Monday 16 September 2019

Poor little rich girls

The Spencer girls
The Spencer girls

Emily Hourican

Sun-kissed and glamorous, they nearly stole the show at the recent royal wedding. The Spencer girls -- Lady Kitty and her younger sisters, twins Lady Eliza and Amelia -- are sexy, wealthy and well connected.

Despite a dysfunctional background -- they are the elder children of the serially unfaithful Earl Spencer and his ex-wife, former heroin addict Victoria Lockwood -- the sophisticated trio are highly eligible, university-educated party girls. Emily Hourican reports on the next generation of Spencer women

For all the glories of the family name and estate, the most enduring image of Lady Diana and Earl Spencer's childhood is one of almost Gothic loneliness and neglect. Their mother Frances Shand Kydd left home when Charles was just three and Diana six, running off with the heir to a wallpaper fortune. After her own mother spoke out against Frances, the children were entrusted to their father's care by the courts. He employed a succession of nannies, some cold and even cruel, who banged the children's heads together when they misbehaved and withheld the love they craved. As a result, Charles and Diana clung to each other, seeking the consistency and companionship that was lacking from the large, empty houses they grew up in.

It was a childhood from which, arguably, Earl Spencer never quite recovered; that can be seen at the root of his own acrimonious divorces and failure to sustain loving relationships. And it is a childhood that maybe still echoes in the lives of his own children, of whom he has six by two wives. Because although undeniably a fond father, he has lived with none of his six children for very long past their infancy, and neither has he always considered their well-being during his difficult divorces.

The three daughters from his first marriage, Lady Kitty, Amelia and Eliza, all with their father's wide-spaced blue eyes and fair colouring, are the first to really capture public attention. They were the sensation of the recent royal wedding, an unexpected boon to photographers -- Diana's nieces, emerging, fully formed, from their previously secluded South African upbringing.

Sexy and sophisticated, with platinum tresses, perfect make-up and the pouting attitude of cover girls, they added dash and glamour to what was a surprisingly dowdy affair. In fact, their style was considerably more glossy beach-babe than aristocratic understatement, clear evidence of their comparatively relaxed Cape Town upbringing.

Twenty-year-old Lady Kitty, who has a distinct look of Sophie Dahl in her modelling hey-day, wore a nude-toned body-con dress by Victoria Beckham, and, in particular, seemed to be using the wedding as a kind of social announcement, a coming-out of sorts; although having been on the cover of Tatler two years ago, 19 years after her mother Victoria Lockwood, and previously voted Most Eligible Girl in Britain by the magazine, she is clearly no stranger to exposure. In fact, she has a sophisticated instinct for publicity, as well as a willingness to blurt out indiscretions to those beyond the family circle.

The three Spencer girls are friends of Prince Harry more than William's, and seem well matched to Harry's racier set; in fact, they have the same kind of high-maintenance blonde glamour and good-time ethos as Harry's on-off girlfriend, Chelsy Davy, who was brought up in Zimbabwe before moving to the UK.

However, behind the sun-kissed reflection of wealth (the family fortune is an estimated £100m) and privilege, theirs is a story that reads sometimes as bleakly as Charles and Diana's own, a tale of three poor little rich girls with a distinct exhibitionist streak that might just be the legacy of a legacy; the long shadow of Earl Spencer's miserable childhood stretching far across to the other side of the world.

In fact, Lady Kitty has joked that they belong in the world of daytime TV. "Sometimes I feel like my family should be on The Jerry Springer Show," she told Hello! Magazine in 2008, though also insisting: "From the outside, the structure looks so dysfunctional. However, every single member of my family is part of my happiness."

Charles Spencer and Victoria Lockwood, a model, were married in 1989, after knowing each other just a few months, with Prince Harry as a page boy. Kitty was born a year later, and within six months of her birth, Earl Spencer had begun an affair with a journalist. "It turned me overnight from a deeply contented, first-time mother to a hurt, scared and devastated woman," Victoria later said of the discovery that her husband was cheating with an old flame. However, she had twins Amelia and Eliza two years later, and the son and heir Louis -- whose birth was greeted with unreconstructed whoops of triumph by the Spencer family -- two years after that. But by the time Louis was born, the marriage was well into injury time, with Victoria suffering from serious addictions to heroin and alcohol, along with a pronounced eating disorder.

