We're used to seeing—and sometimes laughing at—an older man with a younger woman. But an older woman chasing—or being chased by—a younger man? Believe it or not, it's Cougar season in Charlotte
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster
Cougars are large, nimble wild cats that come together only to mate. Excellent at stalking prey, they hunt everything from deer and sheep to rodents. They can roar like a lion or scream like a human. They are the largest cats that purr. Cougars are also women who pursue younger men, to stick with a broad definition of the popular new slang. They are often divorced, financially secure, and, to those who claim to know, the time of your life.
Charlotte's high percentage of well-to-do professionals seems perfect for churning out women who meet these criteria. Its burgeoning suburbs and uptown condos make for an ideal habitat. Men have long been known to flash their financial success around town as they hunt for a younger mate. There must be just as many available women. But are some of them really pursuing younger men?
"Oh yeah," says a bartender at On the Roxx in Ballantyne. "The other day, I guess they were on a first date. I checked their IDs because the guy looked so young, and she was about twenty years older than him. She was like, 'Do not tell him my age.' "
He smiles when I ask what a Cougar is to him. "Past their prime, still chasin'. There's a couple right here. If you want your definition, there you go."
Two stools down is a forty-ish blonde woman with a plastic face and chest. She wears a tight black shirt that says "Botox" in glittery letters. I can't hide the fact that I'm staring. She doesn't really care. Two ladies who also look to be in their late thirties or early forties are sitting at the end of the bar. They have their hair done, and their breasts nearly pop out of matching leather jackets.
Ballantyne is truly the burbs, the type of place where a Target-and-Harris Teeter shopping center goes up less than a mile from another Target-and-Harris Teeter shopping center. Where you trip over kids trying to order at Chick-fil-A. Where tales of Cougars are told at bars even before you ask.
"They want a boy toy. They come right after you," says the guy sitting next to me at Vesuvio Restaurant and Lounge. He names some good spots, which I hear about time and again from Cougars and the men who track them: M5 in SouthPark, Sullivan's in South End, Under the Grape in Ballantyne, Zink in uptown.
"It's not hard to pick up a Cougar in Ballantyne Village," he says. "You come here on a Saturday, and you go to Villa Antonio, and you will see it. It's automatic. They are on a mission."
The bartender at Villa Antonio watches it all go down every Friday and Saturday night. "They're kind of looking to be a kid again," she says, noting that older men go home with younger women as well. "I see a lot of one-night stands."
Then a man in his mid-thirties tells me a story about a Jaguar—a Cougar over fifty, by his definition—who drove a Jaguar. He calls her the "crème de la crème." She was wearing a tight red dress and stilettos the night he met her at this very bar. He rambles on excitedly, mentioning things like "woman of her magnitude" and "natural energy."
"Age is truly a number," he finally says.
On a Friday night during happy hour, I walk into Cosmos Café in uptown and ask the hostess if she's seen a guy who looks like a professional wrestler. She points over to the bar.
"Jason" is six-foot-three, built like a defensive end. He shaves his big head bald and wears a thick brown goatee, which bends and stretches with his expressions. He is twenty-four, but looks a little older, and that combined with many other things has led him to date a ridiculous number of Cougars—about ten over the last year-and-a-half alone. He started with a thirty-three-year-old when he was nineteen. He has been with one of his former teachers and hooked up next to a box of diapers.
I met Jason in college. Back then, older women would come and stay in his dorm room.
His definition of a Cougar: "A generation older. Still very attractive. Established, meaning financially secure. Men—they don't need a man. Since they don't, they're free to get crazy."
Jason is wearing a tight, long-sleeve T-shirt from American Eagle. His jeans show off his ass. This is important because tonight we are on the hunt. On the phone a day earlier, he had told me to "wear tight everything."
"The beauty of it is it gives me a chance to see what it's like to be in a woman's shoes, because they treat us like slabs of meat," he says. "Which is the goal."
Jason points out the flaws of girls our own age. He finds them superficial and "too idealistic." The best part of looking for Cougars, he says, is not paying any attention to the twenty-somethings. Not having to compete with the hordes to buy them drinks or get in a couple words. We won't buy drinks for anyone but ourselves. We'll just look good and get hit on.
We can't pretend to have money. No trying to impress with fancy watches or expensive shirts. Cougars can see right through that kind of thing. They're not interested in money, anyway.
"Cougars have already done the money thing," Jason says. "Girls our age are interested in money, especially in a bank city like Charlotte. You can't just be a banker, because there are too many bankers, and they probably divorced a banker."
Neither of us has to worry about appearing rich. We find Cosmos, even during happy hour, too expensive. It's a nice place, dark and trendy inside. Well-dressed people flow in as workdays come to an end. We chose Cosmos because it's kind of classy. That's the tricky thing about Cougars. They're not about to go somewhere where they'll feel out of place. You have to know where to look.
We notice some beautiful women talking with guys wearing things like blazers and turtlenecks. Two girls our age wearing short skirts and lots of makeup appear to be on an expedition of their own.
"Don't just go up and drop some stupid line," Jason says next, as we go over the game plan.
First, locate the pack. Cougars go out in packs.
"Walk by and make eye contact, maybe give them a little point. Try to make contact with the whole group. You gotta infiltrate the group.
"Say something like, ‘This looks like it's where the party's at,' or, ‘These ladies are getting crazy over here.' Something classy like that. Get 'em giggling."
