Tom’s Risky Business

For an actor whose best performances have come from playing vulnerable men-think Jerry Maguire , Magnolia ‘s Frank T.J. Mackey, the dick-swinging motivational speaker with father issues, or Vanilla Sky ‘s disfigured playboy, David Aames-Tom Cruise has consistently presented himself on the stage of public perception as a pretty impregnable guy. Whether he was flashing his halogen smile and impeccable manners on some red carpet, laughing too hard on the late-night talk shows, vigorously litigating against some tabloid report that questioned his sexuality, or beating back Katie Couric’s attempts to marginalize the Church of Scientology, his religion since 1987, Mr. Cruise never left the impression that he spent his nights listening to the raven wings of self-doubt beating on his skull.

So it was shocking to read the news reports earlier this month that Mr. Cruise had decided to end his 14-year relationship with his publicist, Pat Kingsley, a partner in PMK/HBH-arguably the most powerful celebrity public-relations firm in the country-and hand the P.R. reins to his sister, Lee Anne DeVette, who had been flacking for her sibling’s production company with Paula Wagner, Cruise/Wagner, on the Paramount lot.

To say Ms. Kingsley was Mr. Cruise’s publicist is an understatement. In truth, she was the co-architect and engineer of the bulletproof body armor that Mr. Cruise wore to do battle with the media. The first layer of protection came via PMK’s tony stable of clients, which since its merger with the Huvane Baum Halls Agency (HBH) includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Robert Redford, Woody Allen, Matt Damon, Cameron Crowe, Aaron Sorkin and Kirsten Dunst. A publication or media outlet that offended Mr. Cruise risked losing access to the rest of PMK’s clientele.

Next came the contracts. According to a 1994 article in The New Yorker , at the press junket for the 1992 film Far and Away , for instance, reporters who wanted to interview Mr. Cruise had to sign a contract which essentially acknowledged that PMK controlled the photographs and utterances of Mr. Cruise that resulted from the promotional event-a safeguard against freelancers who resell their stories to the tabloid press overseas.

And finally, as a last line of defense, there was Ms. Kingsley, a charming septuagenarian Doberman with a Southern twang who once represented Doris Day. “Pat’s fallen on swords for that man,” said Howard Bragman, a Los Angeles–based publicist whose firm, Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, was purchased three years ago by the publicly traded giant Interpublic Group of Companies that also owns PMK/HBH and Rogers and Cowan, not to mention the McCann-Erickson World Group and Deutsch. (Mr. Bragman has since left to form his own boutique, Fifteen Minutes.)

More than effective, Mr. Cruise’s media Gundam suit helped change the way the celebrity press does business. The depth and insight of Gay Talese’s great Esquire piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold , ” was replaced by the superficial pap of [fill in magazine title here]‘s “Tom Cruise Has Control Issues.”

So when Mr. Cruise threw off all the padding and protection that Ms. Kingsley and the support team at Interpublic-owned PMK/HBH had provided for him and went “internal,” as Ms. Kingsley put it in one of her comments to the press, he looked, for the first time in a long time, like a vulnerable man.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re Tom Cruise.

As one top-tier publicist (who doesn’t work at PMK) explained to The Transom, one problem with Mr. Cruise’s public persona is, “He’s so predictable in what he says. There’s no excitement value. He’s a really nice person-you can’t take that away from him-but there’s no spontaneity to him.” Citing the dullness of Mr. Cruise’s late 2003 Dateline interview with Ms. Couric, in which the actor called his rebound girlfriend Penélope Cruz a “good girl,” the publicist said: “I don’t think you’d TiVo him.”

The problem with such a tamped-down approach to publicity is that it doesn’t wear well with repeated exposure, especially in a world where the vast number of media and press outlets vying for coverage has already devalued celebrity. “There’s barely anybody who’s a guaranteed sell anymore,” said an editor at a major magazine that frequently features celebrities on its cover. “It used to be Tom Cruise would sell, Julia Roberts would sell. Those used to be sure bets-but now, I don’t know. There’s too much competition between television and magazines.”

One industry source familiar with Mr. Cruise’s career said that the actor has “done a lot more press in the last five years” in an effort to push his films past “the $100 million” mark. But in doing so, said the source, Mr. Cruise has “exposed” himself as “robotic.”

But for now, the question of whether Mr. Cruise has decided to revamp his image-or even his reasons for leaving Ms. Kingsley-remain unexplained. “The two biggest mysteries in Hollywood are, why did Tom Cruise divorce Nicole, and why did he leave Pat Kingsley?” said the top-tier celebrity publicist. Likely they will remain mysteries: Ms. Kingsley declined to comment, and calls to Ms. DeVette went unreturned.

But for those who remember that whenever Mr. Cruise attended a public or media event, Ms. Kingsley was always a few steps behind, the signs of trouble were evident late last year when the publicist didn’t accompany Mr. Cruise on the international press tour for The Last Samurai .

