Meet Rich Gosse, the singles guru who's trying to ride a fading fad to some kind of stardom
"I've developed the world's best pick-up line," Rich Gosse bellows. "Wanna hear it?"
He gestures grandly, holding a wine glass etched with teal and purple balloons. We're in his dining room, sipping a crisp 2008 Edna Valley Sauvignon Blanc, even though he prefers Charles Shaw's two-buck chardonnay (it's more buttery).
"OK, here it is... Hi, I'm rich!" Gosse smiles big. "Get it?" he pours himself a third glass, "It works cause it's also my name!"
I didn't come here for dating tips. Or to learn about budget wine. Or to get drunk at 2 pm on a Tuesday (though I'm happy to oblige).
I've driven to San Rafael, California, a small suburb north of San Francisco, because Rich Gosse is more than a master of pick-up puns. He's the man behind the National Cougar Convention, a gathering where ladies in their 40s and 50s vie for the attention of younger male "cubs." On Friday, the third annual convention will go down at Greenhouse in SoHo. And yeah, yeah, I'm sure it'll be as much of a hoot as previous cougar meet-ups I'm not wine-tasting at Gosse's house because I'm all that interested in the young-dude-older-lady trend, which helped greenlight a forgettable 2009 reality dating show called The Cougar, not to mention the sitcom Cougar Town (Courteney Cox was nominated for a Golden Globe for it!). Surely it was Hollywood's obsession that prompted Newsweek to dub 2009 the "year of the cougar." Riding a now-fading fad, Rich Gosse soldiers on, trying to self-promote his way to some kind of stardom.
For two years, I've been dying to meet him. When we spoke on the phone shortly after the 2009 convention, I stopped caring about the kooky event itself and, instead, obsessed over the guy who dreamed it up. I half-expected to be greeted by a mile-a-minute club promoter with a receding ponytail, or at least a silk-shirt.
Instead, I found a combination of Dr. Phil and Ron Burgundy. A bold character who sounds perpetually earnest, even when his word choice borders on the ridiculous: "People think this is all very frivolous, just a bunch of horny ladies who want to get laid by good-looking young studs," he tells me, "And that's not what this is about at all. What the cougar phenomenon is all about is a demographic imperative."
Gosse rattles off U.S. Census data to support his case: By age 60, for every single man, there are three and a half single women. The lack of available middle-aged men is compounded by the fact they tend to prefer dating younger; on average, eight years their junior, he says. The pickings for middle-aged women are slim.
The cougar-cub dynamic is, as Gosse calls it, the "perfect solution."
Of course, it's also a great way to get attention. Which is also why Gosse campaigned to be the Governor of California in 2003, alongside 134 candidates including Gary Coleman, Larry Flynt, and Arianna Huffington. Running on the "Fairness for Singles Platform," Gosse cited inequalities in taxes, insurance, and unemployment benefits for unmarried adults.
He got 497 votes.
"Basically, for $3,500, I got hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of publicity," he says.
Each year, he throws 150 singles parties. Not all are cougar-specific, but much of his female clientele are in their 40s and 50s. Most of his events are in and around San Francisco, but in the last few years, Gosse has branched out as far as Australia. He's also involved with singles bus tours across Europe, and cruise ships bound for the Bahamas, Mexico and the Mediterranean.
For Gosse, working the singles scene is a full-time job. And, as I was amazed to learn, he's had this gig for 33 years.
"People invite me to their parties," he chuckles, "And I always ask, 'Well, are you gonna pay me?'—cause I get paid to party!"
Imagine that. Dude is living the dream.
"Welcome to the worldwide headquarters of the Society for Single Professionals!" Gosse slowly motions his hand outward like a magician or a game show host.
We've just walked the hallway from his living room, through the master bedroom, and into a makeshift office. There are two enormous PCs, piles of receipts, and a map of the SF Bay with the word "Gosse" written in Sharpie on a label covering "San Francisco." An overstuffed bookcase is filled with extra copies of his own dating books. The titles include The Cougar Imperative, The Singles Guide to America, and A Good Man Is EASY To Find: In Southern California. All totaled, Gosse has written eight of them.
A large sliding glass door opens onto a patio, a sunny garden with roses, oranges, and grapes, and a deck shaped like the hull of a boat. He had it built after buying the house 15 years ago. The deck once doubled as a dance floor.
"This used to be a great party pad," he tells me. Gosse's annual Labor Day singles shindig was attended by 150 guests—that is, until his lawyer told him it was a liability. No problem. For Gosse, this stuff has always been serious business.
In 1978, after quitting his job as a Catholic schoolteacher, he founded American Singles Education Inc., which he prefers to call the "Society of Single Professionals" ("It's catchier"). Because he was able to incorporate as an educational non-profit—yep, instructing singles qualified him—Gosse didn't need to worry about revenue. Nevertheless, he maxed out three credit cards to get up-and-running. His best friend said he was crazy. Gosse began hosting meet-ups at a local church, then graduated to nightclubs, and even started lecturing on dating—which he himself didn't start doing until he was 19 years old.
"I was the most chicken guy in San Francisco," he confesses. "I probably wouldn't even be alive right now if the first girl I asked out said 'no.' I probably would've found me a bridge."
