It's nearly eleven o'clock now, time to crown Miss Cougar America. Sorta. Though Gosse's press release invited women nationwide to compete for the title, the field is slim pickings. A handful of cubs crowd the stage and drop coins in front of their favorite of the two finalists, but most of the guys ignore the show. It's not much of a pageant. There is no talent contest, no swimsuits—just a couple of cougs in shimmering, non-revealing dresses. Yawn. That doesn't stop the man who dreamed up this evening from handing out fliers for a cougar cruise to Mexico. He's also planning another "convention" in Australia. Cougars may not always be sexy, but these days they are a hot commodity. Newsweek declared 2009 the Year of the Cougar. In July, Sugar Ray released "Music for Cougars." In August, the famous horse track in Del Mar, California, staged its own Miss Cougar pageant (earning a phone call from The Tyra Banks Show). And ABC aired the premiere episode of Cougar Town, starring Courteney Cox, in September.
The cougars themselves feel kind of ambivalent about the label. Even Stacey Anderson, star of TV Land's reality show The Cougar, has never been completely comfortable with it. "During my audition," she says, "I said I wanted to change the definition. I've got children. I have a career. I have more depth than a cookie pan." On Facebook, she lists her status as "It's complicated."
The one thing that unites most cougars, it seems, is the vitality that comes with freedom from needy children and lazy husbands. In addition to financial security and healthy bodies, that energy is what makes them compatible with free-spirited young men. It's perfect on its face, "like finding a $5 bill in the laundry," says Anderson. But much as most women want a deeper feeling of contentment as they age, so do most men. As Hunt Allcott, 28, says, "I can't imagine being 40 and unmarried. I think a lot of people are afraid."
Cougar mania may sound fun after dark, but it disintegrates in daylight. "Society doesn't really accept it," says Lucia, a Los Angeles–based expert on cougar relationships. "People are still keeping it hidden."
Not here. As midnight approaches, the dance floor at Dinah's fills with wriggling bodies. Flo Rida? No. Vanilla Ice? Yes. Two cubs head to the urinal. "I'm tanked," one says to the other. "She was a good coug, but she has a son my brother's age. Damn." His friend's reply: "Never stopped you before."