Monday 26 June 2017

Pippa Middleton: a problem solved?

The faint air of royal anxiety over the future of Pippa Middleton is at an end, as she gets ready to marry financier James Matthews

Pippa and Kate Middleton at Wimbledon
Pippa and Kate Middleton at Wimbledon
The 'rear of the year' at her sister's wedding in 2011
Pippa Middleton

Emily Hourican

Pippa Middleton and James Matthews, a racing driver turned hedge fund manager whose family owns the Eden Rock hotel in St Barths, first dated back in 2012, but only briefly, because she was, apparently too young - there is eight years between them - and the timing, according to James, was wrong. Nevertheless, he knew, from the first moment they met at his family's hotel, that Pippa was the girl he wanted, and has spent the intervening years amassing a fortune, and biding his time.

His patience and persistence seems to have paid off. The couple got together again in 2015, and within seven months she had moved in with him. They will be married on May 20.

Pippa Middleton and James Matthews attend day nine of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships at Wimbledon on July 06, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
Pippa Middleton and James Matthews attend day nine of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships at Wimbledon on July 06, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

The wedding will be exclusive and glamorous - 350 guests, Prince George and Princess Charlotte as pageboy and flower girl - but in a funny way, it feels like the end of something, rather than the beginning. The end of the exciting mid-period of Pippa's life, when everything was possible, and yet nothing really happened. It's as if Pippa's finest hour is already behind her, belonging to the day of her sister's wedding, back in 2011, and not her own big day.

Almost every bride in the world wants to be the centre of attention, the spotlight towards which all eyes turn. Kate Middleton, however, seemed entirely content to let her little sister Pippa, at least share the limelight, if not steal it outright.

Where brides are so often accused of secretly trying to dress-down the bridesmaid, especially if she's pretty, forcing her into something that will hide rather than flatter, in a series of colours that are universally drab - the lilacs, pale pinks and yellows that seem to whisper 'don't look at me' - Pippa appeared triumphant in gorgeous bias-cut figure-hugging white. No silly sleeve frills or concealing necklines for her. Instead, the emphasis of the dress was rather firmly on the excellence of Pippa's figure, and in particular her bottom.

Kate herself emerged, demurely swathed and almost swallowed-up behind layers of white lace so that her personality was carefully muted. Contrast that with Pippa's almost saucy arrival, complete with bridesmaids and pageboys - very much the dynamic centre of activity. As Kate walked from car to cathedral door, the tiny movements of her waving hand almost lost in the folds of wedding dress, it was Pippa, behind her, glowing in that deceptively simple dress, arranging the train and smiling merrily around, who captured most of our attention.

The 'rear of the year' at her sister's wedding in 2011
The 'rear of the year' at her sister's wedding in 2011

The question is, why? Why allow Pippa to so nearly eclipse her older sister? On this of all days? One possibility is that Pippa was deliberately made to stand out, in order to emphasise the biddable readiness of Kate to submerge herself instantly, entirely, into the royal family.

There is nothing of Diana to Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. She has not one jot of the skittish, awkward, fragile self-obsession of Diana, those qualities of magnetism and destructiveness that made so much mischief for the royal family. Kate is as dutiful as if she had been bred to a life of public servitude and private discretion, seemingly effortless in the abdication of any real personality, in favour of a round of carefully-managed photo opportunities and appearances under which she seems not to chafe at all. And, perhaps the holding up of Pippa, was one way of emphasising this comparative self-effacement of Kate's.

Pippa Middleton
Pippa Middleton

Another possibility, one much-favoured at the time by those cynics who were ever-ready to cast Carole Middleton as a kind of cartoon- scheming mama, was that she was deliberately showcasing her youngest daughter in order to position her as an opportunity. As if the royal wedding were, as well as being the culmination of one set of maternal ambitions, the launch pad for a second set. A kind of giant advertising billboard, the most prestigious in the world - a reminder, perhaps, to other European royals that there was another Middleton girl available; one now connected with the richest royal family in Europe.

