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Katie Holmes has tabloids on her side in divorce

Actress Katie Holmes attends the "Mission: Impossible -

Actress Katie Holmes attends the "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" U.S. premiere after-party at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on Dec. 19, 2011. Credit: Getty Images

The Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes divorce is an old-fashioned Hollywood split between star and starlet with dramatic issues of religion, money and child custody thrown in, all of which make it a boon to the ever-churning celebrity news industrial complex.

And thus far, Holmes is winning the media battle.

In the copious amounts of ink and pixels spent on the couple since Holmes filed for divorce June 28, Holmes has been portrayed with overwhelmingly more sympathy. Whether true or not, the narrative that's emerged is of a locked-away Holmes breaking free from the servitude of a strange, corrupting marriage.

Us Weekly has reported that the couple "fought viciously" over Scientology parenting. The Daily News has trumpeted Holmes entering "a new phase." A TMZ headline blared "Tom treated me like a robot."

That may also be the most convenient view of a relationship that even at its start spawned "Free Katie!" T-shirts.

Cruise's camp has begun to vigorously deny such a reading. Cruise's lawyer Bert Fields has said they are letting "the other side play the media until they wear everyone out." The Church of Scientology, too, doesn't want to be portrayed as the schism between the couple.

As the global entertainment news business settles in for a lengthy, possibly messy divorce, navigating the thorny, unconfirmed details of the relationship is sure to be an ongoing dance, played out through anonymous sources and splashy magazine covers.

"It's not entirely certain that it's all about Rapunzel fleeing the castle, which is the motif that people love to use," says Larry Hackett, managing editor of People magazine, which broke the news of the divorce. He calls this the biggest celebrity story in two or three years, excepting the sudden death of Whitney Houston.

"The danger in this kind of story is the same danger there was back when this whole thing first started," Hackett says. "It's the speculation about the church and all that kind of stuff, and there's a lot of information certainly seems plausible. But like any other story, you've got to run it down and see if it's there."

In the week and a half since filing for divorce, Holmes has also captured the spotlight with a handful of public appearances. She stopped by to tape a guest judge appearance on Lifetime's "Project Runway," was snapped taking their 6-year-old daughter, Suri, for ice cream, and was seen taking a trip to the Children's Museum of the Arts.

The appearances have only fed the view that Holmes is now living easier and freer — and conversely, that she's orchestrating a public relations campaign.

"I think she's being smart. If you engage in a bunker mentality, you build up demand" for photographs, said celebrity publicist Howard Bragman, vice chairman of "My clients who are under siege by paparazzi, I say go on and live your life. It lets some of the air out of the balloon, if you will."

If Holmes makes enough trips to the grocery store, Bragman said, "The paparazzi will get over it and say, 'Oh she's boring,' and wait for Alec Baldwin to smack somebody."

Harvey Levin, founder and managing editor of TMZ, says the two sides are already promoting their own version of events: Holmes' position is that she's freeing Suri from Scientology; Cruise's is that this is about money. "It's already nasty," he says.

"The whole story has not yet been told, and it never is," says Levin. "This is in the beginning stages of this thing. They haven't even been to court. There will be twists and turns."

In the seven years since Cruise and Holmes went public — extravagantly public — with their relationship, much has changed in the celebrity news business. The year 2005 was a kind of apex: While Cruise was jumping on couches, the Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston divorce was finishing. TMZ was launched and the developing digital world was taking a more aggressive approach to covering the personal lives of the famous.

Celebrity news hunger, further stoked by social media, has only grown since then, but its typical players are often less A-list. Glamorous movie stars are fewer today (Forbes recently ranked the 50-year-old Cruise as far-and-away the top-earning star in the past year), so there's something almost antiquated about a Cruise divorce, his third following marriages to Mimi Rogers and Nicole Kidman.

In Touch Weekly and its sister magazine, Life & Style Weekly, are among the many outlets to focus on the Holmes-as-escape angle. Their covers on the divorce read "The Fight for Suri" and "Katie Breaks Free," respectively.

"We're intrigued by who the real Katie is," says Dan Wakeford, editor-in-chief of both magazines. "She's been hidden for so long and dominated and controlled by Tom, so we really want to know what she's like and how she's going to change."

"Katie is certainly winning the media battle by a wide margin at the moment," adds Wakeford. "She's always been seen as quite a malleable figure and now suddenly she's coming across as really strong — and that's empowering to our readers."

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