Of course, the most persistent speculation tends to fall into three different categories. One, Mr. Cruise wasn’t happy with the publicity and Oscar campaign for his role in The Last Samurai , a movie that, despite the perception that it was not a hit, has earned more than $448 million in box offices worldwide, according to the March 22-28 issue of the weekly Variety . Certainly it had to be galling for Mr. Cruise to see his peers Sean Penn and Johnny Depp up for Best Actor Oscars in a year when he’d been passed over.

The second, of course, is the tense situation that ensued following Mr. Cruise and Ms. Kidman’s divorce, when the two actors were both represented by PMK and Mr. Cruise watched his ex-wife’s star ascend (though she, too, was denied an Oscar nomination this year) while his faltered.

And, finally, Mr. Cruise’s embrace of the religion of Scientology is said to have played a role in the split. “They’ve taken a greater control, and obviously he’s allowing it,” said the industry source, who noted that, in recent months, a Scientology representative sat in on Mr. Cruise’s interviews and afterward gave him feedback. Like her brother, Ms. DeVette is a Scientologist, and in Entertainment Weekly she called the allegation a “bigoted rumor.”

Indeed, the timing of Mr. Cruise’s split from PMK/HBH has sparked some speculation that Mr. Cruise’s decision may have been prompted by Mel Gibson’s decision to ignore the media’s white noise over his religious beliefs and release The Passion of the Christ . “Mel just did his thing for his religion. Maybe Tom was inspired by that,” said Mr. Bragman. “Maybe next we can expect Madonna, Roseanne and Sandra Bernhard to produce Kabbalah: The Movie .” Though Mr. Cruise’s decision to defect from PMK/HBH shouldn’t affect the firm financially, it does have symbolic heft in the Hollywood P.R. community. Though Ms. Kingsley denied it vigorously, speculation has already begun that she will follow her PMK partner Lois Smith into retirement within the next year or two, leaving only Leslee Dart, who is based in New York, the remaining partner of the original PMK firm. (Ms. Dart could not be reached for comment.)

The odds are also being calculated on how long Ms. DeVette will last in her role as Mr. Cruise’s personal publicist. Of course, if she’s in any way assisted by the Church of Scientology, which has proven that it can be as persuasive-and, when that fails, as litigious-as any public-relations firm, then Ms. DeVette may long outlast the naysayers.

And according to the celebrity publicist, representing an actor with Mr. Cruise’s stature “is not the hardest thing in the world. It’s literally getting faxes on your desk all day and saying no all day. And when the movie comes out, you sit around and decide what magazines you are going to do. Tom’s not stupid. He has Paula Wagner, and [Lee Anne] has the studio publicists helping him.”

But as Mr. Cruise approaches his 42nd birthday, he has got to understand that he’s fighting a difficult battle. His stardom may survive, and he seems to have joined in a productive partnership with his Minority Report director, Steven Spielberg (they are planning a remake of The War of the Worlds ). But the persona he molded in Risky Business and developed through rabbit-toothed superstardom in Top Gun , Rain Man , Jerry Maguire and even Vanilla Sky hasn’t really advanced, as the persona of his early mentor, Paul Newman, did. Middle-aged Cruise is an amorphous movie star, unidentifiable except for sinews, good teeth and sweat. Jerry Maguire defined him last because the scrawny, desperate, sexy ambition of the Cameron Crowe character seemed to match Mr. Cruise exactly and speak for a generation struggling to find a white-collar hero.

But Mr. Cruise hasn’t redefined himself lately. This may seem beside the point for a man who can make $448 million in a Civil War uniform in Japan, but if you look at ongoing entities like Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, focused definition of a movie star’s persona is very much to the point of his vitality as an institution.

Mr. Cruise is fighting exactly this battle. Tom Cruise, the movie star, can only be perpetuated by great movie choices and brilliant, focused public presentation. His circumstances are mitigated somewhat by his boyish looks, intense competitiveness and his success as a producer, but Hollywood is a youth game, and already there are a couple of generations bumping up against him from underneath. As they grow older and their time grows shorter, they will not be so deferential-and neither, for that matter, will the press, which in a Bonnie Fuller world is less concerned with access and more concerned with paparazzi photos. Tom Cruise will have to re-emerge once more, inhabiting a persona that makes sense for 2004 and 2006 and 2008. He is, as Mr. Spielberg would probably be quick to point out, a participant in a Philip K. Dick version of show business, in which the future devours the protagonist unless the hero stays ahead of his pursuers. And his pursuers are time, and us. Both are gaining. And that’s why, said the industry source, “I don’t think any publicist needs him as much as he needs another publicist.”

Let’s Holla for Kaballah

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 3, socialite Sale Johnson and director Marty Bregman walked into Larry and Denise Wohl’s Park Avenue parlor for their first Kabbalah party. Ms. Wohl and her friend Ann Barish had invited 50 or so friends over for some sushi, sashimi, satays, Sancerre and spirituality, the latter courtesy of two rabbis from the East 48th Street Kabbalah Centre. After picking up their gratis Power of Kabbalah books, cover-blurbed by Kabbalah Mama Madonna, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Bregman took their seats near nightclub impresario Chris Barish, Rick and Kathy Hilton, dermatologist Joel Kassimir and money manager Ken Starr for Rabbi Eliyahu’s introductory speech.

