Move over cougars. Meet the nougars...
There's a new, younger breed of toyboy-hunter on the prowl, says Declan Cashin
What kind of a cruel, ageist world are we living in when 'cougars' -- that rather contentious term for ladies of a certain vintage with a predilection for younger men -- are being nudged out of their demographic and cultural stratum in favour of more 'Generation Y' models?
In a development that is sure to simultaneously make ironists smile, adolescent boys giddy and the older set dispirited, it seems that a new strand of whippersnapper cougar is now leading the field for women who like to date younger beaus.
Known as 'cougarettes', 'pumas', or 'nougars', these are women typically -- though not exclusively -- aged between 30-38 who are stepping out with guys as much as 10, or as little as one or two, years their junior.
Some of the age gaps are so insignificant that it seems ludicrous for blogs and social media sites to categorise the woman as anything at all, and, indeed, some ladies reading this might be surprised to learn that they now come under such a label.
Alas, it seems that the wider culture is still fascinated by relationships where a Mrs Robinson-type female dominates, regardless of what age she is, or what degree of seniority she holds over the man.
Time was when cougars were empowered 40 and fiftysomethings, represented in pop culture by Kim Cattrall's character Samantha Jones in 'Sex and the City', and, briefly and far less adequately, by Courteney Cox's divorcee in 'Cougar Town'.
Meanwhile, in reality we had Demi Moore hooking up with the younger Ashton Kutcher, doomed though that union ultimately proved to be.
Certainly, a few of the resilient old-school cougars are still flying the flag -- notably Madonna (54) with dancer Brahim Zaibat (24), Jennifer Lopez (42) with Casper Smart (24), and Sharon Stone (54) with model Martin Mica (27).
However, with this youthful shift in categorisations, Madge et al might officially have to accept that they are now 'jaguars' or 'panthers' (is that an option on census forms or mortgage applications?).
The nougar trend can probably be first traced back to Cameron Diaz, though future historians will be the ultimate arbiters of that.
When Diaz was 31, she started dating singer Justin Timberlake, then 22, and over the course of their three-year relationship (which ended in 2006) there was a sense that the perception of -- and the terminology pertaining to -- cougar-esque relationships was changing.
The fundamental dynamic remained the same, though; these relationships being what quite a few people believe to be the perfect marriage of experience and confidence (her) and youthful, if gauche, energy and enthusiasm (him).
One more contemporary example is Sienna Miller (30), who, in July, gave birth to her first child with her boyfriend of one year, Tom Sturridge (26).
However, perhaps the poster girl in this reformatted sexual and dating environment -- whether she likes it or not -- is Caroline Flack, the 32-year-old TV presenter and host of 'The Xtra Factor' who enjoyed a fling with 18-year-old One Direction singer Harry Styles last year.
Harry was already something of a self-styled womaniser with a taste for more experienced gals at that point, and, indeed, his on-screen chemistry with Flack was picked up and commented on by the ever-observant Twitterati watching closely at home.
When the press got wind of their romance, the reaction was suitably, hilariously pubescent in its hysterical OMG!-ness.
And, as Flack learned to her personal cost, the danger for a nougar edging in on an adolescent celeb is that one runs the risk of inciting the wrath of a group of jealous fans who are more emotionally, ahem, volatile than others.
Flack was subjected to reams of abuse and threats online from Styles's wannabe groupies. Comments ranged -- and raged -- from, 'If Caroline Flack flirts with my boyfriend [Harry] I will personally hunt her down and shoot her', to, 'Stay the f**k away from Harry you saggy old woman'.
Flack eventually had to contact the police after receiving further threatening letters and pictures -- one depicting a young girl carrying a six-inch knife -- and even just recently, an unofficial American fanzine devoted to One Direction featured a cut-out voodoo doll of Flack, as well as referring to her as 'grandma' and opining that she 'looks like a goat'.
Still, even after all that drama, Flack proved that she is willing to bear the brunt of any public negativity that comes with being a 21st-century nougar.
