I’ve never been to the Smithsonian but sometimes I will read about an exhibit piece from pop culture, like Dorothy’s red shoes or the hazmat suits from Breaking Bad. You know what belongs in the Smithsonian of my mind? Oprah’s couch circa 2005, the year Tom Cruise jumped up and his public image crashed down to earth. (Maybe that’s why he’s trying to escape to space now?)
Yesterday, Lainey reminded me that it has been juuuust over 15 years since that episode – May 23, 2005 to be exact. We can see the scene in our head: Tom, in all black, maniacal with joy. Oprah, incredulous but keeping it together because she’s a professional, trying to get out her questions. Watching the clip back today is just as electrifying as watching it the first time. It was like Beatlemania – these grown ass women were screaming and crying and hugging each other and when he walked out to that surge of energy, he was already super keyed up (remember, Katie was backstage) and he fed off that energy. The couch-jumping looked ridiculous to the audience at home but not to the in-studio crowd, who were hooting and hollering and cheering him on. In that way, you can almost understand why Tom kept jumping. He was matching their enthusiasm and they his.
Tom is a movie star and he was performing his love. Have you ever seen Tom Cruise at a film premiere? Watch the way he works the crowd and the red carpet; he is always on and has been described as intense, particularly with his eye contact. In front of Oprah and the live audience, he brought the same intensity he brings to a motorcycle trick or “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” But the problem was, he wasn’t just playing to the live audience or the viewers at home – he was playing to the internet, but he didn’t know it yet. And he didn’t know it because Tom, who up until then had managed to keep a tightly controlled image intact (even through his divorce with Nicole Kidman), had not a single f-cking clue how much the world was changing around him.
He couldn’t have possibly imagined that this talk show appearance, the friendly space in front of an adoring audience, would turn him into a laughingstock seemingly overnight because Tom didn’t understand that the celebrity ecosystem was rapidly evolving. YouTube was just a few months old (meaning the clip could be watched and shared endlessly); lucky for him, he was years away from being turned into a meme (can you imagine what Twitter would have done with this?). But there were blogs (like this one) that were cutting through the tabloid headlines and creating a direct relationship with readers, unbound by traditional PR quid pro quo relationships.
The internet was not his only problem. Before his stop at Oprah, Tom had inadvertently left himself vulnerable to negative coverage (even from traditional media) because in 2004 he cut ties with his powerful publicist Pat Kingsley (reportedly after she told him to cut the Scientology talk on The Last Samurai press tour). Without her oversight, he quickly lost his grip on his image. Most dangerously, he lost that sage and professional voice who was not aligned with his religion or his family; he lost a person whose only allegiance to was his career, not Scientology.
Besides that one-on-one relationship, he lost the advantage of being with an agency that represented other celebrities, the strength-in-numbers strategy that worked so well for publicists because they were able to leverage their clients to kill negative coverage. If a magazine or journalist wanted to go after Tom, they had to get through Pat, her colleagues and their collective agency. Without her, he became an island, something that continues even now.
It also didn’t help that Katie “Kate” Holmes, 16 years his junior, seemed glassy-eyed and naïve next to him. Just as gossip became more critical and cynical about celebrity motivations, Tom wanted us to buy into a great love story by presenting Katie to Oprah’s audience, where they waved to the audience like a politician and their spouse on a convention stage.
One thing that can’t be discounted in the gossip discourse is a gut feeling – sometimes, no matter how hard a celebrity tries, we just don’t buy what they are selling. The whole thing felt weird to us, didn’t it? And then it made him feel weird to us. We were supposed to believe she was wearing his jeans, even though she rolled up the cuff. Why would his jeans be too long on her when she was clearly taller than him?! That is what he wanted and what his team expected, that we would literally not believe our eyes. But many of us didn’t buy into it and a few years later, with Katie’s dramatic escape and the stories about Scientology and the questions around his relationship with Suri, our suspicions proved valid.
But before we knew any of that and could verbalize what it meant through gossip, we knew that Tom was, in the words of Oprah, “gone.” And he’s never quite come back.