Trava Faust drove two and a half hours in California traffic to a sold-out event, in her black dress and heels, even though she didn't have a ticket. When she got to Dinah's Garden Hotel in Palo Alto, she parked in overflow and sat outside with the dozens of other women turned away at the door. She fanned herself in the August heat without giving a second thought to the odds that she had just wasted a whole lot of effort. Why? Because Trava Faust is a cougar, and cougars exude confidence.
Alex Littlewood, by contrast, bought his ticket well in advance. The 29-year-old marketer has been dating older women for years, ever since a 36-year-old "cougared" him in the mall where he worked at age 18. "She was an absolute revelation," he says. "She taught me things I never knew existed."
The cougar phenomenon has no doubt had its 15 minutes of fame. More like 45, actually. But for some odd reason, the world simply can't resist the fad's sad mating call. Rich Gosse has organized events for the Society of Single Professionals for 30 years. He ran for governor of California in 2003 on a "fairness for singles" platform. To promote this Friday-night matchmaking party in Palo Alto, he replaced "singles" and "mixer" with "cougar" and "convention" in the press release. For good measure, he threw in "first annual." Soon he was fielding calls from England and Finland. More than 40 members of the media phoned him too, including a correspondent from Al Gore's Current TV. "We've been doing parties with younger men and older women, and no one knew we existed," Gosse says. "We say 'cougar,' and now we have media from all over the world."
The term cougar started out as a form of slander in the mid-nineties, used (legend has it) by hockey players in western Canada to describe the washed-up groupies who clawed after them in bars. Today it inspires in certain young men—or cubs—visions of smooth-talking seductresses with tight dresses and loose morals. Women at their sexual peak. Hot sex with no strings attached. Exhibit A: Ron, the corrections officer who strolls through the door at Dinah's, fills out a name tag, and sticks it on his crotch. Exhibit B: The woman in the leopard-print dress—a newly minted divorcée—furiously texting her boyfriend to keep him from inquiring about her whereabouts. Exhibit C: The cougar pinned against the wall outside the men's room, giggling and sighing as a cub dives headlong into her chest.
David, a 25-year-old employee at a medical-device start-up, fondly remembers his first cougar: "She had a real job. She had a sweet apartment with a sweet bed. And a dog. She was like a Toyota Supra—good suspension and good parts." "My first cougar was 43," says Stewart Scott, 31. "I was 25. Best sex ever. Next cougar was 48. That broke my record. She turned 49, so I broke my record twice. I'd say 50 is my limit. But if she was hot, 52." He laughs and straightens his tie. Around the corner, a 30-year-old cub named Dino sits and waits for the attack. "There's something exciting about being prey," he says. "All you have to do is open up your jugular."
That's what Littlewood loves about the cougs, too. "Girls in their twenties will just lay there," he says. "They won't reach down. They won't work to get you aroused. They kinda just don't care. That makes me feel like a sleazeball." But the 36-year-old at the mall was a different story. "I'd never met a woman who wanted to do everything to me," he says. "And she was so good at it."
When Faust works her way into the party (the sold-out, fire-marshal routine is mostly for show, it seems, especially when a tall brunette with bright eyes and a Cheshire smile wants to buy a ticket), she's accosted by an older rival who accuses her of being too young. Technically, she is. Cougars are supposed to be 40 and over, and Faust is 35, which makes her a puma. Unfazed, she writes her age on her name tag and strolls into the banquet hall, pausing from her prowl only long enough to answer questions from a TV reporter. That's when Littlewood steps in to defend her. She smiles at him. Soon she's holding a mai tai in one hand and stroking Littlewood's face with the other. "Isn't he cute?" she says, and grabs the lapels of his suit jacket. Littlewood beams.
Faust is clearly his type. "I'm confident in bed," she says. "I'm willing to explore. I know my body really well and I can let guys know what works for me." Better yet, she has always gravitated to the energy of younger people. Though she's open to dating older men, she relies a lot on intuition—and more often than not, it's the young guns who have the right vibe. But that comes with a cost. One close friend told her, "I don't judge you for dating younger guys," which of course meant she did. "My mom was always upset," Faust says. "She wanted the doctor, the white picket fence." Dinah's banquet hall offers a refuge, a place where she can escape judgment. Here, it's no big deal that she has a 15-year-old son but no husband. "Most of the guys I date are disappointed because I have this whole other side to my life," she says of her role as a working mother, "and I'm very passionate about that, too."
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."
Littlewood succeeds in getting Faust's number, but soon she's walled off by a gaggle of younger men. After years of getting cougared, he's now getting cubbed. "They were sleazy, as far as I'm concerned," he says. Six foot three and tanned from hours on his motorbike, he is no different from the guy with the Rod Blagojevich hair or the geeks from the video-game company who got excited about "Cougar Con" because they hoped to get some precious female attention after paying $20 night after night to get blown off in clubs.
In the end, Littlewood goes home alone. It's not so much the empty bed that troubles him as the possibility that he may not see Faust again. "When I came back from the convention," he says, "I thought it was cool and fun, but gosh, you know, I think I'm in the mood for a relationship. That's the first time I've said that."
The next day, at Home Depot, his cell phone rings. It's Faust. She wants to say hi and ask him for his birth date. She'd like to consult her compatibility chart. Moments later, Faust gets a call from her mom, and Littlewood tells her to take it.
"What did the chart say?" he texts her. "Are we compatible?"
She writes him back. "No."