"I put myself in the public eye -- I have my dream job, so I can't complain," she said afterwards. "If it got too much I would give it up, so obviously it hasn't got too much."
Luckily for Rebecca Ferguson, another 'X Factor'-launched star, she didn't have to endure as dramatic a pillorying when she hooked up with Styles's bandmate Zayn Malik last year.
The then 24-year-old Ferguson -- a mother-of-two, as many news reports tartly reminded us -- hooked up with 18-year-old Malik during their contractually obliged 'X Factor' tour.
The relationship is believed to have lasted four months -- Ferguson later revealed that they'd grown apart -- but during it Ferguson was quite open and effusive about her feelings for her younger partner.
"I'm in love and it's a wonderful feeling. I've never felt like this before," she told one magazine at the height of the romance.
"It took a while before we looked at each other in a different light. There was no one particular moment. It just evolved over time. But he made all the running."
Another early adopter -- so to speak -- was Freida Pinto, who, at 24, started dating her 18-year-old 'Slumdog Millionaire' co-star Dev Patel.
Some four years and many long-haul flights later (she's based in India and LA, and he in London and New York), the couple are still very much together, and not a single interview with either one goes by without them being asked about marriage. Bless.
Elsewhere, 22-year-old Taylor Swift is one more female star unafraid of dancing to her own nougar beat.
Even for her young years, Swift has clocked up her fair share of relationship drama.
There were the trysts with Joe Jonas (her age), John Mayer (34) and Jake Gyllenhaal (31), but, perhaps exhausted by the turbulence of it all, Swift changed tactics and went for the younger model.
She dated 'Twilight' actor, and her 'Valentine's Day' co-star, Taylor Lautner (20) for a couple of months, earning the wretched sobriquet 'TayTay' in the process.
(Lautner has since been linked to another nougar, Lily Collins, who's 23.)
This summer, however, Swift has really upped her nougar game, first by being linked to Arnold Schwarzenegger's 18-year-old model son Patrick, before going public with her relationship with Patrick's cousin, Conor Kennedy (also 18), a scion of the legendary US political clan.
One tabloid report claimed that the couple met when Kennedy was 17, and that "Conor's cousins would accompany them on dates, but the family insisted they wait until after he turned 18 to come out as a couple".
For her part, Swift has just fuelled speculation about the relationship by purchasing a $4.9m home near Kennedy's family gaff in Hyannis Port.
Meanwhile, tween star Selena Gomez -- who, born as she was in 1992, adds a nice touch of surreality to all concepts of the nougar -- started dating Justin Bieber when she was 18 and he just 16.
Suffice to say the Beliebers were not impressed, and there was a bit of tut-tutting about the propriety of the relationship when it emerged that the couple were sharing hotel rooms on the road before Bieber had turned 18.
The couple are still reportedly together -- much to the heartbreak of his fans everywhere.
Similarly, 'High School Musical' alum -- and ex of Zac Efron -- Vanessa Hudgens (a wizened 23) briefly dated 'The Hunger Games' actor Josh Hutcherson (19) last year, before switching affections to singer and actor Austin Butler (21).
But spare a thought for poor Paris Hilton, who, at 30, started dating music producer and DJ Afrojack (24) last year.
It was Hilton's second nougar relationship: she'd previously dated 'The Hills' star Doug Reinhardt, who is four years her junior.
Things got so serious with Afrojack that the pair reportedly moved in together, before swiftly parting ways because, according to sources, he wasn't ready to be tied down.
As if that wasn't hard enough, Paris then had to read comments in the press like this one from a 'well-placed source' (aren't they all?): "Paris is having a hard time adjusting to the fact that she just doesn't have the popularity or cache that she did five years ago.
"She is still going to clubs on a very frequent basis, and she is 31 years old. You don't see a lot of people over 30 going to clubs. It's almost sad to see."
Chin up, Paris. Take a look around. You mightn't be getting any younger, but that doesn't mean your boyfriends can't.