Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Kate Middleton: The Princess

Every Windsor is a draw, even the minor players. So for Queen Elizabeth's Nov. 28 reception for the media — held in anticipation of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee, her 60th year on the throne — palace functionaries set about organizing their 350 guests into manageable constellations along the elegant expanse of the Picture Gallery and in the drawing rooms at either side. The place was lousy with royalty — not only the monarch and her sardonic consort but also Prince Charles, Camilla and a brace of cousins. But then came word that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were holding court in the Blue Drawing Room, and the revelers swirled and regrouped like iron filings exposed to a powerful magnet. Kate — the single syllable now a global brand — is bigger box office than the rest of her in-laws combined.

Chin-stroking editors of national newspapers, lofty columnists and feared TV interrogators elbowed one another for the chance to inspect the 29-year-old's flawless skin and abundant locks, to find out if she is more striking in person (she is) and to hear her speak. And speak she did, a touch hesitantly, making diplomatic small talk about her strange new life. She hasn't been to Buckingham Palace much since the wedding. She hasn't seen her family much since the wedding. She is proud of her husband. Prominent intellectuals and public figures crowded around to catch these anodyne words. "I've never seen such a bunfight," said one despairing palace official.

For the older Windsors, the spectacle may have brought back uncomfortable memories. Exactly three decades ago, they watched a glamorous outsider become the main attraction. Some of their number appeared a little jealous. Yet by all accounts, the royals also appreciated the renewed sense of relevance that Diana Spencer brought to their musty enterprise. By the time they recognized the strength of her gravitational pull, she had almost dislodged the centuries-old institution from its axis.

Support for the royals held steady in the aftermath of Diana's death, but not even the most ardent of monarchists predicted the excitement around her son's marriage, which brought London to a standstill and snared global audiences in the millions — or billions, according to some estimates. From a news perspective the royal wedding seems like 2011's biggest anachronism. This was a year when — from Tunisia and Egypt to the U.S. and, yes, the U.K. too — throngs came together in rage to topple leaders and challenge institutions, not cheer them.

Is Kate's story a last gasp of nostalgia, a feel-good movie for the bleakest of times? Or a cautionary tale for anyone who dared to dream that the struggles of the 20th century would build a more equal world in the 21st? In marrying the second in the line of succession, the newly minted princess has accepted a mission riven with apparent contradictions. She's expected to uphold tradition while bringing modernity to the monarchy, and to reinforce a system based on birthright while proving that a commoner can cut it as a royal. Though she's the first royal bride to have earned a degree, she is unlikely to build a career or even hold down a paying job. Her primary function is to bear children and prepare for the eventuality of one day becoming Queen. Any other duties, as defined by palace conventions, are largely silent or scripted, symbolic and ceremonial. No wonder her words — any words — have such currency.

Kate has given only one interview of any length: with Prince William at her side, after the announcement of their engagement. In the seven months since her wedding, she has kept her thoughts to herself and abided by palace conventions. There are signs that she intends to continue to do so. The head that wears the crown may lie a little easier than in the Diana years.

Yet Diana didn't join the royal family to undermine it, nor could she have anticipated becoming the most famous woman of her age. An avatar of the Establishment, she became its nemesis. A dutiful bride, she morphed into a feminist icon. The pressures of palace life and the shambles of her marriage were the catalysts for this change. Kate has also been catapulted to relentless, inescapable celebrity. She finds herself a role model whose most pressing task is to define the nature and meaning of the role. If she becomes as popular as Diana, her choices may help the monarchy thrive or bring it to its knees. Whatever she decides — however she goes about the business of being royal — Britain's second most famous princess is already being watched and emulated across the world. We have entered the era of the copy-Kate.

Keeping Her Head
St. James's palace was built for Henry VIII, and the initials HA, entwined in a lover's knot above a couple of the remaining Tudor fireplaces, celebrate his passion for Anne Boleyn, the commoner who became his second wife. The King later ordered his beloved's beheading for treason, though in all probability she was guilty of nothing more treasonable than failing to give him a male heir. It is in this palace of sorrows, in rooms overlooking a courtyard, that Kate has been learning the regal ropes.

