From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As usual, The Oprah Winfrey Show studio audience was in frenzied, decibel-busting hysterics. But the mood was much more subdued for one Toledo, Ohio, viewer of Tom Cruise's May 23 appearance on the show. Kathy Holmes watched as Tom Cruise, 42, jumped up and down like a kid on a sugar high, dropped to his knees as if he had just been knighted and strutted about the stage like the cocky agent he played in 1996's Jerry Maguire. All in the name of proclaiming his love for his 26-year-old girlfriend—and Kathy Holmes's daughter—Katie. "I'm in love," Cruise told Winfrey, later running backstage to pull the object of his affection before the cameras for several tender hugs and smooches. Viewing the spectacle on TV, Kathy told PEOPLE, was "surreal. It was nice. She looks happy. We're happy for them." Adds Holmes's sister Tamera Fretti: "I'm very excited for her." Asked to comment further on the relationship, however, she demurred: "I want them to enjoy as much privacy as they can."

Given Cruise's unprecedented—and unexpected—willingness to open up about his new romance, that's unlikely to happen anytime soon. As Cruise embarked on a media tour to promote his upcoming film War of the Worlds and speak out on Scientology-related issues, each stop so far—Oprah, Access Hollywood and an MTV special airing June 11—has morphed into a public valentine to Holmes. The only thing as stunning as their unlikely pairing is the warp speed at which the fledgling relationship has progressed. A little more than a month after Cruise—a fan of Holmes's work in Dawson's Creek and films (her credits include 2000's Wonder Boys and 2003's Pieces of April)—called her for a meeting at his L.A. office, he's ready to go all-in. Cruise's publicist (and big sister) Lee Anne DeVette says the actor "is the happiest I've ever seen him." She adds that after the Oprah appearance, "my mother and I were in tears because it's so beautiful to see him this happy." During his interview with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, which aired May 23, Cruise again declared, "I love this woman. I'm not going to hide it." Says Bush: "We couldn't keep him in his seat. I wouldn't be surprised if he's engaged before Christmas."

Cruise hasn't ruled it out. (Asked if he had plans to marry Holmes, Cruise told Winfrey, "I've got to discuss it with her.") Neither has Holmes, who famously dreamed as a child of marrying Tom Cruise. (Speaking to reporters in Rome on April 29, Cruise quipped that "I don't want to disappoint her," a joke he repeated to Winfrey.) Though Cruise had to coax her in front of Oprah's cameras, Holmes—who mouthed "I love you" to Cruise as the audience cheered—admitted to the crowd, "I'm glad I was a big dreamer." The couple vacationed in Mexico May 5-10 with Connor, 10, and Isabella, 12, his kids with ex-wife Nicole Kidman.

Still, Katie's mom, Kathy, says no wedding plans are under way. Before walking down the aisle, the couple may have some differences to iron out. For example, she's Catholic and he's a Scientologist. Holmes, observes Bush, is "open to his beliefs, but he hasn't brought her over yet." Holmes also may need some time to recover from her breakup with fiancé Chris Klein; after dating for five years, they broke off their engagement just weeks before she began seeing Cruise. And there's the 16-year age difference. Not a problem, Cruise told MTV News' Sway Calloway: "I'm concerned about whether or not someone can keep up with me."

And, of course, the couple must also deal with headlines and strangers questioning their sincerity (see box). Until now, Cruise has been more quiet about his love life (Winfrey called him "an intensely private person"); three and a half years after he and Kidman announced the end of their marriage, he has never spoken publicly about the reasons for the breakup. This may explain, in part, why polls reflect skepticism about his very public relationship with Holmes, which comes on the eve of War of the Worlds (opening June 29) and Holmes's film Batman Begins (June 15). DeVette shrugs off such doubt. "The last person in the world who needs publicity," she notes, "is Tom Cruise."

The question remains: Why is Cruise suddenly so effusive about his love life? "When he's happy and he has something to share," says DeVette, "he wants other people to share in the happiness." And as Cruise himself told Winfrey, "Anyone who's not happy for me, they're just not invited to the party."

Jason Lynch. Julie Jordan in Los Angeles, Amy Mindell in Toledo and KC Baker in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Amy Mindell,
  • K.C. Baker.