If you Google the word ‘cougar’, it won’t be long before the implausibly beautiful Claudia Opdenkelder pops up. The founder of Cougarlife.com, which has over 2 million users in the US, Claudia was here last week to publicise the new UK arm of her dating website, and whisked me out to lunch to tell me all.
Now I am no cougar. Mr X was three years older than me, TL is two months older. But, as far as Claudia is concerned, I’m moving in the right direction. She is fresh from her wedding (her first!) to her cub, Paul, a wine expert and former model, who is 27 to her 41. ‘It’s the oldest age gap I’ve had in a relationship but Paul is an old soul. I’ve never been happier.’
This makes Claudia a genuine cougar herself, and she says she accepts the word, though she doesn’t love it. ‘It has connotations of desperate older women out on the prowl, which is not what we’re about. A cougar is a successful older woman, who maybe hasn’t had the time to concentrate on relationships but now has that moment, and wants to date younger men.’
In fact, Claudia has been a life-long cougar, from her first boyfriend onwards (he was two years younger) before she hit the official cougar age, which seems to be about 35-40. ‘I’ve had a lot of relationships. They all lasted two years and I was always the one to walk away,’ she says. To me, this sounds like a stereotypically male commitment-phobe relationship pattern. Does she have a commitment problem? ‘No, no. It was just that the relationships just got to a certain point, and I couldn’t see where they were going from there.’
Hmmm. But Claudia is too nice to pick away at. She is beautiful, obviously, with a light golden tan, rumpled blonde hair, perfect eyebrows, the skin of a 12 year old and a prettily feline face. Sitting next to her I should feel like an uncooked lump of pastry but in fact I bask in her glow. If she’s an ad for the cougar lifestyle, I can’t help thinking, it really, really suits her. But she’s just had quite a grilling at Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour. ‘If they’re feminists, you’d think they’d support women making their choices. But they just said, ‘don’t you have to get up hours before your husband to put on your makeup?’
Good point. Doesn’t she? ‘No, of course not. Paul likes me without makeup.’ But seriously, is she not worried about ageing? Women with wrinkles go under the knife, men with wrinkles are ‘distinguished’. ‘I’ve always taken care of myself. I don’t drink or smoke, I only have green tea, I pay attention to myself, for me, and that will continue. My mother’s Indonesian and in her 60s and has no wrinkles, so I’m lucky, I’ve had no surgery. Paul has more wrinkles than I do.’ And does she like his wrinkles? ‘Are you kidding? I’m a cougar, I don’t want wrinkles on my man,’ she laughs. So would she encourage him to have Botox? ‘Maybe,’ she shrugs.
One of the major criticisms of cougaring is that the relationships don’t last. Does Claudia agree? ‘Some relationships last. And, if relationships break down, it may not be due to the age gap. But hey, if you have ten years with a great guy and you’re really happy and then you break up, at least you had those ten years of happiness,’ she smiles.
And children? Canadian-born Claudia, who once dated Howie from the Backstreet Boys, admits that Paul would like children, while her mother is mad keen for her to produce grandchildren, particularly now she’s married. ‘We’ve talked about it, and I haven’t ruled it out. But it’s not top of my list,’ she says, with the airiness of someone with all the time in the world.
You can’t help but admire her boundless, bouncy optimism. Is she always this relaxed? ‘I’m a control freak at work,’ she admits. ‘I think if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. I don’t like to delegate.’
Ah, power and control. Is this what is really behind the cougar lifestyle? Is this cougar thing all about rich women buying themselves docile pets, I wonder? No, says Claudia. ‘It’s not a sugar momma thing, no. But men do love it because we’re not depending on them for everything. We’re not like those girls in their twenties, who look at a man and say, what job does he do, what car does he have? With a cougar, there’s none of that pressure.’
The other advantage, says Claudia, is that you don’t have to deal with an older man – and his baggage and ego. ‘I’ve got a lot of friends who’re married to men their age and they’ve got second families and children and emotional problems going way back and they don’t pick their shirts up from the floor. My own father is dressed by my mother every morning. She lays out all his clothes for him.’
It’s true that most younger men, I would hope for my daughters’ sakes in the dim, distant (I hope) future, are slightly better house-trained than men of my generation. Men in their 40s tend to know they should do more around the house, but do they do it? Men in their 50s pretend they don’t know, while men in their 60s might not even remember where the house is anyway. Hang on a minute, was that the roar of a distant cougar I heard?