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She wasn't there last night, among the designer finery on the Oscars' red carpet.

She rarely is. Still, we watch her when we can. She is beautiful. Her clothes rock. She is an A-list wife. But it's also because Katie Holmes occupies a special place in the celebrity firmament.

It's her unhappiness that rivets - an apparent unhappiness, I grant you, as only she knows for sure. But in the mirrored funhouse of tabloid culture, a parallel universe that we inhabit together, that is her assigned character, her script. And we are fascinated.

It's not typical schadenfreude, the perverse thrill triggered by the misfortune of others that we might feel over Lindsay Lohan's court appearances, or Charlie Sheen's porn-and-cocaine addiction.

It's not pleasure, exactly, that's at play in our focus on Ms. Holmes's unhappiness. It's more of a wariness.

Why we're fascinated with celebrity lives - apart from the entertainment value of their shoes! their houses! their lifestyle! - is a study in the preoccupations of the culture at large. What we project onto celebrities says a lot about us.

Just as Jennifer Aniston ("Poor Jen!") carried all the cultural weight of what it meant to be dumped for a more heavenly creature and childless at 40, so too does Ms. Holmes bear the freight of modern female angst.

For her, though, the worry is of the opposite kind. It's about the dangers of marriage and motherhood. And there's a whiff of a morality tale about her, too - that you can have it all, the money, the power husband, the spotlight, and still be unhappy.

Last week, there she was in Vancouver looking glum in casual clothes, her dark hair in a messy topknot as she exited a café. She and daughter Suri, 4, had come along with husband Tom Cruise, who was working on Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

Ms. Holmes is often reported to look "pale and tired" or "downbeat."

"Many Unhappy Returns" offered The Daily Mail last December, when she and her husband were seen out celebrating her birthday. It's a long way from the "Why Katie is Happier Than Ever Before" cover story for People magazine in 2007.

It had all started with so much promise. In high school, she auditioned for a TV show, Dawson's Creek. She stole the spotlight as a charming tomboy, Joey Potter, in 1998. The next year, she won an MTV Movie Award for breakthrough female performance in Disturbing Behavior.

Life was good. In 2005, she met Mr. Cruise. He was 42. She was 26. From the start, their romance seemed a bit saccharine. Remember their first public appearance as a couple, just a few weeks after their first date, at the David di Donatello Awards in Rome? They cooed on the carpet. "It was all a little bit off-putting," observes Elaine Lui, eTalk correspondent and author of "Either we didn't believe it or we didn't appreciate being so inundated with it."

Do we all worry that love is blind, that there's excessive euphoria at the start of a romance, which can lead to precipitous decisions? Well, there was Mr. Cruise, of the controversial Scientology religion, jumping on Oprah's couch and pumping his fist about his love for Ms. Holmes. She thought that was cute? Soon after, she gushed: "I feel like he's made my life." She admitted that a childhood dream was to marry Mr. Cruise.

Red flags, anyone? Two months into their relationship, he proposed during a candlelit dinner at the Eiffel Tower with a five-carat diamond. She then got pregnant. Seven months later, they married. Since then, Ms. Holmes has been best known as the womb of Suri, their star spawn, who outperforms her parents on the newsstands, according to Forbes data.

Nothing Ms. Holmes does seems to stick, despite the many initiatives she throws at the wall. The miniseries The Kennedys, in which she plays Jackie, was dropped by the History Channel in the U.S. The film The Son of No One, in which she plays a cop's wife, debuted to crushing reviews at the Sundance Festival in January. Her line of clothing for women and children, Holmes & Yang, does well, but some question her commitment to it. She recently signed on as the face of designer Ann Taylor's spring campaign. "Why would she do that if she really wanted to promote her own clothing line?" wonders Jeanne Beker, Canada's fashion expert.

Amid the culture's debate about the value of marriage, Ms. Holmes is a reminder that romance does not always lead to a happily-ever-after life.

"Here's a girl who was just beginning to light up in Hollywood professionally, and she gets tied down with a man and motherhood," Ms. Lui says. "Even if you remove the creepiness factor of Scientology from this equation, the fact of the matter is, she was very young, she hooked up with an older man, has his baby, and then married him basically straight away."

"The key to celebrity watching, which most people refuse to acknowledge, especially women, is that when we're celebrity-watching, we're filtering it through the prism of our own experience," Ms. Lui adds.

Ms. Holmes may be laughing at our projections about her. After her stay in Vancouver, she jetted off to the Milan fashion shows with her mom. Suri was to join her there for some shopping.

And where were we? Left sitting in our cubicles, or at the supermarket, reading about it all in the tabloids, trying to feel good about our lives. But hey, that's tabloid life!