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Cruise Control: The Battle Over the Celebrity Image

by Ethan Tussey

by Erin Meyers for IN MEDIA RES

Tom Cruise is, perhaps, the quintessential modern American movie star. Since Top Gun, Cruise has been reliably bankable as an action hero and even earned a measure of critical respect in more serious roles (Born of the 4th of July, Magnolia). Yet his broader star image, particularly since the infamous Oprah couch-jumping moment in 2005, illustrates key shifts in the battle of control over the star image in contemporary celebrity culture. The celebrity image is a push-and-pull between the screen image and the private or “real” self behind that image presented to the public via entertainment and gossip media. While audiences can find pleasure in the consistent image, when star “really” seems to be who he appears, Cruise’s image since the couch-jumping moment is more rooted in a disconnect between the All-American action hero seen on screen and the crazy, control-freak, Scientologist that is central to media coverage of his private image.

I’m not suggesting either one of these is the “true” Tom Cruise, but rather that the ongoing battle—and it is a battle, where Cruise regularly threatens or files lawsuits countering these stories—to define his stardom. But I view the couch-jumping moment as a watershed one that speaks to two key elements of the construction of, and battle over, the contemporary celebrity image. First, it reveals the key role of celebrity workers behind that image. Cruise split with long-time publicist Pat Kingsley, whom many credit with the tight crafting of his image, the previous year. Kingsley’s influence was felt in her absence, as the era of the more “crazy” Cruise began. More crucially, this couch-jumping moment coincided with the rise of the Internet as a source of constant celebrity gossip and surveillance in the mid-2000s. The couch-jumping video went viral, making it a centerpiece of Cruise’s current celebrity image. But it also marked the beginning of increased intervention of online gossip media (notably blogs) into Cruise’s image. Cruise was certainly subject to rumors and covered by gossip media before, but continuous and interactive flow of online gossip has played an important role in shifting that image. The Internet offers bloggers and their audiences the publicly visible space to dissect Cruise’s public image, intervening into what was once private and controlled and highlighting gossip as the central way celebrity images are made in contemporary celebrity culture.

Tom Cruise on Oprah

Tom Cruise is a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show

from Oprah Winfrey Show (2005)
Creator: Harpo
Distributor: ABC
Posted by Ethan Tussey