Victoria went for treatment and managed to kick her destructive habits, getting a tattoo of a heart on her right arm to symbolise her rebirth. However, she is far from complacent about her recovery, saying a few years ago: "There are no holidays from this illness. The price of freedom is constant vigilance. I attend recovery meetings every week and I will do so for the rest of my life."

It was then the family moved to South Africa, to try to patch things up and create a more solid domestic life, away from the camera lenses and snide headlines of the English media. Like most such moves, though, it failed in its objectives. After all, a physical relocation is far easier than any emotional rapprochement. The Earl continued to philander, and in 1997 the couple divorced in a highly public and acrimonious fashion. She accused him of sleeping with dozens of women, many while she was in rehab, while he quipped nastily when reminded of his duty to stick by his wife through thick and thin, that she was "thin, and certainly thick".

Kitty was seven at the time and the twins five; too young to realise that their parents were playing out a vicious battle of tit-for-tat in the media, or that the family name was the subject of much smug public jeering, but certainly old enough to understand that their world was crashing down around them. "They told me they didn't love one another any more, but they still loved me," said Kitty of that time. "The positives of the situation were highlighted, such as two Christmases, two birthdays and two bedrooms." It's an attitude that seems, more than anything, a brave attempt to look for the good in something plainly devastating.

For a time, Earl Spencer, who always said he would never entrust his children's care to nannies after his own miserable experiences, stayed in South Africa, dating Calvin Klein model Josie Borain. But once that ended, he returned to England, where he married Caroline Freud, ex-wife of Matthew Freud, and had two more children. Undoubtedly a better father than he was a husband, Spencer worked hard at maintaining contact -- he flew to South Africa every month or so and phoned regularly, while the children spent four holidays a year at the family home Althorp -- but he never again lived in the same country as them, and, despite the odd masterful intervention, his influence on their day-to-day lives was necessarily limited.

For a while, it looked as if the Spencer story would settle into a pleasant, perfectly traditional groove -- wrong match followed happily by right match. Charles seemed happy with Caroline, who was in many ways his soulmate, with similar interests and a supportive nature, and together they forged great plans for the modernising of Althorp and the establishment of a literary festival there.

They bought a house in Maida Vale -- from Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour -- and looked to be blending their families in a modern, relaxed, successful way, eased by plenty of money and genuine goodwill. Caroline's two boys by her marriage to Freud were just slightly younger than Louis, and interested in the same kinds of things, happy to kick a football around the stunning grounds at Althorp, while Spencer's girls, Kitty, Amelia and Eliza were seemingly delighted with their new baby half-brother.

Caroline described her step-children as "the most delightful you could ever hope to meet", and said they made her job easy. Had things continued in this vein, it would have been just another unremarkable story of initial hiccup then happy ever after. Instead, Spencer, who seems ever to scupper his own chances of stability, filed for divorce in 2006 when his sixth and youngest child was just four months old, and started an affair with Coleen Sullivan, a US journalist who came to interview him for a documentary on Princess Diana.

He and Caroline went through a divorce nearly as nasty and messy as his first, with most of the bitterness centred around the house in London, which Caroline badly wanted to retain. Initially, the Spencer girls are said to have sided with her, asking that she be allowed to stay there, but the passage of time greatly altered their allegiances, and by 2009 Lady Kitty was quoted as saying, very indiscreetly: "She's an awful woman, I'm glad he's divorcing her," to a journalist she met in the VIP enclosure at Wimbledon. It was Kitty who accompanied her father to the divorce hearings in London's High Court, an indication that he, as is so often the case with divorced men, has somehow elevated her to the status of companion, giving her the role a wife would normally fill. And, as is often the case for girls who have difficult, overbearing fathers, Kitty seems to identify strongly with Earl Spencer "It's hurtful for any daughter to read negative things about her father, but he's someone who remains true to himself," she has said. "I am definitely a daddy's girl. I'm more like him than my mother. We share the same sense of humour and have similar interests."