In this context, marriage to James, rich (the engagement ring cost £250,000) and well-connected as he is, is definitely pretty pedestrian. It certainly looked, for a while, as if Pippa might well further the most dazzling dreams. Indeed, much was made, for a short time, of the apparent chemistry between her and Prince Harry, but it didn't take.

Best man Prince Harry and Maid of Honour Pippa Middleton on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the Royal Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton on April 29, 2011
Best man Prince Harry and Maid of Honour Pippa Middleton on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the Royal Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton on April 29, 2011

No eligible prince or minor royal stepped out of the shadows to take his place beside Pippa on the various ski slopes, beaches and mountain ranges where she shows to such advantage. Instead, and despite saying, "I was surprised and I still don't understand it", of her sudden fame, she seemed determined to forge a career for herself.

And there were no shortage of offers - The Oprah Winfrey Show was apparently willing to stump up £300,000 for an appearance, while a porn baron offered £5m for Pippa to appear in a single film scene. These, naturally, were turned down. Instead, Pippa, it seemed, was going to concentrate on developing herself within the context of the core Middleton brand - party planning.

Pippa Middleton attends the wedding of James Meade and Lady Laura Marsham at The Parish Church of St. Nicholas in Gaytonon September 14, 2013 in King's Lynn, England. (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)
Pippa Middleton attends the wedding of James Meade and Lady Laura Marsham at The Parish Church of St. Nicholas in Gaytonon September 14, 2013 in King's Lynn, England. (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)

In this, she showed herself as dutiful as her sister. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of both Middleton sisters is the way in which they are such 'good' daughters, products of what has always been billed as a careful, rather strict, middle-class upbringing. Sporty, healthy, hard-working, doing everything expected of them as well as they could; Pippa has said that as children, "we had to eat everything on our plate and not be fussy about food. There were times when I would be sitting at the table after lunch or dinner, having not eaten something because I decided I didn't like it and actually remaining there until I had eaten it." However, their parents managed it, there has never seemed to be any spirit of rebellion in either Kate, or, for all her bounce and energy, Pippa either.

She accepted £400,000 for a book on party planning, Celebrate: A Year of Festivities for Families and Friends, duly published in 2012, and enthusiastically slated everywhere.

Pippa Middleton with Spencer Matthews in St Barts. Picture: Splash News
Pippa Middleton with Spencer Matthews in St Barts. Picture: Splash News

It was a book so bad that you half-expected to hear it was a joke - like the fake Twitter account set up for Pippa's backside. In it, Pippa recommends preparing ice for drinks by 'filling trays with water well before your party'. To stop cakes going stale, she advises storing them in 'an airtight tin', and recommends that hot drinks for picnics should be poured from flasks into 'mugs or paper cups'.

Largely silent at the time, and despite the universal derision, Pippa later said of the book: "I believed in it and I can't blame anyone else, but maybe it might have been better if I had waited a bit longer before doing it."

Pippa Middleton.
Pippa Middleton.

She was also the public face of the Middleton's Party Pieces company, writing a monthly blog, giving tips for Christmases or recipes for chicken and leek pie. She had columns in The Spectator, Vanity Fair and Waitrose Kitchen Magazine and did a spot of roving reporting for NBC, including dancing with cowboys at a hoedown in Wyoming, with the suggestion that more TV work was to come.

Then there was the sports side of things. Pippa has always been sports mad. She won a scholarship to Marlborough, the school she and Kate attended (where she was known as 'Perfect Pippa'), and has worked her way around the world recently via a number of extreme challenges, including a 3,000-mile cycle ride across the United States, a 50-mile swimming and running race in Sweden, and a 14,000ft climb of the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

To fit with this, Pippa apparently considered personal training and a nutrition range, as well as working with a number of sports brands, all understandably mad keen to be associated with her in any capacity. But it didn't happen, and the media career stalled almost before it properly started. The Spectator and Vanity Fair columns were quietly given up, even the Party Pieces blog is now written by someone called 'Rebecca'.