Make sure you have a beer in hand. A tall boy gets the right message across. "Dancing is the key to Cougars. You gotta show them you want to have a good time."
Certain moves are particularly effective at getting their attention. Point your finger in the air, disco style, then at the group, one member at a time. Sing along to the music. Better yet, use your beer as a microphone. Cougars dance in circles. Try to get in the middle.
"You gotta get your hips into it. Make sure you shake your ass. Go around the circle; let 'em all grab it. But you can't grab back. No groping on your part. That's against the rules. You gotta keep the ball in their court."
Eventually, one will become a little more aggressive. This usually takes about half a song. Feel for who's really rubbing your ass. Let her know you're interested. But remember to keep the others involved with moves like the double-grind. "Cougars love grinding, because it wasn't popular in their twenties. It makes them feel young and 'in.' "
The number one guideline: never call a Cougar a Cougar, and never admit your actual age. Feel free to say something like, "Hey ladies, don't be trying to take advantage of me tonight. I'm a young boy." But when it comes to a number, be evasive at all costs. If she asks, say, "How old do you think I am?" When she guesses, just shrug. She'll ask if it's higher or lower. That's a good question. You'll tell her later if she's lucky.
If you do get lucky, it might be best to head to your place, just to be safe. "Most of the time, ‘out' means the kids aren't at home. Most of the time." But the real benefits of being with a Cougar, Jason says, do not come in the bedroom.
"After you hook up, she's gonna give you her number. Always call back. No phone games. You need to hang out with this Cougar outside of getting blasted. Because, they have a lot to teach. Coffee, drinks—hear her story. Cougars have been through some real-life experiences. They'll give you the good, bad, and ugly when it comes to relationships.
"Cougars will tell you what you need to look for in a potential suitor."
The eight women at a table in the back of Cosmos are there for a bachelorette party. One wears a party-store crown with white lace trailing behind it. Her fiancé, she says, is thirty-three, and he has "made it." Another is pregnant, sipping on a glass of water. Another is forty-five. She scowls with disgust and tells me she has kids my age.
None of these women are Cougars. Maturity, ambition, and being established are the traits they require. "How many young guys have job security?" one wants to know.
"Men are usually four to six years behind women in terms of maturity," says another, who is married anyway.
What about a one-night stand?
"He would have to look like Mr. Right, even if he wasn't," says Trisha, thirty-seven, of Concord. "He would probably have to infiltrate my circle, like you've done. Then, he'd have to be charming."
But it would have to be "magical" and "movie-like." And the guy would have to be "goal oriented."
One who says her name is Barbara throws up her hands and shrugs. "Sure. But, like she said, it would have to be magical. We would have to have a long conversation, because I don't drink. We would have to use a male condom, a female condom…"
And then, there she is. Vanessa has arrived late after a bottle of wine. She is curvy, blonde, and confident (and, she says, thirty-three). Her jeans are tight and MEK ($200). She asks me to check the tag, and her panties are pink and ruffled. Her watch is from Michelle ($1,200). Her black sweater is from Banana Republic ($100). She makes me stop asking about brands and prices when I get to the diamond necklace. The ring on her finger: "a gift to me, from me."
Vanessa has two kids, an ex-husband, and her own business.
"We can rock a good little young guy's world," she tells me. "And that's what every guy is looking for. Sexually, we're more relaxed and more in tune with our bodies than younger girls."
"We don't play head games. A lot of times we're already settled with our families and our lives. We know what we want, and we usually get what we want. That is the honest-to-god truth. A woman does not enjoy sex until she's at least thirty. Younger girls, they don't understand how to completely enjoy sex. You don't get it until you're older. That's when you thoroughly enjoy and crave sex."
And how would a young guy go about picking her up? She'll signal that she's interested with a look or a smile. After that, it's up to him to make the next move.
"Buff is not it," Vanessa says. "Older women especially, it takes more to stimulate us than looks. We're not that simple."
I try politics. Vanessa is conservative; I am liberal. Scrambling as she and her friends get up to leave, I bet I can convince her not to vote for Mitt Romney. That would require me giving her a call.
Jason and I end the night at the Breakfast Club, an '80s dance club across from Charlotte Bobcats Arena. He estimates that last time he was here it took him twenty minutes to find a Cougar, make out, and head home with her.
On the second level, disco lights spray across the dance floor. Two hefty ladies dance to David Hasselhoff's "Hooked on a Feeling" in an elevated cage in the corner. Emilio Estevez struts through the halls of Shermer High School in his wrestling singlet on a projection overhead. Fraggle Rock is on another wall. Ric Flair points emphatically down at the crowd from a third.
I can't stop this feeling
Deep inside of me
Girl you just don't realize
What you do to me
Beer bottle in hand, Jason goes right into his moves, singing along while pointing around in a circle at no one in particular. A group of women closes in on us. He belts out another verse, this time into his beer bottle, right arm pointed straight back, knees bent, bouncing up and down on his toes like a rock star.
I'm hooked on a feeling
I'm high on believing
That you're in love with me
Soon two of the women are dancing right next to us. Jason sticks out his ass and shakes it around. One latches on. As I dance, the other woman grabs me, squeezing and groping. She claws my back up and down.
Ooga chaka. Hooga hooga.
Ooga chaka. Hooga hooga.
Jason winks and dances away into the crowd.