They practice picking up young men at the grocery store, these older women who have never been married, or whose husbands have left them for younger stock, or whose soul mates have died of heart attacks or in car accidents. On a balmy Thursday at a hotel in Pasadena, life coach Zen Kern, simply Zen to his clients, instructs the ladies in his Cougar Class to pretend they’ve just spotted a cute guy contemplating the cereal at Ralphs.
From left, Sue “Kitty” Kreidler, Diane Lewis and Dian Van Patten Singh
Approach, he says, by finding common ground: “Have you tried these mini bagels?” Or, “Oh, you like Raisin Bran too?”
Also read Matthew Fleischer's “Confessions of an Aspiring Kept Man.”
A woman in the class tentatively hefts her shopping basket (Zen brought props). She remembers how she used to look, back in her 20s and 30s. She does not look like that anymore. She has wrinkles now. She has gained weight. She feels ugly.
“You can put on a big old fanny pack and rock it in sweats and tennies,” Zen assures her, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Being a cougar is about confidence.”
The Cougar Defined
A cougar is an older woman who seeks the pleasure of younger men. The precise age at which a woman reaches cougardom varies depending on whom you ask, but the 45-year-old woman to 25-year-old guy is a typical age differential. Beyond age, there are as many cougar species as there are women’s personalities. The unofficial clearing-house for cougar taxonomy info, Urbancougar.com, identifies a “Snow Cougar” who frequents après-ski lounges and mountain-resort town bars. She is a subspecies of Felinae generalus, who seduces as many “game young men as she can possibly handle.” Still, all must pay homage to Anne Bancroft’s portrayal of cougar prototype Mrs. Robinson, who, with those stockinged legs and that deep, sexy laugh, seduced Dustin Hoffman’s young Benjamin in The Graduate.
Zen understands that most cougar-related Web sites and cougar references in movies and on TV are derogatory. But, he points out, the definition has expanded to include women who desire the confidence of the cougar, if not her proclivity for young meat. In 1999, two women artists, Elspeth Sage and Elizabeth Vander Zaag, decided to embrace the term that had long been used by Canadian louts and created the Web site CougarDate.com — the site’s manifesto emphasizes a cougar’s financial independence and describes predatory women in their 30s as pumas. Another Canadian woman, Valerie Gibson, cemented the cougar-empowerment wing of the trend with her 2001 book Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men and can be seen on YouTube giving crisp, no-nonsense advice (“Never say, ‘I’m too old’; never say, ‘I love you’ first”) as host of last year’s Comcast reality show Cougar Camp. Other cougar reality shows are in the works.
In Zen’s two-hour class, they don’t ask the questions the latest cougar buzz raises: Is it right for older women to pursue younger men? Is it any different from 50-year-old men dating 30-year-old women? Are cougars pathetic or powerful? Are they the next great thing, representing an entirely new dating paradigm, or are they the proverbial mutton dressed as lamb? At a time when advances in beauty technology mean that women in their 40s routinely look like they’re in their 20s, when the Sex and the City girls can’t get enough of being sexy in the city, and Demi and Ashton are poking fun at their own May-December relationship, why shouldn’t an older woman compete in a game dominated by the young? Are the power dynamics of the cougar lifestyle — the predatory older woman stalking her innocent, naive young prey — necessarily more screwed up than any other kind of romantic liaison?
Zen’s students don’t want to dwell on the answers such questions elicit; they simply want to maneuver through an ever-shifting dating scene. And all of them feel the crushing judgment of a coupled-up world that wants to put them out to pasture.
Zen asks his students to stand and close their eyes. “Picture a time when you felt beautiful,” he intones. “Where were you? What were you wearing? Imagine what it’s like to be in that body. Now, hold on to that feeling.”
Methods of the Hunt
Zen’s is a strategy-driven course.
Strategy: Be approachable. Sometimes the women he works with come across as too confident, as if they are about to rein terror in a boardroom. He feels that these women, so effective in business, need to tone things down for their dating lives. “The classic cougar scares most guys,” Zen says. “[She’s] very aggressive. It’s a little bit scary. They’ll just give you this look of rarrr!”
Strategy: Leverage your network of fellow cougars. Go to their events, weekend gatherings and parties. If it’s a deep relationship you desire, a guy will have different expectations of a woman he meets at a bar from one he meets at his aunt’s party while eating fruit salad.
Strategy: Art galleries are better than bars. Banks, groceries, the dry cleaner — pretty much any other setting, in fact, is better than a bar for meeting potential mates, as opposed to potential one-night stands.
Strategy: Play the numbers. Chatting up strangers, in particular the ones who are required to speak to you — café baristas, cashiers, bank tellers, valet-parking attendants, waiters — keeps your social motor skills lubricated.
“You have to meet 200 people to find one? I don’t have that kind of time,” says one woman in a green-polka-dot headband and green sweater. She describes the time she flirted with a younger guy in another car — for three off-ramps — while driving on the freeway. She pulled over, handed him her business card — and never heard from him.
“Is that a faux pas?” she asks.
“Not if he’s a quality guy,” Zen says.
“Well,” another woman asks, “are you a parole officer?”
“Maybe it’s guys having a contest about how many numbers they can get.”
“Maybe he lost it.”
“Maybe his car rolled over in a ditch and caught on fire.”
