionary.com, on the other hand, contains some 50 entries for cougar.
Cougardate.com's Sage would add, "Cougars are very much like cats in the wild. You can't see them at first, and by the time you do, it's too late."
(If Unreal were to contribute a local variant, it'd be hoogar. About which the less said the better.)
Etymology aside, the putative experts don't necessarily agree when talk turns to cougarteristics.
"I hesitate to say a cougar is older than 35 or 40, because it comes down to a lifestyle," offers Jeremy Mape, co-creator of urbancougar.com. "We had a Cougar of the Month who was a bartender in Austin. She was 28 but loved all the college guys. She had the cougar attitude: not controlling, but in control of the situation, going after the guys."
Mape belongs to the school that believes a cougar can play prey or predator. (His site breaks down the types like automobiles. Whence comes the Rolls-Royce cougar — traditionally an heiress, hard to hunt; and the Taurus, who's "everywhere," and to be approached "as you would a rental car.")
The whole notion makes Terri Matheis cringe. "When it's happened to me, I go, 'For God's sake! I'm 54!' And they say, 'I don't care,' and I say, 'Well, I do!'"
Matheis, an Olivette resident and founder of Sassy Pink Peppers, a social group for divorcées, dismisses all the terminology as "derogatory."
"What do we call the older men who go after the younger women?" she asks Unreal.
"Ha!" she laughs. "That's funny."
We find "Cougar Hunter Jake" via KSLG (1380 AM) radio show host Tim McKernan. A few months back, Jake began calling in to McKernan's show on Friday mornings to relate the previous evening's conquests.
"Not that anybody asked," McKernan recalls with a laugh. "We were like, 'Alrighty, then! Good stuff!'"
And then McKernan had an idea. His website, insideSTL.com, which skews heavily to the twenty- and thirtysomething male demographic, had drawn all kinds of readers and dough through its monthly "Girls Next Door" contests featuring photos of the Girls Gone Wild ilk. What about a "Cougars Next Door" contest?
Cougar Hunter Jake embraced the concept and pledged to round up one a week in exchange for a bounty of $50 per. The contest debuted online June 30.
"I'm excited, but I don't know if it will sustain itself," allows McKernan, who wholeheartedly endorses the cougar concept though he believes St. Louisans stigmatize it. "A $500 prize is one thing for a twenty-year-old. I don't know if it's enough of a carrot to get a forty-year-old woman to put herself out there."
Unreal arranges to accompany Jake on a Thursday peregrination to Westport Plaza.
The evening begins just before nine with a few "hot laps," as Cougar Hunter calls them, around the crowded bar at the Drunken Fish. (Jake likes to spray his scent: Fierce, by Abercrombie & Fitch.) We move downstairs to Casa Gallardo to further grease the flirting engine. Jake makes eyes with practically every breath he takes.
He describes himself as "well-off" and says he works "in the medical field." As far as we know, Jake's not his real name, though he refuses to provide proof one way or the other. For cougaring purposes, he goes by "Jake Olivetti" because, he says, he doesn't want his mother — or either of the twentysomething girls he's currently dating — to know of his penchant for mature urban wildlife. He says he's 30 but likes to tell the older women he's 28.
For relationships Jake prefers brunettes. Blondes work out just fine for one-night stands. His best cougar conquest ever took place only a few weeks prior, he tells Unreal, with a 47-year-old he met at Westport. ("I eventually got to ass sex, and we videotaped the whole thing. It was awesome." He also signed her up for the contest.)
Time to amble across the plaza to coug heaven: The Trainwreck.
We pay the cover and Jake immediately stops us. "Look: nine o'clock. Forty-nine. Awesome body. She sent me a picture of her tits. Here, check it out," he says, and proceeds to pull up said tits on his Palm.
Every cougar who approaches for a sniff, Jake greets by first name. Many already have been enlisted for the contest and/or — well, you know. For several hours we down cherry vodka with diet Coke, and Bud Light, hot-lapping all the while.
At 11:30 Cynthia, a blonde, grabs hold of Jake near the back bar. "Are you with somebody?" is the first thing out of her mouth. She is 39, with three kids and perky fake boobs that peek out the sides of her white halter top. She's all about the contest: "Yeah, baby! Why not?"
From a few feet away, Unreal and the 47-year-old whom Jake has described as his favorite conquest watch the hunter and Cynthia nuzzle. "She's nice, but she does way too many guys — in one night," the woman mutters.
Jake returns, rubbing his palms together. "Did you see that? I got one. I made my quota for the night," he brags.
"Put her in July!" says the 47-year-old. "I can beat her."
Half an hour later, Cynthia is calling Jake from her car.
He sends it to voicemail.
By midnight Unreal is sufficiently convinced Jake will not spend the night alone. Just then a text from "44, Jaime" pops up on the Palm.
"I was thinking u'd need to 2 be fingerboy 2nite," it reads.
This, Jake is happy to explain, refers to a digit-induced orgasm — Jaime's first in that particular department — in her car a few weeks back.
Seems like as good a note as any on which to bid this cougar-seeker adieu.
Outside the bar we veer right and head for the sound of shrieking, emanating from the plaza's fountain, in which four fortysomething females are, literally, cooling their heels. Two are wearing animal-print shirts.
We can't resist asking: Are you guys cougars?
"Yes!" they yelp.
"Aw, nah, we're just pretending to be cougars," blurts one, a honey-haired coquette.
Is it our imagination, or does she sound a tad wistful when she adds: