Katie Holmes at 45: The story of an actress who seemed destined for stardom until she met Tom Cruise

The ‘Dawson’s Creek’ star is still an enigma: after a promising start that included working with Hollywood’s most renowned directors, the most talked-about marriage of its time altered her plans

Katie Holmes and her then-fiancé Tom Cruise at the London premiere of 'War of the Worlds' in June 2005.
Katie Holmes and her then-fiancé Tom Cruise at the London premiere of 'War of the Worlds' in June 2005.MJ Kim (Getty Images)
Eva Güimil

If someone awoke now from a coma they went into in the early 2000s, they would expect Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) stars James Van de Beek and Katie Holmes (who turns 45 this Monday) to be actors with successful, established careers. But it was Joshua Jackson who turned into a TV star with a few outstanding series under his belt like Fringe, The Affair and Mr. Death, and Michelle Williams is the one who became one of her generation’s best actresses, thanks to her roles in Brokeback Mountain (2005), My Week with Marilyn (2011) and The Fabelmans (2022). Meanwhile, James Van Der Beek’s great legacy is a crying meme and Katie Holmes reigns in fashion magazines but is ignored by film magazines. Hardly anyone could name three of her movies from the last decade, but fashionistas could mention a look of hers that they admire.

Pictures of her went viral the day she hailed a cab wearing a jacket that revealed her cashmere bra underneath. The Khaité bra, which cost $545.42 (€500), sold out in an hour; shortly thereafter, an inexpensive version was available at Zara. The reason for Holmes’s change in status from actress to fashion icon is surprising: Tom Cruise. Her relationship with the megastar —the couple was nicknamed TomKat— was so controversial that Vanity Fair magazine claimed that the pairing was the result of a Scientology casting process.

Whether that is true or not, the relationship clearly did change the public’s perception of them both and irrevocably degraded Holmes’s career. Before her marriage, she had worked with directors such as Ang Lee, Curtis Hanson and Christopher Nolan. After the divorce, she has not appeared in any memorable projects.

“What we had stumbled upon”

Holmes was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1978; she is the youngest of five children and has four brothers. She graduated from Notre Dame Academy and had been admitted to Columbia University, but her real vocation was acting. She sent an audition tape to the casting call for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) and got the part. She made her debut on screen in a big way, opposite Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. “I thought things were going to be really fun. My first day in L.A. was January 21, 1996. My mom and I were driving on Santa Monica Boulevard and saw a big sign that said ‘Golden Globes.’ So we went and sat on the bleachers in the rain to watch movie stars arrive. We couldn’t believe what we had stumbled upon.”

Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek, Michelle Williams and Joshua Jackson in a promotional image from ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ the show that made them famous.
Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek, Michelle Williams and Joshua Jackson in a promotional image from ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ the show that made them famous. Getty Images (Getty Images)

Back then, she probably couldn’t imagine how often she herself would walk that same red carpet. But the phone didn’t ring again as quickly as she had hoped, and she came to believe that her career was over. As she told The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, “I thought, ‘Oh, well, that might be it.’’ You know, ‘That might be all there is.’ But it was okay, ‘cause I was like, ‘You know what, that’s okay. Like, that was an amazing experience.’ And I can, like, tell my grandkids and I’ll be fine.” But the success wasn’t going to fade so quickly. Another of her auditions had captivated Kevin Williamson, who spearheaded the 1990s slasher movie revival as the writer of Scream (1996). At the time, Williamson was looking for stars for Dawson’s Creek.

“My first encounter with Katie Holmes was when I was watching a videotape her mother sent us,” Williamson stated. “The tape showed Katie in her basement in Ohio, auditioning for the role of Joey in Dawson’s Creek in which her mother played Dawson. After watching it, everyone in the room was speechless.” Williamson is effusive in his praise of the actress: “To meet her is to fall instantly under her spell. She is a rare gem: hypnotic, intelligent, funny, sweet, shy, boisterous, elusive, talented, beautiful, soulful, elegant, sophisticated, innocent, naïve, comical, feminine, childlike, loving, kind, reliable, caring, protective, generous...”

Holmes was soon gracing the covers of magazines like Seventeen and Rolling Stone. Dawson’s Creek became a small phenomenon that captured a generation of viewers eager for a more adult teen fiction than usual. Let’s not forget that it was the first to show a homosexual kiss, a historical milestone in American television, and the series approached topics like addiction and death less prudishly than usual. At the center of the phenomenon was Joey Potter (played by Holmes), the apex of a love triangle, but not a sexualized character. She was serious, focused, a good student, a good friend —in short, a far cry from life’s Brenda Walshes and Kelly Kapowskis.

Actress Katie Holmes at the premiere of 'Go' in Los Angeles in 1999
Actress Katie Holmes at the premiere of 'Go' in Los Angeles in 1999Ron Galella, Ltd. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

“I didn’t want to be the sexy young thing. I am not sexy. I used to have a friend of mine come to all my photo shoots to make sure that they didn’t try to make me that way,” she told Glamour. At the time Holmes was in a relationship with costar Joshua Jackson. Hollywood was experiencing the umpteenth boom of cinema by and for teenagers at the time, and the industry was eager to get its hands on the show’s four leading ladies. Holmes took advantage of the moment and cleverly combined independent films like Doug Liman’s Go with her discoverer Kevin Williamson’s horror movie Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and high-aspiration films, such as the dazzling Wonder Boys where he shared the cast with Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire. After Dawson’s Creek ended in 2003, Holmes began her new life with a blockbuster, Batman Begins, in which she played a role created specifically by Christopher Nolan for the film: Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne’s first love. The stage seemed set for Katie Holmes to become one of the great stars of the 21st century.

