Karryn Russo goes by "Jerzee" and refuses to divulge her age. She also has a very dark, unhealthy-looking tan. On Apr. 29, Jerzee — who appears to be in her mid-40s and, not surprisingly, hails from New Jersey — was at the Manhattan nightclub Greenhouse in an extremely short tie-dyed skirt adorned with peace symbols. When younger men stopped to talk, Jerzee started to dance. "She's a cougar," crooned the rapper on stage, "I think I love her, I put no one above her."
Jerzee was one of more than 30 contestants vying for the title of Miss Cougar America, the marquee event of the third annual National Cougar Convention. And she appeared to be the odds-on favorite until the pageant's emcee, Rich Gosse — donning a black shirt, a yellow and orange paisley tie, and a thick, unmanicured mustache — announced the shocking news: The crown had gone to Aalsa Lee of Palm Springs, Calif. "We was robbed!" yelled a crestfallen Jerzee supporter who paid the $20 admission fee. Lee, who does not make a secret of her age, is 73.
In the decade since Valerie Gibson published "Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men," the very notion of older women dating younger men has gained acceptance in popular culture, in part, due to the emergence of high-profile women — such as Demi Moore, Katie Couric, and the fictional character Samantha Jones on Sex and the City — who have no qualms about dating younger partners. "There is a new archetype that's emerging," says Amy Luna Manderino, the reigning Miss Cougar International. "There have always been free-thinking, vital women over the age of 40. The difference today is our numbers have reached a critical mass." Christine Lehtonen, a principal at Asterix Group, a marketing and advertising agency in San Francisco, says there are more women in the U.S. aged 51 than any other single age. "Can you imagine what could happen," she says, "if all these women were marketed to?"
Increasingly, they are. A transcontinental economy is developing around conventions, dating sites, tourism, and other cougar-themed business ventures. Miss Cougar America is part of a larger pageant hierarchy that includes Miss Cougar Miami, Miss Cougar Las Vegas, and Miss Cougar Sydney. (The first known cougar pageant was held in 2009 in Palo Alto, Calif.) Aalsa Lee will soon head to Jamaica's Hedonism II — an X-rated version of Club Med — which hosts the Miss Cougar International pageant.
Yet the budding cougar industry is threatened by an existential problem. The ideal cougar — a Manolo Blahnik-wearing fortysomething with a fabulous Manhattan loft, fabulous friends, and a fabulous sexual appetite for younger men — is actually a media construction. Bridget Brennan, chief executive officer of the marketing firm Female Factor in Chicago, attests that "cougar" is simply the label society assigns financially independent divorcées. "Because I'm over 40, I have this special name," says Manderino. "We don't give men special names when they're over 40 and they date younger women."
Nevertheless, a special name is all it takes to create a marketing frenzy. The greater cougar industry has expanded into books ("Dating a Cougar," "Hot Cougar Sex," "A Christian Cougar"), television (real-life cougar Courtney Cox's "Cougar Town" and the reality-TV show "The Cougar"), and even the big screen. Four decades after Anne Bancroft introduced American viewing audiences to the phenomenon in "The Graduate," the recently released "Cougar Hunting" follows a band of young men to Aspen on a quest for older women. Denise Richards, the former wife of Charlie Sheen, will try to resurrect her career as the star of "Cougars, Inc.," out this month.
The cougar industry's other dirty little secret is that it isn't necessarily women who are spurring growth. "This thing is really cub-driven," explains Gosse, referring to the growing ubiquity of young men dating older women. "It's a very hot economic trend in the dating world." Miss Cougar International Manderino has already identified six categories of cubs, including "fetish cubs," "mama's boy cubs," and cubs who simply want a story to tell their friends.
Websites such as Urban Cougar, Go Cougar, Date a Cougar, Cougared, and in Britain, Yes! Mrs Robinson, reel in tens of thousands of hits each month from cougars and cubs alike. These businesses range from dating sites to sex sites to lifestyle sites for women who want to be cougars but might not know how. The Real Cougar Woman offers virtual group therapy for women contemplating cougarness and includes ads for beauty magazines, cougar books, Zestra "essential arousal oils," and links to "sexperts," nutritionists, trainers, salons, and fashion boutiques. Urban Cougar features articles about famous women "going cougar" in addition to its service-oriented Urban Cougar of the Month video montage.
Lucia Demasi, who recently took over Urban Cougar, is enthusiastic about the company's outlook. She is hoping to increase current traffic from 35,000 to 100,000 visitors each month. "In the Jewish tradition," Lucia says, "you become a man with a bar mitzvah. For everybody else, maybe it'll be a cougar." Soon, Urban Cougar will offer VIP memberships, Lucia says, for $7.99 to $12.99 per month.
Marketers also believe the trend has global appeal. Cougar expert Gibson says she receives calls from self-described cougars in China, Portugal, Australia, and Chile. Rich Gosse's umbrella organization, the Society of Single Professionals, has already hosted events in Germany, New Zealand, Israel, and Zimbabwe. Vacations for Cougars, a similar sightseeing outfit, organizes Nicaragua getaways; Norwegian Cruise Line provides a Cougar Cruise to the Bahamas. (Three- and five-night packages range from $150 to $500.) More modest cross-cultural options include a $195 two-night Celtic Cougar deal at the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel in Galena, Ill.
Meanwhile, some budding cougar stars are already cashing in on themselves. Tyana Alvarado, an unemployed real estate broker, used her Miss Cougar California victory as a platform to land a spot on The Apprentice. Now, Alvarado says, she's looking to start her own cougar-themed business. Manderino says she's writing a book about love. Still, despite the branding opportunities, many cougars are conflicted by their new identity. "I call myself the Accidental Cougar," says Manderino. "And I'm 'soulibate': I don't share physical intimacy with people I don't have an authentic connection with." Jerzee, on the other hand, is the Intentional Cougar — someone who aspires to be something that may not exist. Cougar author Gibson says simply: "I hope in the future there won't be any cougars because I hope — and I really hope this — that it will just be another alternative relationship. It'll be like gay guys."