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Fug Girls: The Katie Holmes Marketing Conundrum

When Tom Cruise swept Katie Holmes out of his dreams and into his private jet, kicking off a famously earnest and weird whirlwind courtship, we had the same reaction as the rest of the world: Maverick marrying Joey Potter? Really? But ultimately, we were less curious about the hows and whys of their love than about how Katie would emerge from the rubble of her former life. Surely the Camp Cruise team that created Nicole Kidman would have stellar ideas for remodeling Katie Holmes — the dimpled, bedenimed, slouchy moppet with a middling acting career — into a powerhouse Mrs. Cruise II. Yet a series of lackluster career moves, plus the random announcement that Holmes is designing a line of children’s clothes for Armani, have us doubting there is a plan: A month shy of their three-year anniversary, it doesn’t sound like anyone at Tom Cruise Inc. knows quite how to solve a problem like Katie.

Clearly, transforming a starlet best known for biting her lip and shrugging through Dawson’s Creek into a Kidman-style superstar is no small order. The raw material isn’t terrible — Holmes’s small parts in Go and Wonder Boys were well received, and her turn in the indie flick Pieces of April earned praise, even though we don’t know anyone who actually saw that movie. But more visible roles in Thank You for Smoking and Batman Begins were terribly reviewed, and rightly so: Every time Katie popped up to talk vacantly at Bruce Wayne, our reaction was something like, “Oh, RIGHT. Her. Huh.” These missteps aside, Team Cruise still got off to an overall strong start just a few months A.S. (After Suri), when Holmes stepped out looking more Armani than American Eagle and debuted a sleek adult bob. Suddenly, she seemed almost interesting; marketingwise, the Kidman blueprint (remember that standout chartreuse Dior?) appeared to be working.

But only cosmetically. Where Kidman won a Golden Globe in 1995 for the dark comedy To Die For, Holmes’s big return to movies was the idiotic Mad Money, in which she wore tiny shorts while Diane Keaton twitched. Kidman hit Broadway in The Blue Room to raves; Holmes’s All My Sons run came and went with a critical whimper, and her Eli Stone song-and-dance cameo barely registered. In short, Kidman had chops, while Katie’s buzz mostly centered on her massive new shopping budget and the days she wore Tom’s ratty jeans. If poor little Joey Potter thought she would come out of this marriage as Kidman 2.0, she must be wondering where her critical acclaim went.

That’s why this latest gambit, the children’s line, feels more like desperation than a passion project — as if Cruise HQ threw up its hands in frustration and just flipped a coin. The girl’s got a talent for buying Suri cute dresses, but being a good shopper doesn’t make you a good designer (see also: every other celebrity with a clothing line). And Holmes’s prior forays — two awful outfits she and her stylist Jeanne Yang cooked up — looked less like high fashion than the work of two people who’d stayed up all night drinking Red Bull while watching Project Runway reruns and QVC. Hardly primo qualifications for creating fashions for tots, especially considering now might not be the most auspicious time to be introducing pricey celebrity-designed anything. Indeed, Katie Holmes: Successful Clothing Designer sounds like an even tougher sell than Katie Holmes: Oscar-Caliber Actress.

So what’s a team of handlers to do? We suspect the answer to Holmes’s career inertia lies somewhere in between. If the silver screen is too big for Katie, why not let her go small for the long haul? Episodic TV made her a star once; a weekly return to our living rooms might do it again. The Eli Stone stint was too gimmicky, but America could embrace Katie anew if, say, she dropped by Grey’s Anatomy and gunned down Katherine Heigl, played a terrorist opposite Kiefer on 24 — hey, she’s used to short dudes — or reunited with Joshua Jackson on Fringe (please?). Aim a little lower, Cruise Inc., and you might just hit the target.

Earlier: Katie Holmes’s Downward Style Spiral

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Fug Girls: The Katie Holmes Marketing Conundrum