TomKat's Mission Impossible

Maintaining privacy always proved a challenge to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Now their divorce is likely to draw even more tabloid attention than their marriage.

News of Tom and Katie’s impending divorce marks the biggest, tabloid-friendly, first-names-needed-only celebrity split since, well, Tom and Nicole. The major difference is that when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s marriage crumbled in 2001, the Internet and Reality TV-driven 24-hour celebrity mania had yet to take off.

Cruise and Katie Holmes’ relationship, in its timing and its superstar-studded pairing, proved custom made for the TMZ Generation. We might never know what broke up the duo. But it’s fair to say that maintaining any semblance of privacy amid unprecedented scrutiny in an age when anyone with a smart phone is a click away from posting celebrity pictures or video might have proven a near-mission impossible. 
Not that the couple, dubbed TomKat, always shunned attention. Cruise declared his love for Holmes while jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show studio couch in 2005. The couple introduced their daughter, Suri, to the world via an Annie Leibovitz-snapped photo spread in Vanity Fair not long after her birth in 2006 (“Yes, Suri, She’s Our Baby!” the magazine’s front page declared).
Suri, through no fault of her own, might very well be the most famous 6-year-old in the world – perhaps even more so now that the divorce is likely to draw greater attention than her parents’ marriage and her own birth. Suri was a trending topic Friday on Twitter, which debuted less than a month before she was born.
The intense coverage of Cruise and Holmes’ relationship isn’t just a product of changes in the way information is delivered – it also reflects an old-school approach to chronicling the couplings of stars with lives seemingly (okay, probably) better than our own. The divorces of Liz and Dick, Sonny and Cher, Lucy and Desi, during different eras, captured the public imagination with similar force as when the couples initially captivated audiences.
Cruise and Holmes, unlike most of the so-called celebrities couple whose ups and downs provide tabloid fodder, are genuine, talented stars. We can’t say how their 16-year age difference might have impacted their marriage, but it certainly helped widen their collective appeal. Their fan base stretches from those who were teens when Cruise slide-danced his way to fame in 1983’s “Risky Business” to those who were youngsters weeping along in the late 1990s when Holmes’s Joey Potter found herself emotionally drowning in “Dawson’s Creek.”
There’s a certain fascination that surrounds weddings of top performers and the famous-because-they’re-famous, fueled by a public seeking vicarious, escapist thrills – and, perhaps in some cases, an opportunity to eventually say, “I told you so” when things don’t work out. The wedding of a perfectly nice British couple whose male half might someday be king inspired massive, live coverage last year. Reality TV pseudo-star Kim Kardashian’s endlessly chronicled, made-for-television marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries ended in 72 days – just three weeks after the wedding special aired on E!

Cruise and Holmes were united Friday in asking for privacy, which they are unlikely to get. Cruise, who started all this by jumping on Oprah’s couch seven years ago, soon might finding himself hiding under his bed.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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