The New York Times, 9/7/06


Sometimes the fine print says it all: “Suri’s onesie by Petit Bateau; socks by Baby Dior.” What 5-month-old has a stylist? Or photos taken by Annie Leibovitz?

Just when Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes needed to prove that they were regular human beings and not — as their downwardly spiraling images have it — flakes, Vanity Fair landed on newsstands yesterday with 22 pages of photographs and an interview that accomplish just the opposite. The extravagantly orchestrated photo shoot reveals a media circus masquerading as ordinary life, and speaks to the devil’s bargain some celebrities make with the public.

As Leibovitz photos go, these are not among her best. The magazine cover, with Suri tucked inside her father’s jacket, evokes a famous 70’s photograph of Paul McCartney with his infant daughter tucked in his jacket, taken by his wife, Linda. The derivative picture is shrewdly calculated in a different way, though. Both parents have their eyes down, gazing at Suri, who stares directly at the camera; it’s a photograph that says, “Look, it’s not about us, it’s about her.”

But of course it is entirely about them, with Suri as their beautiful little prop. In a dozen other pretty but ordinary photographs (with another fashion credit for Suri’s dress), many in close-up and one set against the Rocky Mountains, they gaze at her and beam. But these are hardly private moments.

The story, written by Vanity Fair’s features editor, Jane Sarkin, describes how she, Ms. Leibovitz and what she calls “a small crew” (there are credits for hair and makeup people and a stylist) secretly holed up for five days and nights at the 400-acre Cruise estate in Telluride, Colo. They arrived during a family visit that included 15 Holmeses and a gaggle of Cruises, including his mother, sister and the children he and Nicole Kidman adopted when they were married, Isabella and Connor.

There is one family portrait of Isabella, 13, and Connor, 11, with the new parents and baby. That’s another shrewd move; any parent knows you have to include the older children. And there is a 1996 photo, also taken by the trusted Ms. Leibovitz, of Mr. Cruise and the older children. The way those children have been shielded — they haven’t been hidden from the public but haven’t been paraded, either — is admirable, instructive and entirely different from the Suri circus. Parents, even celebrities, who want privacy for their children usually manage to find it.

But if you announce your romance on “Oprah” and your engagement at an international news conference, you can’t complain about press coverage later; that is the compact Mr. Cruise and Ms. Holmes implicitly made with the public. Yet now they’re actually complaining.

“It eats away at me because it’s just not O.K.,” Ms. Holmes says in the Vanity Fair interview about the hurtful gossip, ranging from stories that Mr. Cruise bought his own sonogram machine during her pregnancy (“We were followed by paparazzi, and so my doctor had to make house calls,” she explains) to crueler rumors that Suri, who seemed to be hidden away, didn’t actually exist. Ms. Sarkin’s complicit article describes “the prying public eye” and the “scoop-starved public” greedy for Suri images. But who asked anyone to pry other than Suri’s own parents, he laughing maniacally and she giggling endlessly before the cameras?

No one really thought Suri was imaginary or some creature from another planet. The press was simply expecting what the Cruise-Holmes publicity machine had conditioned them for: more displays of a family life that only the Cruise camp can possibly see as normal.

Ordinary parents protect their children, as Isabella and Connor seem to have been guarded; that’s an impulse the public can identify with in the celebrity game. Suri’s parents might have gotten more mileage out of releasing a modest family snapshot and leaving it at that, shutting down the media frenzy without inventing a bigger show of their own. A show is clearly what they were looking for, but the entire over-the-top operation — the famous photographer, the photo so hyped it was revealed on Katie Couric’s first newscast as CBS anchor Tuesday — carries a whiff of desperation.

It’s almost as desperate as Mr. Cruise’s recent apology to Brooke Shields (offered just in time for her to mention it on the “Tonight” show) for his public attacks on her use of antidepressants. What he really needs to do is ask his former publicist, Pat Kingsley, to forgive him for firing her and take him back. He needs somebody on his side who can convince the public that he knows the difference between a celebrity photo shoot and real life, whether he actually knows the difference or not.