Rabbi Eliyahu, who had been in the other room in deep conversation with fashionista Bettina Zilkha, joined the other rabbi in the middle of the living room, and the two of them began to discourse on the virtues of their faith. The rabbis spoke about how Kabbalah teaches its followers to live a life without stress, and to tap into that “99 percent”-i.e., one’s spiritual, mystical side. They asked the guests-standing or sitting, filling up the living room, dining room and front hall of the apartment-what they wanted improved in their lives, but made a point never to emphasize religion. “We never got the feeling this was related to Judaism,” said Ms. Johnson.

Some in the audience had been to Kabbalah parties before; Mick Jones’ wife Ann had been having them in her home for months. Others listened to the rabbis’ spiel with skepticism. When it came time for the question-and-answer session, “Marty Bregman was the most vocal,” Ms. Johnson recalled later. “He’s a really good friend of mine; he’s one of the wisest men I know. He asked the black-and-white questions. I don’t think the answers convinced him. He was definitely a nonbeliever, and I think he left still a nonbeliever. I was moving more along with his thinking,” Ms. Johnson added. “If his wife were there, Cornelia, she’s the type who would be into it-she’s more ethereal.”

Ms. Johnson said that the guests were most interested in “the red string”-the red band that’s been gracing the wrists of celebrities in Us Weekly , from Madonna, who turned the faith into a fad 10 years ago, to newbies Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. “When it’s all over, everyone’s going up-at least a good percentage of them would go up individually and talk to the two teachers, who would either put a red string on them, or they would socialize or leave,” said Ms. Johnson. “It’s this red string that’s been blessed by the Temple of Rebecca. It helps soak up and remove the negative energy from your body. It eventually wears out and falls off; then you put a new one on. It supposedly is draining your body of negative energy.” She said that she had been wondering about the string too, and went up to Rabbi Eliyahu with Mr. Barish’s girlfriend, Michelle Manning, and asked, “If you don’t have this hour to come to the center for teachings on a regular basis, can you still wear the red string?”

Ms. Johnson went on: “He said yes, but could I just come for one session? I said, ‘I’ll try, but I really can’t. It’s two hours out of my day-20 minutes there, 20 minutes back.’ He said, ‘I’ll come to you.’ I said, ‘I don’t have an hour for you.’ He said, ‘What about 20 minutes?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘Ten minutes?’ he said. I said, ‘O.K.’ He puts the red string on me, ties four knots on one side, four on the other, closes his eyes and is blessing the knots. They’ve been calling me for my 10 minutes.”

Ann Jones said she invites her friends over to her house for Kabbalah parties every few months. “I’ve had people here from Muslim princesses to musicians, to somebody who works in a store, somebody serving me,” said Ms. Jones. “My boundaries are good energy.” She said that Kathy Hilton’s first brush with Kabbalah was at her house. “When she left, the next day her daughter”-that would be Paris-”arrived home from Australia and went to the Kabbalah Center in L.A. for the first time.”

When Ms. Jones invites the Kabbalah Centre’s rabbis over for her cocktail parties, she said, her only stipulation is that they don’t talk about religion. “I don’t proselytize,” she said, “and when I do these rabbi meetings, we don’t discuss religion-we discuss spirituality .” Sometimes she invites five people over, sometimes 15. “I’ve had parties where I’ve introduced Deepak Chopra to the Kabbalah rabbi,” said Ms. Jones. “There was a little bit of dancing around, checking each other out. But I’ve had Hollywood here, rock ‘n’ roll, civilians, Deepak-everyone.”

Sally Hershberger stylist Steven Dillon discovered Kabbalah at a party like Ms. Jones’. “The rabbis operate with somebody privately who can’t really make it to the center,” he said. “That’s sort of how they got me in there.” He’s also hosted a benefit for the Kabbalah Centre’s Spirituality for Kids initiative at the Sally Hershberger salon. “We’re all just looking for the light here,” he said of himself and his co-workers. “Thanks to the celebrity people, [Kabbalah] really has changed things for the masses. The world is so celebrity-obsessed that I think the more celebrities do it, the better it’ll be.”

Ms. Johnson, a self-proclaimed “nonbeliever,” said that Kabbalah’s effects have surprised even her. “This is very weird, coming from me,” said Ms. Johnson. “But when I have things that really upset me, I have very low blood pressure-I get a spike in my blood pressure that you feel.” After the Kabbalah party, she noticed a change: “I went home and there were at least four major things that happened: The dog ate his leather leash and had to be rushed to the vet, someone left a message and said I’d been offered a price on a house in Palm Beach I’d been interested in, and then two other things. But instead of getting that tightening-in-your-chest feeling, I got the opposite. I got this puff of expansion,” she said.

Ms. Johnson’s stressful life continued apace, yet the calmness remained. “The only thing in my life that was different was a silly piece of string on my wrist,” she marveled. “I can’t claim that that was what it was, but I can’t claim that it was anything else.”

Ms. Barish, too, said that Kabbalah has relaxed her. From her motorboat in Miami, she said, “I’ve just played 18 holes of golf and I’m still calm!” She said Kabbalah has made her more patient. “It’s really improved my golf game!”

-Alexandra Wolfe