Meanwhile, apart from visits to England and Althorp, the girls and Louis were brought up by Victoria in Cape Town. She, too, married again, to Jonathan Aitken, a South African businessman who she met in rehab, and they had a son. Her other children liked Aitken, who was charming and charismatic, but after a couple of years he lapsed back into addiction and, in 2009, Victoria demanded a divorce, saying his conduct was "irreconcilable with the continuation of a normal marital relationship". She then began a romance with a former British Army lieutenant James Clinch, much to the chagrin of Aitken, and a nasty, convoluted domestic row broke out. Clinch filed a restraining order against Aitken, who he claims tried to shoot him, while Aitken, who denied the allegations, counter-claimed, suing Clinch for £250,000 for breaking up his marriage.

Meanwhile, Charles himself remarried recently for a third time, to Canadian philanthropist and, of course, former model Karen Gordon.

And what of the girls and Louis in all of this? Earl Spencer stepped in, the lordly deus ex machina, and removed them from the scene of the storm, installing them in a luxurious mansion, supervised only by au pairs and domestic staff.

They were also given the responsibility of managing their own money. "My father is strict about the money he gives us," Kitty said in an interview. "It's all worked out so we can buy petrol, pay for our car insurance, books, accommodation and that sort of thing. I've also got a set amount of spending money, and if I go over, then that's it." Kitty was 19 at the time, studying politics and psychology at Cape Town University, while the twins, 17, and Louis, 15, were still at school. Eliza at the time was also recovering from a terrible personal shock; her first serious boyfriend Christopher Elliot, a talented body-surfer, was killed in a car accident just a few days before her 16th birthday.

And yes, like any young people with great personal freedom and large incomes, the girls threw themselves into partying and are regulars on the Cape Town nightclub scene. Their Facebook pages and those of their friends carry provocative pictures of the girls dancing, preening, striking poses that are sometimes flirtatious, sometimes seriously raunchy, showing two fingers to the camera, occasionally dressed like extras from a Madonna video in tight bodices and super-short skirts.

Growing up in South Africa has allowed them far more freedom than would have been the case in Britain, where simply being Diana's nieces would have guaranteed them an oppressive degree of media attention, and it is highly unlikely such photos would exist in so accessible a forum had the girls been raised in the more stifling atmosphere of the English aristocracy. There is a wild streak to these three that is perfectly in keeping with the family name and, indeed, with their mother's difficult history, but the publicising of it is still relatively unusual for their class.

Amelia recently got into trouble with the law after an alleged fracas outside a fast-food restaurant. She was accused of common assault along with a male friend after claims that she "swore at, smacked and kicked" a man on crutches. But just in time for the royal wedding, she was cleared of all charges.

And the partying, though exuberant, is also relatively innocent; after all, the girls have their mother as an example of what not to do. Victoria, who has been clean for many years now, has done her work well. "I would never touch drugs -- we saw what she used to be like," Kitty told Tatler some years ago. "But she's cool, she's not over-protective. She doesn't drill into us 'don't touch drugs'. She's just brought us up so that we don't want to, rather than we can't."

And, despite all the partying, the twins did well enough in their final exams to get into university -- Eliza to Varsity College and Amelia the University of Cape Town. Kitty, meanwhile, has graduated and is turning her attention to designing her own range of casual wear.

"I'm sick of being compared to other people and I just want to achieve stuff in my own right, for my self-worth and self-respect," she said recently. She has been talking about a move to the UK for years, to be close to her father and exploit the many opportunities open to her since appearing as Tatler's Most Eligible Girl in Britain in 2007. Following the bombshell of her recent royal wedding appearance, and given the media appetite for all things upper class, now would seem to be a very good time. But whether Kitty can turn the media fascination into commercial success, or is destined to play out the same kind of role -- aristocrat in public meltdown, basically -- as her father and aunt, remains to be seen.

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