2020 is shaping up to be the year of Sophie, Countess of Wessex.
For years, she was the most senior female member of the British royal family, behind Queen Elizabeth. In the early days of her relationship with Prince Edward - the queen’s youngest son - she made an impression on the monarch that would last decades and earn her the precursor of ‘the queen’s favourite’ in nearly all descriptions of her.
But all good things must come to an end. Prince Charles' decision to marry Camilla (now Duchess of Cornwall) in 2005 set the wheels in motion for the next phase of the royal news cycle, much of which involved allowing the public to familiarise themselves with ‘the other woman’ and adjust to the idea of her now-defined fate as queen consort.
Charles’ children Princes William and Harry were growing up, and soon more attention was diverted towards them and their youthful exploits, and eventually to their wives. But for several years before that, Sophie (née Rhys-Jones) enjoyed unbridled access to her mother-in-law, the results of which will benefit her hugely during the family’s time of immense change without Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in its future.
Before her 1999 wedding (the first of the resurgence of royal nuptials at St George’s Chapel in Windsor), she enjoyed a successful career in public relations and launched her own eponymous firm in 1995. Two years after her wedding, she left her independent work as she and Edward had been accused of profiting from their royal titles in what became known as the ‘Sophie tapes’.
In 2001 in the now-defunct News of the World ran a transcript of tapes in which they said she was exploiting her Buckingham Palace connections for personal financial gain; which prompted the Wessexes to quit their ‘day jobs’ (Edward was trying to be a film producer) and instead, focus on being full-time royals. During this time, she has played by the rules and discreetly carved out a fulfilling role for herself in the monotonous palace system.
As such, Sophie has been preparing two decades for what will become the role of her life. The void left by Meghan and Harry’s departure means there is a vacancy for a qualified person who isn't planning their exit and is prepared to endure the laborious nature of royal work, coupled with the immense attention that comes with it.
Earlier this week, Sophie stepped to the fore alongside Kate Middleton at an event in Buckingham Palace, shunning her 55th birthday celebrations that same day in favour of work. She’s currently in Sierra Leone as part of a two-day diplomatic visit, and the trip has attracted significantly more coverage than usual as interest in her amps up.
And she is already familiar with the highs and lows of being such a public figure, having learned her lesson from that fall from grace in front of the world 18 years ago.
“[The Countess] is probably the best example of an outsider coming into the family and learning on the job,” royal biographer Robert Jobson told the Telegraph in 2017, in a piece which advised Meghan to take a steer from Sophie’s experience as an outsider entering the fold.
The commonalities between Sophie and Meghan are many: both had independent careers before becoming royals and Edward was similarly protective of his wife in the ‘90s, writing to British newspaper editors asking them to stop “destroying our private life and, more importantly, Sophie’s life.”
When faced with a similar dilemma and only two visible options, the Sussexes made the decision to left their titles and tiaras behind for a new life in Canada, while the Wessexes packed in their day jobs and committed to a royal life and all the confines within it.
Sophie manages her public duties with 70 private patronages including women's and children's charities, all of which will enjoy a higher profile now that their patron is being primed for a more central role within the family. The mother-of-two - to 16-year-old Lady Louise Windsor and 12-year-old James, Viscount Severn - takes a particular focus on issues through which she has personal experiences, like Kate Middleton's early start mental health campaign and previously Meghan's work with women's organisations and animal welfare.
Suddenly, profiles and fashion analysis around her have emerged of her appearances in recent days, and she is front page news instead of the more low-key way in which she would have been reported on even just a few weeks ago.
Interest in the royal family is at a new peak, thanks in no small part to its outgoing rock stars Meghan and Harry, but now that they will be operating independently, there's a need to satiate the public appetite for reports on royal goings-on.
The positioning of Sophie in a more role will likely be part of The Firm's strategy to ensure its relevance into the next generation. Behind the scenes, considerable time and money has been invested in Harry's professional role as a prince - and his family - and now that plans have changed, it's imperative they show their adaptability.
The fact that at 55 Sophie is being heralded as a new generation style icon can only help the devoted royal fashion watchers, who spend hours pouring over pictures of princesses, is just a bonus.