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The Age of the
Silver Fox

The Age of the
Silver Fox


Anderson Cooper, George Clooney, Sean Connery. How a little gray hair makes men the object of lust and redefines how one 30-something thinks about growing old.

I first spotted the gray a couple of months before my 30th birthday-three or four strands glistening on my left temple. I leaned into the mirror for a closer look and confirmed my worst nightmare: I was officially old. Sure, there were only a few hairs now, but it was only a matter of time -- months, maybe a year? -- before I'd be totally gray and my youth would be lost forever. Call it hyperbole, but as is the case with so many men, much of my self-esteem is tied up in my appearance and libido. How would this baleful development affect my relationship prospects? More important, would I ever get laid again?

The Day I Went Gray: It could've been a Roger Corman horror flick for all the anxiety I felt that morning -- and continued to feel for weeks. Every day I'd check, hoping it was just a trick of the light. I wasn't entirely certain (or maybe I was just in denial) until I sat in my hairstylist's chair and told her what I suspected. She didn't believe me, but then she bent down and homed in on the wayward hairs. She touched them, moved them around a bit, and then declared, in the relaxed way of someone clearly used to dealing with diminishing pigment (and fragile egos), "Yeah, they're gray." Then she snipped them off.

Gradually, the shock wore off, and I no longer felt negatively about the gray interlopers. I didn't feel positively about them either. They were just a physical fact, something to which I grew indifferent, like the birthmark on my right forearm or the little moles elsewhere on my body. I have dozens of those babies, and they don't make me less attractive, do they?

I was still wrestling with the answer to that question when one afternoon last winter I came face-to-face with a silver fox while at the grocery store -- and my insecurity about gray hair dissipated instantly like a bad dream.

I had seen silver foxes before, of course, and even counted some of them as friends, but this guy was different: He was stunning -- lean, attractive, skin unblemished. With his stylish clothes, Ferragamo shoes, and palpable sense of ease, he was a paragon of desirability -- and his thick gray hair only upped the sexy quotient. I wanted to sleep with him, date him, have his kids. And it was all the more enchanting considering this was in Chelsea in New York City, where the average gay guy still sports cargo pants and a fake tan. This man -- and he was definitely a man -- made the other guys look like mere boys.

Sure enough, I started to see silver foxes like him everywhere, these smoking-hot guys with toned torsos, obvious confidence, and insouciant hair, who weren't decades older than me but only a few years. Wherever I was -- on Seventh Avenue, in my Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, or on business trips -- they seemed to flaunt their silver hair and masculinity as if they hadn't a care in the world. I was beguiled. Now I couldn't wait to go gray. I wanted to be a silver fox -- and to date one.

It has never been hotter to be a silver fox. While men used to cover their gray with Grecian Formula, now an increasing number of them are proudly accepting their changing hair color -- regardless of their age. Instead of being written off as "old," these silver foxes are defiantly rewriting the rules governing men and age -- part of the larger cultural backlash against everything from wrinkles to death.

And while movie stars like George Clooney and Sean Connery loom large in the phenomenon, the silver fox also encompasses guys in their 30s, even 20s, who are sexy, in shape, and have some to a lot of gray hair. While the older silver fox may be hailed for his worldliness, status, and sophistication -- as well as his silver locks -- the younger foxes offer a unique variation on the theme. They look hot and youthful -- and at the same time seasoned, thanks to their gray hair. As one 26-year-old told me, "It adds to their sexiness when guys in their 30s have gray hair. It makes them look like established men -- like what a man is. It's hot."

Gray hair is "cool now," says Andrew Weir, one of the fashion world's go-to guys for casting advertising campaigns and editorial features. In his work scanning the streets for "real" men and women to model for his clients' projects, he says he's noticed a definite rise in the number of silver foxes. Forty-one years old and graying, Weir is one himself. "I'm as vain as the next one -- I spend two hours at the gym every day," he says. "But my hair? There are two choices: Look like an idiot or embrace it. The things I have power over are what I'm going to work on, like eating right."