Strategy: Don’t overlook a diamond in the rough.
“So, what, I gotta put on my miner’s hat and chip away at them?” a woman asks.
“I know a place for that,” volunteers Dian Van Patten Singh, who is the genuine item, a bona fide cougar — she’s 56 and married to a 34-year-old man. “An engineering firm. They’re smart, sweet, make a lot of money, and they call when they say they’re gonna call.”
Zen laughs. “Next, we’re auctioning off engineers.”
A Girl Your Mom Can Treat Like a Sister
“Then, of course, we deal with the MILF thing,” says Van Patten Singh later by phone, her voice silky and full of joie de vivre. She does not consider herself a MILF, but rather a GILF: a Grandmother I’d Like to Fuck. It was a rainy, cold evening during class, but she’d worn a sassy, sleeveless, empire-waist cocktail dress from Forever 21. “I should have worn my print dress,” she laments, “so I could have been color-coordinated with the carpet.
“Why don’t we go back to Freud,” she says, when asked to consider why a young man might fall for an older woman. “There’s a guy who obviously had a thing for his mother.”
Van Patten Singh’s daughter is a month older than her husband. Van Patten Singh and her mother-in-law could be sisters. Initially, these generational twisters were weird, but once you taste the fountain of youth, she admits, you don’t want to go back. When one of Van Patten Singh’s friends first found out about her proclivity for younger men, the woman bristled. “Do you have the hots for my son too?” But then she met Van Patten Singh’s new catch. Curiosity prevailed: “So, what’s he like in bed?” the friend inquired.
She isn’t insulted by the term cougar, which, she says, connotes a strong person with life experience, one who is capable of surviving in the urban jungle. Van Patten Singh takes in stride the cougar clubs, cougar-of-the-month Web sites and how-to-catch-a-cougar advice columns.
“Are we preying on young men? I don’t know,” she says. “We all answer to our own moral code. Do you feel taken advantage of, Jai?” she asks.
In the background, a chuckle, then a man’s voice: “All the time.”
“If a woman tells me she wants to date younger men, I say to her, ‘Why do you want to date younger men?’” Zen explains, as he watches the people at one of his usual haunts, the Glendale Galleria Starbucks. He is constantly watching people, making “case studies” of them. “Maybe it’s that she feels like she has more control, or she believes younger men have less baggage, or they’re less cynical, or more fun to be with. Generally, at the end of our conversation, she ends up saying she just wants to attract quality. The belief that she would attract that in a younger man is a preconceived notion.”
Not all of these women want to seduce young men. Some definitely do.
Most of the clients Zen works with have their lives set up pretty well, and have worked hard to get them that way. They want to attract someone they can coexist with.
But coexisting with someone 20 years younger isn’t always easy. Zen’s seen guys who are good for a year, then realize they want to go out to party again. Another tricky issue he’s seen lately, as he hangs out with guys at parties, is that they’ll spot a single 45-year-old woman and peg her as a cougar, regardless of whether she likes younger men. Their own preconceived notions!
Zen himself is delectable cougar bait. He’s often been hunted by cougars. They note his clean-cut dark hair, his tall, lanky build, his handsome, mild-mannered boyishness, the lack of a wedding ring. He seems sweet, funny and vulnerable yet wise for his age — he’s 27. Ironically, his is a wisdom that derives from being beaten up every day, as the only white kid growing up in a mostly Asian, low-income area of Hawaii. “What, howlie? What, what howlie?” the Pacific Islander kids would taunt him. He’d step off the school bus and three guys would want to fight him. A decade later, he is full of behavioral-psychology insights culled from different sources: To wit, 55 percent of communication is conveyed by the body, 38 percent by the tone, 7 percent by the words.
How to Spot a Cougar
You can tell by the looks, the way they walk, the way they hold themselves if they’re a true-blue cougar only out for sexual conquest. Zen looks around the café. “The one in the white skirt, she’s a little bit young. But you can tell that she’s … ” he struggles to articulate it. “She’s … doin’ something. It’s the woman who’s flaunting what she’s got. And you can tell they’re thinking, ‘I don’t give a crap. I’m ready to handle any situation, I’ll arm-wrestle you if I have to.’”
And you can teach that?
“Oh, yeah. It’s just energy. It’s so easy to shift energy once you understand how.”
For example, he once had a 43-year-old client with first-date syndrome. She’d get the first date, the guy would pick her up, then it would fall apart. “Let’s pretend that I’m picking you up for a date,” he said to her. Once she opened the door, he saw exactly what was wrong. It looked like her husband’s house.
Molding a woman into a classic cougar, he feels, is easy. “If they come to me and say they want to be an aggressive cougar, they’re not really shy. If somebody has a desire, I can help bring it out.”
Field trips are required. “Today, we’re talking to 10 guys,” he’ll tell the woman. “I don’t care what interaction you get. I want you to exude the energy.”
They’ll go to the mall, observe other cougars and model their behavior. How does she walk? How does she talk? What does she wear? With the first five guys, the aspiring cougar is tentative. By six through 10, her confidence builds.
“She’ll pop out the cleavage,” Zen says. “We’ll go through another 10 guys, and by the end of it, she’ll be, like, ‘I got it.’”
And so, another cougar is released into the wild.
Also read Matthew Fleischer's “Confessions of an Aspiring Kept Man.”