Finding your footing as a new mother is tough enough. But finding it in teetering heels and wide-leg Roland Mouret pants while chasing an active 15-month-old on a playdate? Now that takes serious flair – something Katie Holmes flaunted on a July 12 visit to Berlin’s Tiergarten park with daughter Suri in tow. The happy toddler “stepped along discovering the world, pointing out clouds and trees and jumping in puddles,” says an onlooker. “It was so sweet.”
Four days later, Suri stayed home – and her mommy was pulling off an equally effortless solo act. Looking statuesque in a leg-baring black Azzedine Alaïa dress and another pair of soaring heels, the 5’9″ Holmes taught a master class in ruling the red carpet during a surprise appearance at the New York City premiere of Hairspray on July 16. As one of the movie’s stars, John Travolta, said of his head-turning pal, “Gorgeous!”
Not to mention more confident and sophisticated by the day. With more than a year of motherhood under her stylishly cinched belt – along with eight months of marriage to Tom Cruise – Holmes, 28, is clearly coming into her own and relishing it. Completing her dazzling evolution from fresh-from-Toledo starlet to quietly supportive new wife to, finally, a woman deftly striking her own balance between family and career, Holmes “has a serenity about her,” says Callie Khouri, her director on the upcoming bank heist comedy Mad Money (due in early 2008).
“I just think she’s in a really happy place. She’s obviously in love – with Tom and with her child.” During the film’s recent two-month shoot in Shreveport, La., Holmes – joined by doting dad Cruise, 45, and Suri – also proved her skill at every mother’s juggling act. “She’s very focused when she’s at work, then in between setups she’d be very focused on Suri,” says Khouri. “She had to be all things to all people. It’s a challenge, but she certainly is up for it. She’s really good at it.”
And she’s just warming up. The woman whom pal Roberta Armani (niece of designer Giorgio) calls “an inspiration” and whom close friend Jada Pinkett Smith describes as having a “quiet thunder” is “going to start showing sides of herself no one has seen yet,” predicts Hairspray producer Craig Zadan, who has been working with his producing partner Neil Meron to develop a big-screen musical for the actress. Yes, she can sing – and she’s taking weekly dance lessons too. During her breakout run on the teen soap Dawson’s Creek, “she had a scene where she sang a song from Les Misérables,” recalls Meron. “I thought to myself, ‘That girl has some chops!’ ” Adds Zadan: “She is going to surprise a lot of people with what she can do.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine a role that allows Holmes to shine more than motherhood. Suri “is a beautiful little girl, and I feel so honored to be her mom,” the actress told PEOPLE earlier this year. Having earned her stripes following those first months of constant diapering, breastfeeding and “learning to decipher what each cry means,” as she told Harper’s Bazaar in March, Holmes is now reveling in the next phase – first steps, first words and the discovery of her daughter’s emerging personality. “Suri is such an obviously happy baby,” says Khouri. “She thinks things are funny, and she likes to be funny. She’s a charmer. She’s very loving. When you leave, she’ll blow kisses. She smiles at everybody. You kind of take a look at her and say, ‘They’re just doing something right.’ ”
From their sprawling home in Beverly Hills – which they share with Cruise’s mom, Mary Lee, sister Cass and kids Isabella, 14, and Connor, 12, Cruise’s children with ex-wife Nicole Kidman – to their travels around the world, family bonding has clearly been a top priority for Cruise and Holmes since their lavish Italian wedding last November. “They’re definitely a family that values their time together,” says Khouri. Which means trading off parenting duties on each other’s film sets and taking Suri nearly everywhere.
During a beachside idyll at the June wedding festivities of good friend and media mogul James Packer in the south of France, Holmes took Suri into the Mediterranean while Cruise hung with his buddies. “She was holding Suri and saying, ‘See the waves, see the boats,’ ” recalls an observer. “She didn’t have a nanny – she just seemed completely natural and confident with her daughter.” (Later, at the wedding reception, Cruise playfully busted out a dance to his Risky Business anthem “Old Time Rock and Roll,” says a source. “At the end Katie started dancing with him. It was great.”)
Like all proud new parents, even when Cruise and Holmes enjoy a grown-up night out, the conversation inevitably turns to their little girl. At a June 17 dinner in Madrid with close friends David and Victoria Beckham, “Tom and Katie were gushing about how beautiful Suri is,” says a restaurant source. “All night it was ‘She’s this’ and ‘She’s that.’ Both parents are so in love with that child.” Not that they didn’t make the most of the couple time, too: “They were constantly holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes.”
Likewise, the couple savored their time together in Shreveport, where Holmes quickly endeared herself to the cast and crew by providing surprise treats – everything from cupcakes to ice cream to deep-dish pizza flown in from Chicago – nearly every Friday of shooting. Although Holmes tended to Suri between takes – “I’d see her in the trailer changing diapers and doing normal mom stuff,” says Khouri – it was Cruise who took on primary parenting duty. “He’d pick her up and kiss her on the head a million times,” says Kay Redstone, who worked as a stand-in for Holmes’s costar Diane Keaton. While Mom was busy shooting at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, Cruise patiently explained exhibits to his wide-eyed daughter. “He was holding her saying, ‘Look at the horsey, look at the chicken,’ just like any new daddy would do,” says Redstone. Adds Khouri: “He was a very present father, but he wasn’t on the set where we were shooting – partly because Suri would always say ‘Mama’ really loudly when she saw Katie!”
Now, while Cruise films the upcoming Nazi-era drama Valkyrie in Germany, Holmes is on full-time diaper duty. Not that the actress is expected to stay away from the big screen for long. “Watching her from Dawson’s Creek and seeing her develop from a girl into a leading lady . . . seeing her blossom is beautiful,” says Meron. “She’s very aware of the business.” Mostly, though, she’s content to continue watching her own little leading lady blossom – and perhaps add to her family at some point. (“Definitely,” she told Harper’s Bazaar of having another child.) Says Khouri: “I think she really, really loves being a mother. She’s a natural.”
• By Michelle Tauber and Michelle Tan. Reported by Alexis Chiu and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles, Mary Green and Jeffrey Slonim in New York City, Ruth Laney in Shreveport, Pete Norman in London, Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin and Dietland Lerner and Peter Mikelbank in St. Jean Cap Ferrat