Tom Cruising toward a tabloid crackup.

Media criticism.
June 21 2005 7:15 PM

Cruising Toward a Tabloid Crackup

How Tom and Katie are undermining the celebrity magazines.

TomKat: Fake it till ya make it? Click image to explain.
TomKat: Fake it till ya make it?

The celebrity magazines sustain themselves on a limited and predictable set of story lines: Girl meets boy. They're keeping their affair quiet. They've gone public! Will the young couple wed? They're engaged! When and where will they get married? They're married! Wow, what a deluxe honeymoon! They want children, but can they get pregnant? She's pregnant! Is he cheating? It's a boy! It's twin boys! He's left her!

The celebrity magazine formula endures because 1) it speaks to basic human obsessions, 2) because the breeding-age "stars" the magazines showcase benefit professionally from all the publicity, and 3) because the stories follow a predictable, steady pattern as comforting to the reader as a soft rain on the rooftop at night.

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This recipe is flexible enough to allow both spoon-fed "facts" from publicists and original reporting by writers. As a result, a magazine may report in the same story that a star has hospitalized himself for "exhaustion," and that his anonymous friends say he's at the end of a coke binge. But such disparities have never thrown the genre into the editorial turmoil it's endured from the eight-week-old Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes affair. The blitzkrieg relationship of the A-list star and his C-list TV-star fiancée, which peaked last Friday with a proposal of marriage atop the Eiffel Tower and a press conference afterward, has caused the celebrity magazine formula to warp and buckle.

The aggressiveness of the TomKat timetable completely violates the industry formula. If the magazines are going to invest pages in a star-on-star romance, they want the thing to unfold like two seasons of Desperate Housewivesso they can string along their readers—and reap the longer-term economic benefits. After the first rumors of on-set canoodling, paparazzi shots of a disheveled lover leaving a romantic sleepover should appear. Then they should be photographed on vacation or walking their recently adopted pup before aerial shots of their jointly purchased love nest are published. Finally, the editorial interruptus also known as "wedding watch" begins. The buildup should usually last six months to a year or so before breaking into something big, like a distant-yet-opulent ceremony that's canceled once or twice. The magazines want a preview of the wedding dress and engagement ring, and they want the couple to sell the wedding pics and the honeymoon pics, to pose for at-home photos in the Xanadu they build in the Hollywood Hills, to share the marital troubles they overcome, and then finally, to feed their newborns to the publicity machine.

Hence the editorial crisis: Even though the convenience relationship/marriage is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, the rapid pacing of TomKat: A Love Story has fractured not only reader expectations but the magazines' faith in the enterprise from almost the beginning. Instead of swooning over the couple, the magazines were asking polite variations on the question, "What's up with this and why is Cruise acting like such a freak?" Perhaps if Tom Cruise were more convincing an actor playing himself than, say, his character in Collateral, his bizarre and generic affirmations of love would have encouraged the press to take them seriously as a couple. But his strong-arming and history—he adamantly denied problems in the weeks leading up to the end of his first marriage, to Mimi Rogers—have led most celebrity coverage to entertain the possibility that the affair is a charade designed to promote their careers. No tabloid can survive long in pursuing a love story in which an important part of the story is that there may be no love there.

It's become such a media event that no less a news authority than the New York Timeshas weighed in on the phoniness angle. Times columnist Frank Rich has also invoked the "perennial unsubstantiated questions" about Cruise's sexuality and his "very public affiliation" with the Church of Scientology as reasons tabloid readers might question the love affair, citing an unscientific poll of People readers that found 62 percent didn't buy the fairytale.

In hedging their Cruise-Holmes bets instead of getting to the bottom of the story, the celebrity magazines have placed what little credibility they have—and maybe even their bottom lines—in peril. If the magazines march in lock step with TomKat all the way to the altar but the relationship turns out to be no more real than, say, that of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, will readers resent the way they were led on? Or, will one of the celebrity titles abandon illusion before … Oh my God! I just heard that Brad and Angelina are engaged! Gotta go.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.