Jackson Lee/Star Max/Filmmagic
06/21/2013 AT 07:00 AM EDT
As Mrs. Tom Cruise, she lived the kind of rarefied life few people outside of royalty and its Hollywood equivalent will ever know: a wedding in an Italian castle, a 10,000-sq.-ft. Beverly Hills mansion, travel in a personal Gulfstream IV and a style team on call for every carefully orchestrated red carpet appearance.
Now Katie Holmes
calls an upscale two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan's bustling Chelsea neighborhood home – and has even been spotted on the subway with her daughter Suri, 7. When she shakes the paparazzi who still trail her, you could almost forget the last chapter of her life ever happened.
Writer Emma Pearse nearly didn't notice Holmes when she ran into the actress filming with a tiny crew on Avenue C on May 29. "I almost walked by, and there was Katie," says Pearse. "She looked just like Joey Potter” – her character from the TV series Dawson's Creek
. "Really young and super chill. No one was paying any attention. It was a laid-back situation."
That's just the way Holmes wants it. A year after her bombshell decision to upend her life and leave her husband of six years, the actress, 34, has embraced a lower-key existence as a single mom in the city.
"She is in her prime," says a source close to her, "and truly enjoying the life she is creating for herself." For now, her days are focused on filming her low-budget indie Mania Days
, arranging activities for Suri and emerging for an occasional stylish night out. "She's shown such strength as a mother and as a woman," says her friend Nina Garcia.
Still, her new life has brought challenges too – from the bumpy road she has faced career-wise to her anxiety about dating again.