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LIFE IN THE POP LANE

Sure, they're in love -- with publicity

What is it about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes that seems so icky?

Ever since the mega-star and the young actress made their debut as a couple last month at an awards show in Rome, there's been no shortage of snarky remarks and cracks about a relationship that doesn't seem real. Not in a too-good-to-be-true kind of way, but more in a oh-please-give-us-a-break fashion.

It's certainly not because they don't look good together. More than 20 years since his breakthrough role in ''Risky Business," Cruise remains boyishly handsome with his trademark killer smile. And Holmes, probably best known from the teen angst-fest ''Dawson's Creek," is quite lovely in an unassuming way. It's not even the age difference. At 42, Cruise is 16 years older than Holmes, but really, who even cares about such things anymore?

''I want to share my life with this woman," Cruise tells MTV's Sway -- in a segment from a special scheduled to air June 11 -- of Holmes, whom he calls ''exceptional," ''special," and ''extraordinary." Of course, what's most exceptional and extraordinary are Cruise's efforts to publicize his relationship with her.

When celebrities hook up, they usually lie and deny. Weeks, even months, of silence are followed by weeks, even months, of denials from publicists. Once the first grainy, shaky pictures, stolen by paparazzi planted in palm trees or balanced on nearby balconies, inevitably become gossip rag cover shots, the unwilling participants still labor to guard their privacy as if national security were at stake. Think Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who've worked hard not only to quash reports that they're now dating, but that they began a romance while making their upcoming spy thriller ''Mr. and Mrs. Smith," when Pitt was still very married to Jennifer Aniston.

Instead, publicists for Cruise and Holmes quickly issued statements validating the relationship. Cruise, once notoriously guarded about his private life, has literally been making the rounds -- from ''Extra" to ''Access Hollywood" to MTV and ''Oprah," where he was accompanied by Holmes on a show that aired yesterday, to chat up his love life.

''I can't be cool. I can't be laid-back," said Cruise during an over-the-top display that came off more silly than sincere. ''Something happened and I want to celebrate it."

And other recent heavy-handed pronouncements like ''This is my woman" not only sound ridiculous, but make me feel like he's about to break into the score from ''Porgy and Bess" -- ''Katie, you is my woman now, you is, you is!" At this rate, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Cruise regaling the motorcycle-building Teutuls of Discovery Channel's ''American Chopper" with tales of his new love.

Of course, isn't it possible that we're all just a bunch of cynics whose jaded world view is clouding what may be the beginnings of a great romance? Maybe Tom and Katie are just meant to be -- after all, he has said ''She likes all the stuff that I love to do," which must mean that soon Holmes will be extolling the virtues of the Church of Scientology, of which Cruise has been a vocal member.

Still, the timing is just too suspect to ignore. There's true love, and then there's true hype, and both stars just so happen to have big summer releases due out soon: Cruise in ''War of the Worlds," and Holmes in ''Batman Begins." Increasingly, I understand the adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but it's always escaped me why stars think some well-planted morsel about their private lives will convince folks to plunk down money to see their films.

Others point to this relationship as Cruise's latest effort against persistent, yet unfounded, rumors, none of which I will repeat, because I don't want to be sued by the litigious little guy.

Whatever the reason, Cruise is suddenly sharing more about his private life than we ever really wanted to know. If anything has been interesting about Cruise -- and no, it hasn't been his ''Mission: Impossible" franchise -- it's been his unspoken, but stubborn insistence that he owes his audience nothing more than a good performance. Aside from obligatory appearances at red-carpet premieres and awards shows, he always managed to stiff-arm the prying press whenever they got too close, whether it was to his marriage to Nicole Kidman or his relationship with Penelope Cruz.

Which is why watching Cruise coo about Holmes is as remarkable as it is unbelievable. If this is a romance, it looks more like a tireless campaign, and he seems less like a man giddily in love than an overbearing used car salesman. It may also explain why few seem to be buying whatever it is Cruise is working so hard to sell.

Renée Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears Tuesdays. She can be reached at graham@globe.com. Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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