Cruise Control

The publicist behind the movie star.

The end of a beautiful relationship
The end of a beautiful relationship

Not long ago, the momentous news came that Tom Cruise had split with Penélope Cruz, his girlfriend of just over two years—a breakup that concludes one of the more glittering chapters of Hollywood fantasy. Strangely, though, this wasn’t the most momentous split Cruise experienced that week. That honor belongs to a break that took place a few days prior between Cruise and his publicist, Pat Kingsley, a partner in the firm PMK, who’s been shepherding Cruise’s public persona for the past 14 years. (The responsibility now passes to Cruise’s sister Lee Anne DeVette.)

Cruise and Kingsley are more than simply the world’s biggest movie star and Hollywood’s most powerful flack. In the terrain of celebrity image control, they are like Lewis and Clark—explorers who charted the path that other stars quickly tried to follow. Their breakup isn’t just the end of the most successful partnership of its kind. It may well mark the demise of the very tactics this tandem perfected. There may never be another flack quite as powerful as Kingsley or a star quite as inscrutable as Cruise. In an age of scandal and nonstop scrutiny, Cruise is a curious celebrity conundrum: the world’s most famous movie star and the one about whom the least is known or understood.

To understand Cruise, it helps to understand Pat Kingsley. Kingsley cut her teeth as a “planter”—that is, a person who plants items in celebrity columns—with a Hollywood PR firm in the early ‘60s. At that time, high-profile columnists, in the mold of Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, and Louella Parsons, wielded all the power, while press agents scrambled after them, jostling for mentions of their clients. (This vicious imbalance was illustrated smartly in the sour 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success.) Movie stars themselves were under contract to big studios, which coddled these precious investments by buffing their images and hushing up their scandals.

By the early 1970s, however, the studio system was all but dismantled. Stars had become free agents, contracting out their services on a picture-by-picture basis. No longer protected by studios, stars began hiring personal publicists to craft and control their press. Still, the publicist’s job essentially involved fielding phone calls and arranging photo shoots. Then along came Kingsley and her firm, PMK, which she founded in 1987, to rewrite all the rules.

As a publicist, Pat Kingsley is best-known for saying, “No.” She was the first publicist to demand a cover story in exchange for an interview. She was the first to request—and often receive—approval over the writers and photographers assigned to cover her clients. She asked potential interviewers to submit lists of questions for preapproval. (Jodie Foster, for example, was not to be asked about John Hinckley Jr., and Kingsley pulled Calista Flockhart from a Today show interview when the show’s producers would not agree to forgo questions about her weight.) She demanded that writers and photographers on press junkets for Cruise’s movies, such as Far and Away and A Few Good Men, sign over the legal rights to their articles and images, so that PMK could control—or prohibit—the distribution of these words or photos in the future. If an editor or journalist perturbed her—by writing an article she felt was unflattering—she might refuse them future access to her entire clientele. Given the breadth of her roster—which has included Cruise, Foster, Richard Gere, Al Pacino, and many more—this was a hefty stick to shake.

Journalists often characterize Kingsley as a bully. Her clients praise her as a fierce and protective mother hen. In any case, her demands worked—in part simply because she had the chutzpah to propose them, and in part because as media outlets battled for celebrity interviews there was always an editor waiting on Line 2 who’d be happy to acquiesce to her demands. During Kingsley’s heyday, publicists acted as bouncers, stationed out in front of Hollywood’s celebrity VIP lounge, granting entrance only to select—and obedient—journalists. In turn, magazines such as Vanity Fair and People presented their interviews as dispatches from inside this exclusive club. Under Kingsley’s reign, celebrity access became the coin of the realm, and publicists controlled the purse strings. Tom Cruise, Kingsley’s star pupil, benefited from this new economy more than anyone. His Teflon-coated persona became the very model of the modern, expertly managed public image.

Not only is Kingsley and Cruise’s partnership over; so too is the era it symbolized. Today, magazine editors, struggling to regain the upper hand, attempt to anoint stars, rather than kowtow to existing ones. New magazines—particularly the revamped US Weekly, under the editorship of Bonnie Fuller, and its imitators, such as In Touch—have succeeded with a different approach. Their tone is not chummy with the stars but chummy with the readership. They run gossipy stories—rich with quotes from unnamed sources and loose-lipped “friends” and illustrated with wire-service photos—that aren’t reliant on access to their subjects. These articles are less like missives from the celebrity party than catty chatter among fans on the outside of the barriers, heckling affectionately as the stars come and go.

Partly this is due to the fact that the exploding infotainment economy—on the newsstand, on cable TV, on the Internet—has resulted in a market glut of fresh faces. The WB and UPN alone churn out photogenic young “stars” by the truckload, while reality-show winners like Trista and Ryan are heralded alongside Jen and Ben. And each new movie season brings a batch of aspiring celebrities—Rufus Sewell! Skeet Ulrich! Rosario Dawson!—that magazine editors are more than happy to throw on their covers, to see which ones stick.

This shift is also no doubt influenced by the advent of the Web, a medium in which fans can gather to speculate endlessly about their favorite celebrity obsessions. And it’s an outgrowth of cynicism: By now, we’ve repeatedly seen the media curtain pulled back to reveal the machinations of flacks like Kingsley. (As journalists are rebuffed by publicists, the “I was rebuffed by a publicist” exposé has become a mini-genre of its own.) Readers and the outlets that court them now concern themselves with talking about stars rather than talking to them. This shift has greatly devalued the currency of celebrity access—the very bargaining chip with which publicists have for so long maintained their power.

It is hard to imagine an actor succeeding today by issuing strict terms of engagement and consistently avoiding questions about his private life. He’d simply be trampled by the media herd as it stampedes toward the next young hunk. The modern publicity model is embodied instead in a star like Colin Farrell, the young Irish actor who’s been heralded as Cruise’s heir. In truth, Farrell is an anti-Cruise. Rather than protecting his secrets, he pre-emptively unfurls spectacular tales of debauchery. His rowdy off-screen antics—the boozing, the carousing, the on-again-off-again dalliances with Britney Spears—have buoyed his stardom far more than have his actual movies. And the media, not surprisingly, celebrate his candor. A Vanity Fair cover story on Farrell from 2002 feted him as “a movie star not programmed by publicists,” even though his “honesty” is as calculated a strategy as anything Kingsley might have concocted.

Kingsley elevated the flack from media caddie to professional storyteller—she was, in effect, narrating the story of Tom Cruise, highlighting certain plot lines while burying unflattering details. But flacks can no longer control the story line—nor is it, in our far more permissive age, as important for them to. Celebrities like Farrell or Britney Spears can only hope to keep their heads above water while body-surfing from scandal to scandal. They may even realize that it’s important to give us things to talk about. Otherwise, we might just start talking about someone else. Cruise and Kingsley’s tight-lipped tactics were revolutionary in their day. But they now seem as antiquated as the charms of a silent movie star, made obsolete by the dawning of the talkies. In this new climate, the terse refusals of a publicist are drowned out in the roar.