It's Only Publicity Love

By Tina Brown
Thursday, May 26, 2005

As Tom Cruise's promotional campaign for his "romance" with baby-faced starlet Katie Holmes shifts into high gear, it's running into a brand-new PR problem: No one believes it's for real. Or, no one is prepared to pretend to believe it's for real.

Maybe there's been some alarming secret studio poll that proves scientifically (or Scientologically?) that Cruise's weirdness/asexuality rating is at an all-time high. But with a new movie to promote (the impending Steven Spielberg monster "War of the Worlds"), a People magazine poll showing 62 percent of readers dismissing the Tom/Katie liaison as a publicity stunt, and showy PDA ploys falling flat, Cruise resorted to desperate measures:

On Oprah's show he ditched the Method-actor low-key body language normally used for Item Implication and put on a vaudeville show. He was a guy not just happy about a new girlfriend but dizzy with love, a guy uncontrollably flipping his lid, so high with Katie-induced euphoria that he was unable to restrain himself from pumping high-fives, breaking into gusts of head-shaking hysterical laughter, pounding the floor and jumping on Oprah's sofa to emphasize his unbridled passion for that love of his life, the lovely and talented Holmes. Cruise hasn't shown so much scenery-chewing energy around a sofa since that solo dance scene in "Risky Business," the one where he rocked out in a pair of Saddam-style underpants.

In between Cruise's convulsions on the sofa, Oprah kept reminding us, "I know how private you are." Among the blurted revelations she pried from the Tomster were "I love relationships," "My kids are good people" and "I like intimacy." Spielberg was beamed in to tell us, "What your audience sees of Tom is how I know Tom. There are no secrets ."

There was a fascinating moment of unscripted suspense when Oprah asked how Cruise and Holmes first met. Perhaps to play for time while he constructed a credible first-encounter fable, Cruise exploded in a fit of embarrassed mirth for what seemed like minutes. "I just called her because I wanted to meet her, you know!" he finally choked out.

As I watched the performance with my 14-year-old daughter, she remarked equably: "This would be so sweet if it wasn't so fake."

Oh dear. Most of the blogs and the columns seem to agree with her. "Sure They're in Love -- With Publicity" ran the Boston Globe headline. What Cruise doesn't seem to get is that everybody's an insider now, from the Us Magazine generation on up to the AARP cohort. Tom is just not hip to the public's new hipness. We know the poor guy has to go on "Oprah" and pretend to be in love with Holmes, and we don't mind -- he has a movie coming out. But can't he, like, fake it with more conviction? Cruise is behaving as cluelessly as the anchor of "The Insider," Pat O'Brien, who in March was busted as a drunken three-way sex fiend on a phone call that made it to the Internet. O'Brien bounced straight from rehab to Dr. Phil for his ritual TV redemption. Nice move, but a little too fast. The shifty eyes, the grudging grovel -- as fake apologies go, it was a B-list performance. Also, the fact that Mr. O'Brien and Dr. Phil share the Viacom network reeked of corporate synergy.

Now we're all living in the Truman Show, and the PR machinery of celebrity has become more complex and interesting than the celebrities themselves. This may be because so many of the latter are intrinsically boring anyway. Vanity Fair's May cover story on the "Desperate Housewives" stars was not about their lives or even lifestyles but the PR machinations of the photo shoot.

Back in the Photoplay/Louella Parsons era, bogus Hollywood romances were manufactured in bulk by studio publicists and happily devoured by a wide-eyed public. But that assembly line went the way of the Rust Belt decades ago. The new game is that celebrities are not only supposed to be fake-real, they're supposed to accept that no one is going to believe that, either. Work with it, people! Britney Spears's new UPN reality show is shot with deliberately inept hand-held cameras to make her nose look big and her skin blotchy as she burbles on about sex positions, while at the same time her more-knowing fans IM each other, "Britney is so, like, trying to come off as white trash so that teens will relate to her again."

The Bush team has stayed in business by successfully marketing fake reality. It's an accepted chestnut that the president's "town meetings" on the campaign trail, like the ones on his endless Social Security tour, are peopled by Republican shills serving up softballs. But the resulting sound bites are still acceptable media product -- even as commentators point out there is nothing real about them.

The new magazine Radar notes that 34 years ago, in Jerzy Kosinski's "Being There," the vacant mind of gardener Chauncey Gardiner was interpreted as a redoubt of philosophical depth or secret wisdom. Now everyone knows Chauncey Gardiner has a vacant mind but we are happy to lionize him anyway.

Or are we? Just as Tom Cruise can't seem to sell his Katie Holmes story to the public, the Bush bunch has suddenly encountered resistance to their Social Security phase-out, their Terri Schiavo exploitation binge and their attempt to turn a front-of-the-book mistake in Newsweek into the apotheosis of the liberal media conspiracy to undermine the military in the war on terror. Maybe it was a straw in the wind that, instead of going away quietly, Pat Tillman's parents let rip this week about their disgust with the rewritten, Photoshopped story of how their son really met his death in Afghanistan. Just as the New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks defended Newsweek's honor, the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page deserted Bush boosterism long enough to register dismay about the exploitation of Tillman's tragic (and still heroic) end.

Tuesday the House defied the president's veto threat when it approved a bill that would lift Bush's 2001 restrictions on federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research. Maybe the White House's ominous reality show music is getting old. Like Tom Cruise's cooling fans, even Republicans could be beginning to tire of the PR stunts of the "Fear Factor" administration.

2005Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company