Let’s start with the inspiration. Namely, what is an actual silver fox? According to Wikipedia, a silver fox is a melanistic form of red fox — melanism roughly meaning the opposite of albinism. Furthermore, silver foxes display an array of pelt colors. Some are completely black except for a white spot on the tip of their tail; some are bluish-gray; and some have a grayish color on the sides. All of which is to say there isn’t much silver coloring among nature’s silver foxes.
Perhaps that’s why they’re better known as male humans of a certain age than undomesticated members of the canine family. Or per a 2006 entry in the Urban Dictionary, “[A silver fox is] an attractive older man. Generally, one that has gray hair and is often desired by younger women.”
The platinum honor of being termed the original silver fox appears to belong to country singer Charlie Rich. According to a 1995 obituary in The New York Times: “Mr. Rich, called the Silver Fox because of his prematurely gray hair, reached his commercial peak in 1973 with two million-selling singles, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and ‘The Most Beautiful Girl,’ both of which featured his smooth, slightly world-weary baritone.”
These days, the most famous silver fox is CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, whose hair used to have a hue that wasn’t so one-dimensional. For instance, in a 2011 video tour of his office, the 43-year-old journalists said, “I started with Flock of Seagulls brown hair, then evolved into the gray ghost that I now appear.”
As the term has evolved, however, age seems to be as much of a determining factor as hair color when it comes to achieving silver fox status. Case in point: this February 2013 Cosmopolitan post about legendary actor Alan Arkin, entitled “Alan Arkin, Silver Fox?”: “It’s his voice and accent for starters (husky, gravelly, broad), and his no-bullshit approach to perhaps everything, then his immense talent as a character actor and the list of movies he’s been in over his decades long career in showbiz: Argo, Little Miss Sunshine, Edward Scissorhands — to name just three of many many many.” Arkin, of course, is legendarily bald.
Another alleged silver fox who’s lacking a distinctly gray dome: former teen heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jr. Again, per Cosmo, “He’s perhaps even more beautiful now because the salt-and-pepper gray hair suggests he’d take you out for dinner somewhere real classy, then order brandy afterwards which he’d slip slowly while talking about deep and meaningful things like poetry and before you know it your underwear fell off.”
And yet, silver foxes don’t seem to qualify as a fetish. At least in the porn realm, where nearly every fetish is accounted for. A search for the term on PornHub didn’t yield a single result of distinguished older gentlemen taking part in decidedly undistinguished acts; in fact, the only results were of women fucking, strutting or giving blowjobs in fur coats.
The term, however, is well-known in the Marvel Universe. The character Silverfox, who’s played by Lynn Collins in the movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is a former love interest for Hugh Jackman (Wolverine). She’s even responsible for Logan’s choice of the alias “Wolverine” after her apparent death at the hands of Victor Creed — i.e., when Logan was about to get his skeleton injected with adamantium, he asked for dog tags with the name “Wolverine,” inspired by a myth Silverfox told him. She also possesses an artificial healing factor and an age suppressant, allowing her to retain her looks even when she’s older (which, naturally, is a very silver-fox-esque skill).
All this said, the term silver fox isn’t always taken as a compliment. In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, John Slattery (the white-haired Anderson Cooper look-alike most famous for playing Roger Sterling in Mad Men) was asked, “Because of your white hair, people usually assume that you’re much older than you actually are. Do you prefer being described as a ‘silver fox’ or a ‘mougar’ (male cougar)? His response: “I hate silver fox. I absolutely hate it. It just sounds so… (he shudders)… so slimy and embarrassing.”
However, that’s the glass-half-empty way to look at it. On the flip side, here’s the more optimistic option: Last year, New Zealand held a Silver Fox Contest that attracted 220 entrants, aged 50 to 84, from all over the country, with more than 5,000 votes cast for winners. The winner, 56-year-old Mark FitzGerald, admitted earning the title was “a bit strange,” but he also found it to be “an ego boost as well.” Which was the whole point, according to the event’s organizer: “It’s about celebrating life, age and — most importantly — being happy with yourself at this stage of your life. It’s nothing to do with physical beauty or youth — this is about attitude.”