Pippa Middleton
Pippa Middleton

Instead of establishing herself, Pippa has quietly retreated, dropping any efforts to forge a career for herself in favour of some low-key charity work - with the British Heart Foundation, the Mary Hare School for the Deaf and Disability Snowsport UK.

The gradual shift, from working girl and media personality into more anodyne obscurity, has apparently plenty to do with Prince William, to whom Pippa turned for advice, and who is thought to have suggested a more discreet approach to her future.

If indeed, she consulted William, it's no surprise that she has edged further out of the limelight. After all, this is the man who grew up with his aunt Sarah Ferguson as an example of just how badly the British royal brand can be damaged by association with those who don't understand its best interests (a quick reminder of just some of Fergie's indiscretions - the time she was filmed offering access to Prince Andrew for £500,000 in cash; oh, and the time Jeffrey Epstein, convicted of soliciting an under-age girl for prostitution, helped her avoid bankruptcy by paying off some of her debts).

William has learned the hard way that those on the outside of the family - but with prime seats looking in - can cause terrible trouble. Indeed, his royal duty would quite clearly have been to counsel Pippa to step back. And perhaps she was nothing loath. Because as well as - indeed because of - causing a sensation at her sister's wedding, Pippa, inevitably, found herself in a pretty unwelcome firing line, the target of relentless social media abuse and a steady drip of gossip.

"I have had a few years of being in the public eye," she said a year ago, "and I have developed something of a thick skin. But managing it all on my own has been quite hard. I have quite a lot thrown at me, such as being followed by people hiding behind cars and jumping out with cameras. It can be unnerving."

Along with the anxiety over Pippa's career - the possibility of an unfortunate association or endorsement, and all the many other Trojan horses through which embarrassment can be smuggled into the royal family - as long as Pippa was single, there was always the risk of her falling for someone 'unsuitable', and bringing trouble that way.

The fact that Pippa's boyfriends have all been of a type - tall, dark, handsome and very eligible - doesn't mean that the risk wasn't there. Her beaux have including stockbroker Nico Jackson, England cricketer Alex Loudon, who escorted Pippa to the royal wedding, Alexander Spencer-Churchill, nephew of the Duke of Marlborough (and briefly linked to poor Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, which connection may also have given the royals pause for thought), and banking heir JJ Jardine-Paterson. It is hardly a list to cause anxiety in either a parent or a queen, but Pippa safely married is always going to be a less nerve-racking prospect than Pippa dating.

Certainly James Matthews seems to have understood the politics of the situation perfectly. The wooing of Pippa involved a great deal of wooing of her family, too - including trips to St Barths via private plane - and indeed, he apparently asked Pippa's parents' (specifically, it is said, Carole's) permission, before popping the question to Pippa.

So James, clearly, gets it. But even so, in the increasingly tangled intersection between all things celebrity, without demarcations of 'old' and 'new' fame or money, even James carries a whiff of threat. His brother, Spencer, was one of the stars of reality TV show Made in Chelsea - and is currently dating Vogue Williams (on a recent trip to Disneyland Paris, Vogue thanked him, via Instagram, for 'looking after her' and joked that he hadn't moaned about her constant whinging once).

Watching the British royal family slowly orientating themselves in a world where the values they were brought up to are suddenly impossible to maintain, is endlessly entertaining. From the most rarefied and splendid isolation, they have been dragged reluctantly into a new reality, where the heir to the throne's uncle-in-law lives in a house called Maison de Bang Bang; where the same heir's sister-in-law is marrying the brother of a reality TV star; where Prince Harry can date a divorced African-American and admit that "losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well". It is far from this they were reared alright. Still, at least they won't need to worry about Pippa any more.

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