Wednesday 23 August 2017

KATE'S CLASS ACT

Emaily Hourican

One year after her fairytale wedding to Prince William, middle-class girl Kate Middleton's dutiful and demure persona is proving to be a public relations success for the British royals, as Emily Hourican explains

So what does happen after Happily Ever After? It's a subject the classic fairytales never bother to cover -- instead they leave us at the church door, bored by life beyond the "I dos". These days, of course, we know that 'I do' is the beginning, not the end. The starter's gun as opposed to the finish line. Just ask Mattel, who have launched Wills 'n' Kate Barbie dolls to mark the first anniversary of the royal couple's wedding. Barbie Wills has rather more hair than the real prince, and Barbie Kate is even thinner than the real princess, but at £99.99 they are clearly aimed at the collectors' market rather than children.

It's a good time to be royal in Britain. The first wedding anniversary lands neatly in the middle of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee and a period of fawning media enthusiasm for all things royal. Whether it be Kate and William's new dog, Harry's trips to far-flung places, or the Queen's "stunning beauty when she came to the throne", not a breath of cynicism or criticism is to be heard about a family once routinely described as parasites. And 'The Firm', as Diana used to call them, have learned their own hard lessons about public relations. Sightings of Andrew, Sophie, Beatrice, Eugenie, even the heir himself, Charles, are few and far between. It's all about William, Harry, and of course Kate.

One year after Kate Middleton walked down Westminster aisle as Her Royal Highness Duchess of Cambridge, married to the one-time world's most eligible bachelor, Prince William, heir to the throne of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth, she has proved herself as equal to the task of being a princess as she was to that of royal girlfriend. She has, as Prince Edward recently put it, "taken to royal life like a duck to water".

The nice middle-class girl from the Home Counties, whose grandmother was a shop girl and who improbably landed a prince, has had a good year, displaying a boundless, unimaginative determination to do her duty and be a good sport. Even while William was away for six weeks, flying an RAF helicopter in the Falklands, and although Kate admitted to missing him "desperately" she got on with her royal duties, stepping out with the Queen and Camilla for tea and cake at Fortnum & Mason, though being very careful not to upstage Her Majesty, and even having a bash at a game of hockey with the British team at the Olympic Park.

There is no doubt she is a devoted and dutiful wife, still happy to put William's interests above her own, and determined to be a help and a credit to him. She is also, somewhat unexpectedly, now a style icon. Kate is discreet and sensible, and her look is appropriate, demure and affordable. Kind of boring, actually. It's the type of look that appears in endless women's magazines, with tips on the slimming properties of a bit of ruching at the waist, or the flattering effects of a low-cut neckline, and can be easily put together from a trip round the high street.

Normally, we like our style icons edgier, more expensive, more fabulous, but such is the confidence with which Kate wears her Erdem, Reiss, LK Bennett, Jenny Packham and, indeed, recycles outfits without a blush, that she has single-handedly established a new acceptance of decorum among young women. Fashionistas might lament her lack of daring, but the more matronly commentators are profoundly grateful for the influence her appearance is having on young women who may previously have been tempted to go for the minor-starlet-on-red-carpet reveal-all look. And of course the high street retailers are cheering from the rooftops.

Kate's consistency means she has, so far, avoided any major style faux pas -- something that makes her far more like the Queen, who's similar play-it-safe approach has seen her through countless years of public appearances, and indeed even allowed her to be 'rediscovered' as a style icon some years ago, when the notion of matching coats and mid-length dresses had a brief moment.

Diana, on the other hand, who was genuinely stylish, often got it wrong. During her engagement, she made so many blunders, including the long print skirt that became transparent when the sun shone through it, that British Vogue's then deputy editor, Anna Harvey, was enlisted to help her make more appropriate choices.

William and Kate are clearly happy. There seems to be no royal heir on the way yet -- despite the endless, odious speculation that started immediately after the wedding, and peaked some weeks ago, around the rumour that Kate was taking prenatal vitamins and had decided against a trip to Africa on the basis that she didn't want the vaccinations. And this is naturally troubling to a hereditary monarchy, especially given that both Prince Charles and William were born within a year of their parents' marriage.

However, Kate is looking slightly more robust than in the early days of the marriage. Her first post-honeymoon appearance showed her to be worryingly thin, more so even than when Jemima Khan cattily, and indiscreetly, tweeted "those are not heir-bearing hips are they? Unfeasibly narrow". In those early wedded days, she appeared tense and stressed, but what may have been an initial moment of apprehension seems to have settled as she learns, daily, that she can cope admirably with the role and family she married into. That said, her lack of complete ease in front of the cameras and public still clearly raises a protective instinct in William, who so often draws her arm through his, or puts a hand on hers.

Kate's acceptance of her role gets a huge boost from the goodwill that follows her. As proved by the crowds who stood outside Madame Tussaud's, waiting to see the new waxworks of Kate and Wills, posed as on the day of their engagement, with Kate wearing that midnight blue Issa dress, it is clear that the public are prepared to love her.

In part, this is because of the proprietorial way they feel about William, ever since he was left so tragically motherless at the age of 15. She makes him happy, and so they like her. But also, we all understand far more now about just what Kate has given up in order to take on the role of royalty. The seductive glamour of life as a monarch has increasingly been unmasked, most recently by Prince Harry himself.

"I'm not so much searching for someone to fulfil the role," he recently told CBS in America, "but obviously, you know, finding someone that would be willing to take it on."