She and her new spouse recently moved out to Kensington Palace, Diana's former residence, but maintain offices at St. James's, and for a few days in the fall they rode to work on London public bicycles, available to rent at stands across the city center. Police officers trailed in their wake. This was not a stunt, an official says, but reflected an impulse — surely doomed — toward the normality of ordinary existence.

Kate's is "a small office," says the official. "Four or five people. Most are not that much older than her. These are not fuddy-duddies, not men in suits. The mood is informal. They're quite smart, but there's a kitchen downstairs and people often gather in the kitchen making coffee." While William continues his career as a search-and-rescue pilot for the Royal Air Force, Kate is accumulating survival skills of a different kind: the choreography of royal events, the briefings, acclimating to a security detail, coming to grips with the intricacies of the court and the constitution, deciding which worthy causes to support.

She is winning praise from those involved in the process for things that look simple. Robin Boles, the CEO of In Kind Direct, which distributes manufacturers' surplus goods to charities, enthuses that Kate was "absolutely brilliant" as a last-minute stand-in for Prince Charles at the organization's October dinner, her first solo royal engagement. What did this involve? Reading a brief and asking bright questions, says Boles. "There could have been a few times where people complimented her and it would have embarrassed her, but she just took it and giggled and moved on. She's going to be great for the royal family. She's mature and intelligent."

Sensible and levelheaded are adjectives that crop up frequently in conversation with palace officials. They like her. She's nice. She remembers names. The sharpest comment comes from a woman: "I think it's a mistake for her not to work. She shouldn't just take on charity patronages. She should really work for the charities."

Chatting with Kate at the Buckingham Palace reception added a few more layers to her wholesome image. She triggers memories of girls at school who were sporty and good at exams and never smoked behind the bike sheds or acquired piercings or tattoos. She seemed as excited to be in the presence of royalty as the people thronging around her. She radiates a palpable happiness.

That's in keeping with our ideas of what a princess is and does. Ladylike and gracious, Kate is rarely less than demure, often in accessible fashions. A surge in orders for a knee-length $274 dress from U.K. fashion chain Reiss that she wore to a meeting with the Obamas during their May state visit to London crashed Reiss's website. She has sparked a revival in tan pantyhose. She used to wear short skirts and V-necks, but as a royal fiancée her hemlines inched lower and her necklines higher. In the full bloom of youth, she appears in day wear that wouldn't look out of place on a maiden aunt in the 1940s. She doesn't do sexy. She doesn't do edgy. The Duchess never, in the parlance of upper-crust Brits, frightens the horses.

It has become fashionable among fashion editors to lament that she takes too few risks. The reality is that whatever Kate wears and however nice she is, she will never escape censure in one corner of the media or another. Becoming a Windsor bride is no fairy tale, thanks to two diseases afflicting British public life: snobbery and a legendarily unscrupulous popular press.

It's hard to disentangle these phenomena. Britons' vocabulary of class is every bit as extensive as legend suggests. Red-top tabloids are aimed at the lower orders. Mid-market titles like the Daily Mail see themselves as the voice of Middle England. Broadsheets look down long noses at the rest. Yet across the range, there's been a surprising unanimity of response to the Middleton family. A desire to move up the social scale might be lauded in other countries. In the U.K., it's more liable to attract mockery.

Kate, descended on her father's side from the professional classes and on her mother's from miners and laborers, tripped the cultural alarms that come built in with English heritage. The ring on her finger affords some protection — she is no longer, in tabloid terminology, "Waity Katie" — but her family remains fair game. Kate's younger sister Pippa, thrust backward into the public eye by her sinuous bridesmaid's dress, reportedly split from her aristocratic boyfriend Alex Loudon in November, unleashing schadenfreude in the Daily Mail. The posh Loudons had been "lukewarm" about their son's liaison with the "newly wealthy" Middletons, the newspaper reported, citing no sources more solid than a clutch of unnamed "friends," a "palace insider" and an anonymous interviewee who once visited the Loudons' garden during a charity open day.