And then Tom showed up.

How to destroy your public image

In early 2005 Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise began a whirlwind romance. According to Vanity Fair, the relationship was orchestrated by the Church of Scientology, to which Cruise belongs, at all times. After the “failures” of his relationships with Nicole Kidman and Penelope Cruz, they were looking for a more “malleable” profile, the magazine reported. There was a clue was given in a 2004 Seventeen magazine article in which Holmes (then engaged to actor Chris Klein, star of American Pie, whom she dated for three years) stated that, as a teenager, she believed she would end up marrying Tom Cruise.

Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey at the Vanity Fair post-Oscars party in 2007.
Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey at the Vanity Fair post-Oscars party in 2007. Patrick McMullan (Patrick McMullan via Getty Image)

Six months later, Klein and Holmes announced their breakup and Cruise and Holmes were spotted together for the first time in Rome. The TomKat phenomenon was born, much to the media’s delight. " “When I met Tom I was completely in love and, yes, I admired him growing up – he’s Tom Cruise!” she told The New York Times. A few weeks after the couple’s first photo together went public, Tom Cruise appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Who doesn’t remember that? The interview that became an example of how to trash your public image. Moments like Tom Cruise getting down on his knees, grabbing the host’s hands and jumping on the couch became popular and led people to believe that he had lost his mind (including Oprah herself, who exclaimed that outright).

Nearly 20 years later, perhaps most reprehensible and memorable was the way he dragged his future wife onto the set as if she lacked her own identity: Cruise left the set, went to the dressing room and ushered her in. Whether she was prepared or not, she looked really uncomfortable, and the situation seemed embarrassing.

Few people talked about The War of the Worlds, the film Cruise was promoting at the time (which was equally successful based on its own merits and the name of its director, Steven Spielberg), and Paramount ended up walking away from what was then its golden goose.

In love with publicity

But nothing could stop that tsunami of love. Cruise proposed to Holmes with a five-carat yellow diamond ring at a restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower. It was all so giddy and over-the-top that the usually not-at-all catty People magazine conducted a poll, asking its readers whether the romance was real or a publicity stunt (62 percent voted it was a stunt). Tina Brown wrote a Washington Post an article titled “It’s Only Publicity Love” and the Boston Globe declared, “Sure They’re in Love—with Publicity.”

Katie Holmes and then-boyfriend Chris Klein at the premiere of 'American Pie 2' in Los Angeles.
Katie Holmes and then-boyfriend Chris Klein at the premiere of 'American Pie 2' in Los Angeles. Gregg DeGuire (WireImage)

Their wedding was a series of excesses. It was held at the Odescalchi castle 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) north of Rome amid ringbearers, flower girls and torchlights; the guest list included Will Smith, Jim Carrey, Jennifer Lopez, John Travolta and David Beckham and Victoria Beckham. That fairytale wedding marked the beginning of the decline of both actors’ careers. It was almost definitive in Holmes’s case. In the Cruise’s case, it began a period of wandering in the desert from which he struggled to recover. If their wedding caused a stir, the birth of their daughter Suri attracted even more interest. We saw their daughter for the first time on the October 2006 cover of Vanity Fair. It was the magazine’s second best-selling issue (the first featured Jennifer Aniston’s confessions following her divorce from Brad Pitt).

Mrs. Cruise’s career

Katie Holmes’ appearances were limited to smiling after her husband and her films were increasingly irrelevant. In an incomprehensible decision, she gave up her role in a new Batman installment and the part went to Maggie Gyllenhaal. According to Holmes, she preferred to star in the comedy Mad Money (2008); according to Hollywood rumors, Cruise did not want her to act in the most important film of the year while he did not.

Holmes starred in more and more inconsequential films, and her most famous appearances were no longer on the red carpet, but in the front row at fashion shows. Those who believed that the couple had no future together had to wait six years to be proven right: in June 2012, the pair divorced. Like their wedding and their parenthood, rumors surrounded their split. People said that a clause in the divorce settlement established that she could no longer be seen in public with another man for five years and could not talk about her marriage or Scientology; otherwise, she would lose €5 million ($5,454,250). “She is allowed to go out with people, but not in public places or in view of the media, and she should not allow any boyfriend to be near her daughter Suri,” the leaks claimed.

Katie Holmes is now more of a fashion icon than a screen icon; here, she strolls around New York just a few days ago.
Katie Holmes is now more of a fashion icon than a screen icon; here, she strolls around New York just a few days ago.MEGA (GC Images)

That ceased to be considered a rumor when an open secret was confirmed: her relationship at the time with actor Jamie Foxx. After the divorce, no images of Cruise with his daughter have surfaced, although the teenager is one of the most photographed celebrity daughters and the actor is one of the media’s most scrutinized men.

Holmes did not try to resurrect her career, like so many stars who take their foot off the gas to start a family. Her most recent films have not sparked any interest. Only her role as Jackie Kennedy in The Kennedys and her appearance as a “slutty pumpkin” in How I Met Your Mother merited media attention.

In the past year, Holmes has been more focused on Broadway, directing very personal projects and raising Suri. The dazzling teenager from Ohio is now the mother of a teenager with whom she lies on the couch to watch Dawson’s Creek; as she has stated on more than one occasion, that is her life’s most important work. Now, she alone runs that life.

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