PR maven loses Cruise control

HOLLYWOOD — Forget Nicole and Penelope. The really eyebrow-raising breakup in Tinseltown is Tom Cruise’s split with his longtime publicist Pat Kingsley.

The town is divided over what it means: Does Cruise not know just what ironclad protection Kingsley and her phalanx of PMK minions have been providing for 15 years? And now his sister is going to do that?

Others — mostly media types — hope the rift, or parting of the ways, or whatever it was, will finally allow the press more access to the star.

Still others suggest that the PR style Kingsley learned at the knee of veteran publicist Henry Rogers and then perfected may not be as effective in the age of no-holds-barred Web sites and fanzines. These outlets write whatever they want — with or without access. They are catty and they don’t kowtow. By their lights, publicists are superfluous.

In any case, the Cruise-Kingsley split points up just how fragile and fraught with peril the relations among stars, publicists and the media are.

The unspoken motto at Kingsley’s firm and its many emulators was crystal clear: If you don’t have to deal with a particular press outlet, don’t; if you do, then do so only to feed the celeb relationship.

Taking advantage of the growing obsession with celebrity culture and the outlets it spawned in the ’80s, Kingsley could demand a cover story in exchange for an interview, bar unwanted journalists from junkets and parties, pre-approve lists of questions, suggest to editors which writers or photographers be assigned to a particular story.

Perhaps because of her southern charm and impeccable manners, she mostly got away with it.

To the press, the heavy-handed orchestrations seemed expressly designed to reveal as little about the client as possible while extracting as much positive exposure as possible.

Unprecedented consolidation in the PR world lent muscle to Kingsley’s approach. Nowadays almost all celeb access is in the hands of two firms: Baker/Winoker/Ryder and ad agency conglom Interpublic. The latter owns PMK/HBH, Rogers & Cowan and Bragman Nyman Cafarelli.

“Tom’s sis doesn’t have Pat’s secret weapons. She can’t nuke a media outlet’s access to other A-list celebs if a journalist doesn’t bathe Tom in honey, giggle at his worst jokes and fawn over his films,” suggests Tom O’Neil, senior editor at In Touch Weekly, one of the new breed of fanzines.

For Cruise in particular, Kingsley’s alternate man-handling and massaging of the media worked like a charm, his pretty face is recognizable around the world while his private persona — his sex life, his Scientology ties — remains private to all but his closest friends and associates.

(As for the bust-up: one rumor was Cruise and Kingsley clashed over just how vocal Cruise should be about his scientology beliefs, with the publicist taking the view he should cool it. Another suggests Cruise was unhappy with how his “Last Samurai” appearances came off. )

In any case a publicist’s balancing act with the press, and with clients, is tricky business.

Many of today’s top stars play or aspire to play multiple roles as business people, producers, directors, political activists, spearheaders of charities, spokespersons for this or that cosmetic cream or worthy cause. But to be perceived as cosseted and insulated from the public can actually work against those goals. And it alienates the press.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, the Kingsley style was brash, new, audacious. But it did create some resentment and bad will. Clients come and go; the media stays the same,” says longtime media consultant Michael Levine.

Having worked as a publicist for Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Demi Moore and Charlton Heston, Levine learned that “accommodation rather than outright antagonism” with the press paid off more often than not.

He also notes that Hollywood and the media have a long memory for arrogant or aloof behavior.

“When things are going well, and you’re on an up, you can get away with a lot. But it can a rough, bumpy ride down,” he says.

Not that Cruise is by any stretch on the way down. His last five movies collectively grossed a stunning $1.6 billion worldwide.

Still, it’s hard not to notice how well Cruise’s ex-wife Nicole Kidman has done now that she is out from behind his shadow. She’s the one with the two best actress noms, the Globes and an Oscar; and she seems to be everywhere, invariably accessible and articulate.

Says longtime publicist Julian Myers: “Most stars today really don’t want to be a breed apart, a star-star. They want to be perceived as having real lives, and they want to play different roles and wear different hats. Thus it behooves them not to turn people off.”

Cruise may have noticed all this and started wondering if he has the right people around him for the next phase of his career.

Only time will tell whether, sans Kingsley, he gets an image-enhancing makeover … or a rude awakening.

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