June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Clad in a baby-doll top, matching capris, and strappy stilettos, Nicole Kidman — guesting on ”Oprah” May 18 — knew the world was watching. But as talk inevitably veered from her latest film, ”Moulin Rouge,” to her pending divorce from Tom Cruise, Kidman endured an afternoon grilling from TV’s most relentless inquisitor. At the end of the exchange, in which Winfrey asked Kidman if the marriage was truly a fairy tale and whether she’d take Tom back, the fidgety, suddenly vulnerable-looking star squealed, ”Oprah! Save me, somebody!”

During her 10 years as half of Hollywood’s consummate power couple, Kidman’s public persona was made up of two faces: alabaster arm candy at premieres, well-reviewed ice princess on screen. But in a barrage of ”Rouge”-tinted profiles (including Interview, Marie Claire, IN STYLE, and, yes, last week’s EW), the 33-year-old Aussie is entering a new phase: She’s becoming a textbook example of how to handle a personal crisis — not to mention the meddling press. Responding to questions about her recent miscarriage and shock over what went wrong with Tom, she’s managed to sound both forthcoming and charmingly coy. (As she told EW: ”If I was on the outside of this, even I’d go, What the hell happened here?”) Though it’s unclear if the divorce case will go before a judge (each seeks joint legal custody of their children, Isabella, 8, and Connor, 6), the two actors have been battling in another all-important court: public opinion. And right now, Kidman has the edge.

”America loves nothing more than somebody who rises up from the ashes,” says Jeannette Walls, MSNBC correspondent and longtime gossip guru. ”She’s looking very much like the victim in this. Meanwhile, Tom’s big photo op was getting slimed on Nickelodeon.”

To be fair, Cruise has been otherwise engaged. Aside from his brief April 21 Nick appearance and his surprise cameo at the Oscars, he’s been shooting back-to-back films: Cameron Crowe’s ”Vanilla Sky” and Steven Spielberg’s ”Minority Report.” He’s had less opportunity or pretext to tell his side of an increasingly tangled story.

PR dilemma? Funny you should ask, since both Cruise and Kidman are represented by publicity giant PMK. Their respective reps, Pat Kingsley and Catherine Olim, declined to comment for this story. But veteran PMK publicist Lois Smith says there’s no intra-agency tension in situations like this, since it’s the client who dictates how to handle fallout. ”Some people are very uncommunicative about it — they don’t want to live their lives in front of the cameras or the public,” says Smith. ”But others don’t seem to mind.”

It’s too soon to tell whether Kidman’s willingness to stump for ”Rouge” in the middle of her annus horribilis will help the film. What might be more important is that by playing the trouper, she’s burnished her reputation in Hollywood. (Just compare her buzz with the criticism heaped on Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan by director Taylor Hackford, who blamed his stars’ offscreen romance in part for ”Proof of Life” ‘s poor box office.) At the very least, she’s proven her career won’t suffer when she’s no longer Mrs. Cruise. ”From the studio perspective, she’s just as marketable…[as] she was before all this began,” says one industry exec.

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