Doubtless, the Middleton family business — an online supplier of party goods called Party Pieces — has gained exposure from its founders' newfound prominence. Pippa has reportedly secured a substantial advance for a book about holding the perfect party. But that hardly puts the family in Billy Carter territory. Rosie Boycott, who founded a feminist magazine and edited three of Britain's national newspapers, notes the sharp contrast between the solidity of the Middletons and the dysfunction of Diana's aristocratic childhood. Diana, whose mother fled the marital home and lost custody of her children to their emotionally distant father, went on to marry a man who loved someone else: she was a tragedy waiting to happen.

Kate, nurtured and well educated, comes to palace life with a supportive husband and an expectation that family is not a battleground but a refuge. "Kate has become a global phenomenon and a popular figure, but not in the way with Diana you held your breath — what's going to happen? — the sense you were watching someone on the precipice," says Boycott.

Diana's narrative of fragility made for great copy. Eventually, she came to use the press as the press used her. But before she learned to manipulate her coverage, she signaled her distress by developing an eating disorder. The more she was on show, the less there was to see. It would hardly be surprising if Kate, one of the most photographed women in the world, is feeling the pressure. Since she was first identified as William's girlfriend in 2004, lenses have been trained on her, documenting a transition not unusual for women in their 20s, from sleek to slim. That transition has triggered disapproval. "The Duchess of Cambridge has now become a 'role model' on controversial pro-anorexia websites because of her continued weight loss," sniped the Mail on Sunday in August.

There are important questions about the malign influence of too many too-thin celebrities vaunted as ideals of femininity. And it's easy to understand how such celebrities, forced to see themselves through the basilisk eye of the paparazzi, might continue the vicious cycle by shedding weight to fit the scrawny ideal, only to find themselves attacked for meeting it. For the record, Kate looks healthy in the flesh, though there's not much flesh: she's willowy and close to 6 ft. in heels.

Behind the scenes, officials are exasperated about the focus on her weight, just as they bridled at the earlier focus on her wait. Kate appears unruffled. That lack of drama might eventually make us lose interest in the star attraction of the Windsor circus, a tightrope walker who doesn't wobble. For the moment, her poise is central to her appeal. Perfectly composed, she seems far removed from everyday celebrityland and its public meltdowns.

Game of Phones
There's another reason Kate enjoys a better chance of living happily ever after. The spring wedding was followed by a summer of scandal that tarnished politicians, police and, most of all, the British press. An earlier discovery that mobile phones belonging to Princes William and Harry were hacked by and on behalf of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World led to the jailing of a journalist and a private eye in 2007. This year, the scandal came back to life, shuttering the paper in July. Evidence is emerging that the royals and other public figures have for decades been spied on by the U.K. press. This has been an acknowledged dark side of the world's obsession with the English royals since at least 1997, when Earl Spencer, in his funeral oration for his sister, reflected a widespread sentiment that a hungry media shared the blame for that car crash in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel.

"Kate is incredibly lucky that the hacking scandal came out," says Boycott. "There's more rigor about what the press can and can't do. There's absolutely a sense of the desperation Diana was driven to. They won't push Kate to the same extent."

This restraint doesn't extend overseas or online, and Kate has already been pronounced pregnant more than once. In September, the U.S. tabloid the Star declared, "Kate pregnant with twins! — a boy and a girl." The October 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting agreed to change the rules of succession that have hitherto favored male children over female. Kate is set to be the first royal to give birth in an equal-opportunity household. It's not exactly a big win for feminism, but it does eliminate what otherwise might have been Kate's next wait: for a male heir.

A contented princess, with a private life that remains more or less private, seems unlikely to shake the Establishment or lend it fresh heft. As a role model, Kate may prove no Diana. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, for Kate or for the young women tempted to emulate her. Reinvesting celebrity with restraint, preserving silence in a confessional age, making a marriage work, making a royal marriage work — these would be the actions of a true revolutionary.