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Wary fans doubt romance reports
- Are they for reel or real'

They smooch and hug as cameras snap. Friends enthusiastically report: “It’s true! They’re smitten!” Their publicists confirm it is the real deal.

But when celebrity magazines asked the public to weigh in on the latest high-octane Hollywood pairing 'Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the former star of Dawson’s Creek ' the cynics crushed the dewy-eyed. “Publicity stunt,” said 62 per cent of respondents to a People magazine’s poll. “P.R.,” echoed 65 of 100 people questioned at random by Us Weekly at Rockefeller Center.

Cruise and Holmes may very well be head over heels, but they should not be surprised that even the most star-struck fan seems to be having trouble embracing their romance, say chroniclers of Hollywood and others who cover or work in the entertainment industry. Through all the changes that have swept Hollywood over the years, one thing still endures: strategic love.

The coupling of stars to create ballyhoo for a movie, burnish an actor’s image, create a name or distract attention from other relationships may not be as common as when the movie studios tightly controlled stars’ careers through the 1950’s, some publicists and film industry experts assert. But it is still the easiest way to grab flattering publicity.

And when it comes to celebrity news, it hardly gets any bigger than a love connection involving a superstar like Cruise. After appearing together in public for the first time late last month, cuddling and smooching at a film awards ceremony in Italy, the instant couple ' they had met only weeks earlier ' made the covers of the Big Three: US Weekly, Star and People. The articles mentioned that each had a film coming out shortly: The War of the Worlds for Cruise and Batman Begins for Holmes.

That coincidence, along with the flood of details about the liaison that emerged in the celebrity magazines ' Cruise, 42, had phoned Holmes, 26, out of the blue; on their first date he served her sushi in his private jet cruising over Los Angeles ' has fanned the scepticism of an audience schooled to expect secretiveness from trysting stars, not to mention celebrities who stage reality television shows to hype themselves.

“Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise is sudden and strange,” said Janice Min, the editor-in-chief of US Weekly. “But I do think it is real, and I’ve had people in the office laugh at me.”

Even if today’s savvier fan may smell a rat, the temptation of being in the know is hard to resist. In the cases of outright romantic convenience, said Stephen M. Silverman, a biographer of film directors who is the news editor of people.com, the website of People magazine, “the basis for doing it remains the same, to get publicity. But today you have the extra added attraction that the public is celebrity crazy, whether it’s with cynicism or adoration.”

Romance, Silverman said, usually trumps almost any other private endeavour as news. “Angelina Jolie is doing serious humanitarian work,” he said, “but the Brad Pitt connection gets more coverage.”

Phony pairings, film historians say, used to be concocted by studios to promote a movie. In the days of the studio system for example. the publicity machine often helped convince fans that stars appearing on screen together were an item. Today celebrities are responsible for marketing themselves and some go further than others in using their personal life as headline fodder.

“You have a lot of people,” said one Hollywood publicist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of his clients, “who think it’s a good thing to be on the cover of these magazines, and the healthiest way to do that is romance. You don’t want to be on the cover for a criminal act or a divorce.”

Exposure does not come without risks. With more news media competition, there is less control over coverage or ability to protect the stars as the studios once did, some film experts say. Take Holmes. Three weeks ago pictures showed her radiant and beautifully styled with Cruise in Rome. Last week the tabloids and glossies showed her in unflattering close-ups with a skin rash around her mouth. (‘Katie’s Lip Malfunction,’ read the US Weekly headline.)

A lot of stars do fall in love on the set, making for such legendary pairings as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. And some improbable relationships ' Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore ' seem to pan out as well. But Cruise and Holmes seem to have raised a number of red flags. In addition to their age difference and seeming to have little in common, they seem to be chasing the paparazzi, instead of seeking privacy.

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