The life of a royal bride is, he knows, pretty unenviable, constantly beset by press, speculation, whispers and innuendos.

Harry has always been an ally of Kate's. From the days of drinking Crack Babies (it's a mix of vodka, passion fruit, Chambord raspberry liqueur and champagne) at Boujis nightclub in South Kensington, the two have always had an uncomplicated friendship. Before the wedding, Harry told one reporter "to have a big sister is very, very nice... I'm really looking forward to getting her under my wing... She's a fantastic girl... the two of them are a perfect match." Since then, Harry has been based next door to the couple at Kensington Palace. And Kate joked publicly about giving Harry a Grow-Your-Own-Girlfriend kit for Christmas, suggesting the kind of easy-going terms they are on together.

The British public are grateful that Kate is Kate, and that her sensible, low-key appreciation of duty is unlikely to let the monarchy down. She may be no Diana -- and it is very obvious now, despite the best efforts of the press to draw parallels, that she is no Diana -- but neither is she likely to skip from scandal to scandal, dragging the name of Windsor behind her.

Despite the fascination for Diana, the public have recently grown to appreciate the rehabilitated virtues of Queen Elizabeth. Such was the dazzle of Diana's kamikaze vulnerability, that Elizabeth II's more prosaic attachments to duty and the 'right thing' were cast quite in the shade.

Kate's dutiful and down-to-earth attitude also seem to have endeared her to Queen Elizabeth. Her trip to Ireland last year showed a relaxed, humourous side to Her Majesty not often seen, while recently, on an official engagement at Manchester Town Hall, she suggested popping into a wedding taking place next door. She and Prince Philip congratulated the stunned happy couple, and even posed for photographs.

It may be the celebration of her Diamond Jubilee, or the minor heart attack suffered by Prince Philip before Christmas, but certainly Elizabeth II is no longer as starchy as she once was. And there are those who believe it is the Duchess of Cambridge's good influence at work.

There is even talk that Her Majesty is considering retiring. Now that she has surpassed even Queen Victoria, it is decision time. Charles may be nearly 80 when he ascends the throne, with William possibly only getting there in his 70s. None of this would be good. The British royal family trade on their glamour, and ancient kings are not glamorous. The public want William and Kate on the throne as soon as possible, and given that the Queen cannot legally bypass Charles, even if she wanted to, her only option is speedy retirement, and the hope that Charles will do the same.

However, for as long as she remains on the throne, Queen Elizabeth seems determined to do right by Kate. "Well-briefed and carefully supervised," is how one commentator described her. "My mother and father are understandably very protective of her," said Prince Edward a few weeks ago. That a royal prince would speak out on such an intimate matter at all, is an indication of how far the family have come -- been forced perhaps -- in matters of public relations.

The relationship with Camilla may be a rather more fraught one. Camilla has similar notions of duty and decorum as Queen Elizabeth -- but she is also more emotionally involved in William's life, and is inescapably bound up with his parents' very painful divorce and the traumatic aftermath. She also seems more inclined to meddle. Before last year's wedding there were rumours of several fallings-out between her and Kate.

However, Kate shows no desire to be a divisive force among her in-laws, and Camilla has enough sense to know that she is not yet loved by the people, and needs Kate's appeal. Hence the carefully timed appearances of Queen, Camilla and Kate all together.

And what of Kate's own circle of intimates? Truth is, she doesn't really have any. She has always been a one-man-girl, and so far hasn't gathered a group of well-born but sympathetic souls about her in her married life. At the altar, she was entirely surrounded by bridesmaids and page boys drawn from William's royal connections. Only Pippa came from Kate's side. And so it still is.

Now that the stakes are so high, Kate seems to trust few outside her family -- and her mother, Carole, and Pippa are still her first choice of companions for shopping trips and holidays. A recent ski holiday, apparently paid for by the Middletons, delightfully determined to fork out for one of the richest royal families in Europe, saw Kate, William, Pippa and George, Earl Percy, pop off to the French Alps.

Since last year's wedding, Her Royal Hotness has broken up with her banker boyfriend, Alex Loudon, and landed a €480,000 book deal for a book on party planning, including such tips as "a hibiscus margarita looks just elegant garnished with a caramelised slice of lime".

Frankly, though, this is small fry compared with the dizzy heights Pippa can reach for. Though she has insisted that she and Percy are just friends, some believe Carole is keen for the relationship to develop into something more.

After all, Earl Percy is heir to the Dukedom of Northumberland, which comes with £300m, 100,000 acres and Alnwick Castle, better known as the exterior of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.

At last year's wedding, it was impossible not to think that Harry and Pippa, the giddy younger siblings, seemed to be having far more fun than William and Kate, so stiffly and painfully aware of their responsibilities. One year on, nothing has changed. The weight of expectation around an heir is huge, with speculation likely to reach fever-pitch pretty soon, despite the Palace's request for discretion from the media.

William, anyway, seems slightly crushed by the role that lies before him, both too far and too near for comfort.

"I try not to think about it. As I'm flying along in my helicopter through the mountains of Wales, I try desperately hard not to think about it. That can wait until I'm a bit older," he told a reporter recently. And Kate meanwhile, is playing her part with every inch of determination she can muster.

Togging out, putting up with invidious comparisons and speculation, taking her place beside the queen and Camilla, dutiful wife, daughter and royal patron -- the weight of the Windsor family on her frail shoulders.

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