You can thank any number of factors for this new outlook, starting with Anderson Cooper -- the poster boy for silver foxes, who was 33 when he first came to national prominence as the host of reality show The Mole in 2001 (before becoming a news anchor on CNN) and is now 41. And certainly movie stars like Robert Downey Jr. -- who looked rakishly handsome with his salt-and-pepper head on the May cover of GQ -- have picked up where Cooper started. Fashion magazines are influential too, as silver fox models have graduated from watch and car advertisements to high-fashion photo shoots, imbuing gray with the shine of aspiration.

But more than anything, it's the growing cultural emphasis on rootsy authenticity, epitomized by the green movement, that is making guys reconsider gray. At its core, being green -- as much about appearance and perception as it is about saving the world -- means being natural, and with gray hair there's no artifice. For gay men, historically known to bury hurt and pain under glossy, performative exteriors, that's especially revolutionary. The AIDS crisis, for instance, was a big factor in the hypermasculine Chelsea-boy aesthetic that's now on the wane: Guys, whether they were HIV-positive or not, didn't want to look sick, so they became robust. But as the perception of HIV as a manageable disease has grown, the specter of illness and death has diminished. Like the bear scene, silver foxes seem like a return to normalcy -- to an honest reflection of what men really look like.

"I think it's a bit of a slap in the face of the overpumped Abercrombie- or Hollister-wearing guy," says Daniel Peddle, another prominent fashion-industry casting scout, who, like his friend Weir, is gay. The silver fox, Peddle says, is a "more normal, not exaggerated, masculinity. There's something feminine about it." Even the notion of a fox, which is a slight but cunning animal, plays into that effect. "It's not a wolf -- you don't think of some beast."

It's a trend that New York psychotherapist Brian Lathrop has noticed among his predominantly gay male clientele too. In the last few years, he says, his clients in their 30s and 40s have shown a greater acceptance of turning gray in a way that's markedly different from just a decade ago. "They're not treating it like a symptom of aging," Lathrop says. Instead, they're making it work for them. "It's not hypermasculine, but truly masculine." As his clients become more confident about themselves in general, "you see it in their appearance because there isn't that need to be hyper anything."

Though the terms are often used interchangeably, the silver fox is entirely different from a "daddy" type or just an older man who has it all, Lathrop says. "The guys I'm working with -- they don't necessarily want to be daddies. They just want to live their life fully and not feel like they have to defend their masculinity. They're still growing their hair long; they still come off as youthful." And, Lathrop says, they all maintain healthy lifestyles to achieve that effect.

It's the realism that's so sexy -- and inspiring to younger men like me. Take the posse behind the emerging New York fashion label Loden Dager, who used a top silver-haired model for the preview of their 2008 resort collection. "Silver hair is first and foremost about confidence and experience," partner Alexander Galan says. "For younger guys like ourselves, it also gives us something to look forward to, not fear."

When 38-year-old Matt Pestorius met me at a coffee shop earlier this summer, I felt the same whoosh of excitement I'd experienced that afternoon at the grocery store. Muscular but not overly so, with an energetic vibe, Pestorius had a handsome, slightly lined face set off beautifully by shades of gray hair. I grinned greedily when a friend asked, "Who's that guy?" Although Pestorius was only my interview subject, I felt a certain pride in my "catch."

It's an effect that Pestorius admits happens a lot, particularly at a largely gay restaurant near his home in Hell's Kitchen, where he's known by the young waitstaff as "that sexy guy with the silver hair." But being a sex object has taken Pestorius a long time to get used to. "People are, like, 'I love your gray hair!' but when I was 25, it was not the look at all," he says.

A sales executive who cut his teeth at L'Oreal, Pestorius says his colleagues there encouraged him to dye his hair when the gray came in strong at 28. He colored it every four to six weeks but eventually grew tired of the high-maintenance routine. "It goes against my entire DNA," says the laid-back Pestorius, and that displeasure outweighed his fear of looking old. One day he went to a hairstylist and said, "Cut it off, just shave it! Get it off of there!" The short cut made the gray stand out; he walked out a new man.

