NEW YORK – "Cougars 4 Cook."
There it was, on a poster in the "American Idol" audience last week, after David Cook belted Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" in the Key of Emo. And that slogan — not to mention the woman who hoisted it — speaks to the 25-year-old singer's popularity with, ahem, women of a certain age.
Maybe it's his edgy-yet-mainstream appeal, sly grin, sparkling hazel eyes, facial scruff, love for crossword puzzles, love for his mom and brothers. Or perhaps it's the way he broke down in tears after his final performance, a rock-anthem arrangement of "The World I Know," which he rebelliously defended from Simon Cowell's criticism.
Somewhere down the line, the Midwest-raised former bartender became a sex symbol for scores of women who are practically old enough to be his mom. And clearly, they voted.
Linda Sharp, smitten as a schoolgirl, voted 473 times for Cook after Tuesday's final performance show. The 42-year-old married mom used her land-line and cell phone — as well as her three daughters' cell phones — to show support for the singer.
"The biggest thing: He's legal, and that goes a long way," said Sharp, who's from Austin, Texas. "He's 25. That's old enough that we can openly ogle him, and we can drool over him, and it doesn't make us feel like we could be his mother."
The same couldn't be said for 17-going-on-13 David Archuleta, the kid from Murray, Utah, whose booming, mature voice belies a youthful innocence and humility that, at times, bordered on painful to watch. Cook, by stark contrast, was increasingly self-assured as the year wore on.
Sharp writes "Idol" recaps on her blog "Don't Get Me Started," which attracts the soccer-mom set, who've praised the various talents of Cook. After she posted the "Risky Business"-inspired "Guitar Hero" commercial starring Cook, one commenter said: "Mmmmmmmmmmmmm. Need I say more?" Another wrote: "Have I died? Is this heaven? I'll take it!"
Apparently these women weren't just smitten with a younger man, they were motivated, too: In a landslide victory, Cook, from Blue Springs, Mo., beat Archuleta by a margin of 12 million votes out of the record 97.5 million cast by viewers.
"American Idol" had slipped in the overall ratings this season, but Wednesday's finale was seen by 31.7 million people — about a million more than the year before, according to Nielsen data — suggesting the show swiftly gathered momentum after it boiled down to man vs. boy.
And the biggest viewer erosion in season seven was right in Archuleta's voting bloc. Ratings fell 18 percent among women aged 18-34; and 12 percent among teenagers 12-17. Also apparently in Cook's favor: Viewership has risen among people aged 50 and over, and the median age of an "Idol" viewer, once in the mid-30s, is now up to 42.
"I'm exposed to the Jonas Brothers and the `High School Musical' crowd and all of that, but as cute as I might think they are, they do make me feel maternal — not hot," Sharp said. "So watching David Cook, I think that's been a huge appeal for thirty/forty/fiftysomethings that 'We're not dead.' We might drive the soccer minivan, (but) we're just picky about what perks us up."
Apparently, they can be picky about hair, too.
Michael Slezak, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly magazine, said Cook became "almost unstoppable" after getting rid of that unfortunate comb-forward haircut in the middle of the seventh season.
"If someone had told me 14 weeks ago that David Cook would turn out to be this season's sex symbol, I wouldn't have believed it," Slezak said. "He had this hideous mop of hair and he looked a little schlubby and, you know, he was just a very average kind of guy with bad hair ... . Getting that side-part during Dolly Parton week was possibly his best strategic move of the season, even more so than his rearrangement of 'Always Be My Baby.'"
With Cook's makeover came growing confidence on stage — and tears. The grainy-voiced rocker recently wept during a show while his older brother, Adam, who is battling advanced brain cancer, sat in the audience. He cried during his hometown visit and the two-part finale.
"Another reason women really dig him is he's an emotional guy and he's not afraid to show it," Slezak said. "It's hard to resist the appeal of a grown man crying tears of joy and not trying to hide it."
Anne Ward, 50, of New York City, said she impressed by Cook's "brotherly relationship" with Archuleta and the humility he showed when he didn't react to Cowell's acid-tongued commentary. Also: his frontman mystique.
"Here's this guy who sings so great, he crosses genres, and he's vulnerable, but yet, we didn't know a lot about him. And he's sort of soulful when he sings," said Ward, who has downloaded almost all of Cook's "Idol" songs.
Ward, a longtime fan of the show, said Cook "looks like a man, and he acts like a man," and knows how to milk the camera — but not in an overt, smarmy way (think Constantine Maroulis in season four). She was initially wowed by his musical skills, but didn't "feel the sex appeal factor" until his emotional performance of "Music of the Night" during Andrew Lloyd Webber week.
"It's almost like a courtship," Sharp said of gradual allegiance from other contestants to Cook. "It's been like this slow burn, and all of a sudden our internal 16-year-olds got ignited."
The icing on the cake, Sharp said, was Cook's finale duet with ZZ Top — and the "Guitar Hero" commercial aired during the finale, an homage to Tom Cruise's pants-less lip sync to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" in "Risky Business."
"We're the ones that salivated so heavily over Tom Cruise in `Risky Business' that he really slid to superstardom on a trail of our spittle," she said. "So to see David Cook — who we're firmly in love with — put into those two things ... I mean, it was just a gift. It was a present."
Archuleta did the exact same spot with similar choreography that aired later in the telecast, but it lacked the feral energy and intuition that Cook brought to the role. Cook looked like he knew what he was doing — but the would the angelic Archuleta really rock out in his skivvies if his parents left him home alone?
"They're both very talented, but it really boils down to what does it for you: A sexy hot man or Webkinz come to life?" she asked. "Is your cell phone studded with glitter, or do you just have a regular cell phone like I do?"