The valedictorian of his high school, Gosse always planned on becoming a priest. During his sophomore year in college, he realized celibacy was not for him. From there, the shy-guy graduated to full-scale bachelorhood. He says he was rejected "hundreds of times," but just kept trying. Eventually, he built up the swagger and confidence that emanates from him today. Seriously, you should see Gosse work a room. He shakes hands with everyone, and doles out hugs to the ladies who know him. If any of them were holding a baby, he'd certainly kiss it.
"In psychology, they have a fancy word for this. It's called desensitization," he explains, "Whatever you're afraid of, if you want to conquer that fear, you have to experience it over and over again. So if you're afraid of snakes, you have to handle snakes. If you're afraid of spiders, put a spider on your arm."
The demographic imperative of cougardom began to resonate with him when he was in his 20s. He recalls being a cub to more than a dozen cougars. I ask whether any of these older women ever expected to marry him?
"No, I think they were just looking for young man meat."
On Valentine's Day 1995, Gosse co-founded Americansingles.com, which he says was the second dating website in the world, and the first-ever free dating website. By the time the site was acquired in 1999, they'd collected 250,000 users—a lot in those days. The deal left Gosse flush with cash, which is how he managed to buy a four-bedroom home in Marin, the wealthiest county in California, according to Forbes.
Having established himself as somewhat of a figurehead in the professional dating world, he founded a PR firm. Today, publicity is his main source of income. During our conversations, he namedrops URLs like singlestravelcompany.com and hedonismresorts.com in the hopes they'll make this story and impress his clients.
With a roof over his head, and traction entertaining singles and doing PR, Gosse became his own publicist. He relentlessly hounded the booking agents at talk shows. For years, he pitched himself as the ultimate "American singles guru."
Finally, he wound up on Donahue. But it wasn't until he concocted the idea of hosting a "Flirting Convention" that he achieved the brass ring: An appearance on Oprah.
As it goes for dating itself, persistence wins.
In 1996, he'd started hosting cougar parties. Only back then, he called them "younger men, older women parties." By the time Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher were making headlines, Gosse was all but ready to pounce. One quick re-brand later, and he was tossing around the word "cougar" as much as possible.
He booked a ballroom at Dinah's Garden Hotel in Palo Alto, California, and crossed his fingers. "I didn't know if 5 or 500 people would show up!" he recalls.
It sold out. And then some.
"These guys were desperate to get in. They were crawling through the bushes!" he says, "We had to turn away about a thousand people."
Persistence wins—unless sometimes, for some people, it doesn't.
I promised myself I wouldn't dance. That goes out the window as soon as a petite blonde asks me to. The woman, who appears to be early-50s, is pretty adamant. She weaves us through a crowd to the edge of a packed dance floor. "DJ Miguel," who flew in from Las Vegas, is waving a glittery drumstick as he blasts the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar":
I bet your mama was a tent show queen, and all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen.
Welcome to Sausalito! Population: At least 100 single people! We're at a club overlooking six miles of water that lead to the San Francisco skyline. When I first arrive, Gosse charges over. He seems surprised that I've made it.
An hour later, he's not at all surprised to see me dancing -- with his wife. That's right. The short blonde is Debby Gosse, his bride of 12 years. She's also his "partner in crime." She tags along on the cruises, helps manage the ticket table at events, and keeps the party going. Part of her job is getting guys on the dance floor. Rich does the same with the women.
It's an interesting dynamic, which might seem difficult to reconcile if it weren't for the fact they met at one of Gosse's parties 13 years ago. She was in the front row for his keynote speech. She laughed at all his jokes.
"There's a lot of cougars at this party!" Gosse points out. Technically, Debby is one of them, but not for Gosse. She's actually four years younger than he is.
"People say 'Aren't you a hypocrite?'" he explains, "You have to understand, cougars don't want to date an old man like myself; they want to date young hot studs."
Indeed. I sense a lot of eyes in my direction (though it could be my wedding ring).
The evening feels a little like a wedding without food. The ages span from 30s to 80s, though most folks are between 40 and 60. There's plenty of booze and small talk. DJ Miguel plays everything from Lady Gaga to Creedence and Beyonce's "Single Ladies," twice.
Towards the end, I find myself sitting next to two 52-year-old women. One says she's been coming to Gosse's parties for 15 years. She never dates younger, only older. "I tried the whole 'silver fox' thing [for parties]," Gosse told me that one afternoon at his house, "Yeah, that went over like a dead fish."
In Gosse's world, clichés are continually embraced and celebrated. There is no irony for irony's sake. No snark. Or pessimism. For 33 years, the guy's been booking rooms and crossing his fingers people show up. Betting on loneliness is a pretty sure thing, but not every night goes off. So he'll just continue doing whatever it takes to get our attention, whatever might keep his career-long party going.
"I know the cougar thing is just a fad and eventually it's gonna die. That's why I've got my next big thing all planned out for next year," he smirks, then takes a sip from that balloon-etched wine glass, "But you'll have to wait to see what it is."
Images by Jon Snyder, who is associate photo editor at Wired.com and a frequent contributor to San Francisco magazine.
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