"I was really happy with it," he says -- and more so that night when he went to a bar and was approached by a cute guy. "He literally asked, 'So what do I have to do to get a dance with you?' " Pestorius says, laughing. "I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' I actually thought my friends had set it up!" They hadn't. Whether because of his new hair or his new disposition, Pestorius was in demand.

As a gay man, he says it was tremendously freeing to be real about his appearance. "When I decided to go gray, it was me letting go of my need to be what everybody else expected me to be -- to be what gay culture said I should look like," he explains. "I finally said, 'I'm tired of having to keep up!' "

Gray hair is so coveted these days by gay and straight men alike that strangers often come up to Jared Cocken and ask him if he dyes his. But you couldn't manufacture the rich, variegated color that Cocken, a 32-year-old creative director in New York, has naturally. If you tried, you'd look like you had dusted your hair with baby powder (read: Tom Cruise in Collateral).

"It's great for people finding you in a crowd," Cocken says about his hair, which he amplifies by wearing lots of black and white. He's never considered dyeing it -- partly because there's less cultural anxiety around going gray in his native England (he's from Stratford-Upon-Avon, hometown of Shakespeare and the Teletubbies). "There are a lot more young gray-haired guys in London and Dublin," says Cocken, who started going gray at 18. "Maybe it's something to do with the gene pool."

Cocken says he never got a single comment on his hair until he moved to the States four years ago--but now it happens all the time, to the great amusement of his American wife. "She thinks it's hysterical," Cocken says with a laugh, especially since she doesn't find the color so remarkable. "I don't think she has any particular draw to gray hair, but she really likes it on me."

Many women have long accepted gray hair on their boyfriends and husbands in a way that gay men haven't. So I'm unprepared when Travis Parman, a 35-year-old media relations representative for General Motors in New York, sounds as blase about his silvery 41-year-old partner, John Davis, a health-care consultant. It throws me off; I'm expecting Parman to express some resistance, but he digs Davis's coif. "It connotes maturity, sophistication, and confidence," Parman says, qualities that are as appealing as the color itself.

But it's Justin Conner -- unabashedly gray since his college days at Vassar--who really surprises me. As he's only 25, I suspect he's on the leading edge of a full-scale generational upheaval when it comes to men, gray hair, and age. Like many of his peers, Conner talks with a sense of entitlement about his life and how he expects to be treated, an attitude that translates directly from his silver hue. Admittedly, he was insecure at first. "I felt compelled to dye it because I didn't want to look older than I was," he says. Then he had a fateful conversation with a friend who said, "It's a look, and everyone wants a look. You have something that's unique, that defines you." Once he became comfortable enough to stand out, he started to enjoy it. Looking older, he says, often works to his advantage: "I find that people in their 20s don't have their shit together, and people don't associate me with that. They think I'm 30 or 35."

Best of all, he says, having gray hair is "a good conversation starter. I get asked about it a lot!"

Clearly, gray is well on its way to being just another hair color, taking its rightful place alongside blond, brown, and black. Some people like brunets, some like blonds. Me? I'm starting to prefer silver foxes.

Looking back, I suppose I knew this years ago, watching Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network and crushing on Ina Garten's friend T.R. Pescod, by then an established silver-haired model. He'd bring flowers or ingredients for a dish to her casually perfect dinner parties, and I'd wish I was there with them, being civilized and having fun in Garten's East Hampton backyard. We'd drink too much wine and then, when Ina was in the kitchen cleaning up, T.R. and I would go behind the bushes and have our own kind of fun.

But I was younger then and not ready to settle down. Now that I'm more mature, it occurs to me that the silver fox may very well be the best kind of guy to partner up with. Fully aware of the pressure against aging in our youth-obsessed culture, he chooses to be himself anyway regardless of dubious external demands. And to me, that's the sexiest thing in the world. (Plus, what a trait to pass on to the kids!)

That's why, despite my initial despair, I'm now eagerly waiting for the gray hair to sprout: I want to be as sexy and self-confident as a silver fox. Until that happens, I'll focus instead on trapping my own silver fox to domesticate and love.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Sean Kennedy