William and Kate: Scenes From a Fairy Tale

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A Royal Courtship

Catherine Elizabeth Middleton was born on Jan. 9, 1982, and grew up in the village of Bucklebury, population some 2,000. Strolling through Bucklebury Common — a sprawling, 900-acre park and the town's visual centerpiece — Kate's parents may have told their children about the park's royal legacy. Community leaders planted its inner ring of oak trees sometime in the 1560s to celebrate a visit by Queen Elizabeth I, and more trees were added in 1972, when Queen Elizabeth II toured the grounds. It's doubtful they interpreted them as signs of their eldest child's destiny.

The Middleton family's flight into the upper echelons of British society began at a British airport. Michael and Carole Middleton met in the 1970s working at British Airways — she as a flight attendant, he as a manager. They married in 1980, and the airline transferred Michael to Jordan four years later. Kate, then 2 years old, attended an English-language nursery school in Amman, and Carole stayed at home with 8-month old Philippa. Two-and-a half years later the Middletons returned to Bucklebury. In 1987, Carole gave birth to their youngest child, James.

That's when she had her multimillion-dollar idea. As a stay-at-home mom struggling to round up balloons and streamers for Kate's and Pippa's after-school parties, she decided to set up Party Pieces — a mail-order company selling children's party supplies such as kazoos and stuffed pigs. As the orders rolled in, the Middletons bought a five-bedroom house and expanded operations from a backyard shed to a series of converted farmhouses. The business, which analysts have estimated could be worth $48 million, catapulted the family into a genteel world where aspirational women hunt wearing pearls.

It also allowed them to send their children to prestigious Marlborough College, a tony English boarding school that costs more than $48,000 a year and boasts alumnae that include Britain's first lady, Samantha Cameron. Kate didn't stand out for her academic ability, but she excelled as a leader and athlete, running circles around her classmates as a member of the field hockey and cross-country running teams.

Kate's decision to study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland fit with her family's rising ambitions. The school attracts scores of blue-blooded students from south of the Scottish border.That year it also attracted Prince William, who (like his future bride) chose to study art history there instead of pursuing a degree at Cambridge, as his father did. Shortly after his arrival, reporters suggested that many of his female classmates had already purchased wedding gowns. "I suppose they're saying that tongue-in-cheek," he responded. "But people who try to take advantage of me and get a piece of me — I spot it quickly and soon go off them."

The 19-year-old prince also knew how to spot a keeper — even one wearing just a bit of translucent clothing. He had become casual friends with Kate shortly after arriving on campus. During their second term, he paid $320 to support her at a charity fashion show. Kate sashayed down the runway wearing a see-through silk tube with a bandeau top and bikini bottom. She had a fuller figure than we know today and exhibited a degree of daring that will likely never reappear publicly. Photographers snapped a mesmerized William ogling. That fall, at the start of their second academic year, the two became housemates, along with two of their friends.

It's unclear when the friendship blossomed into something more. Buckingham Palace repeatedly denied a romance. Officials brokered a deal with the paparazzi that allowed William and Kate to grow their relationship in relative privacy in exchange for regular updates on his life. "There's been a lot of speculation about every single girl I'm with, and it actually does quite irritate me after a while, more so because it's a complete pain for the girls," William said ahead of his 21st birthday. But in March 2004, a photo of the couple skiing in Switzerland finally exposed their relationship.

The cloak of security afforded them by the university couldn't last forever. In June 2005, graduation yanked it off entirely, and Kate had to face the media head-on. Issues of class quickly came to the fore, even before it became common knowledge that her family tree had branches held up by miners and manual laborers. Reporters claimed that William's well-heeled friends referred to Kate's mother with the flight-check phrase, "Doors to manual." Mean-spirited classmates even nicknamed Kate and Pippa, who studied at nearby Edinburgh University, the "wisteria sisters." The punch line? They're decorative and fragrant with a fierce ability to climb.

More worrying were the paparazzi who stalked Kate through the streets of London, publishing photos of her on the bus en route to a job interview and cycling to the gym in athletic shorts. The Palace provided Kate with 24-hour security through the Royal Protection Group (SO14), beginning in February 2006. Journalists gritted their teeth and kept up their occasionally lawless hunt for information. In January 2007, the former royal editor of the News of the World admitted to intercepting phone messages between William, Harry and their aides. He and his co-conspirator, a private investigator, served jail time.

The low point came in March when the couple split during a ski holiday in Switzerland. William reportedly wanted to enjoy the bachelor life while in the military. Rather than sulk at home, Kate decided to take to the town. Photographers snapped her looking glamorous and apparently unmoved by the snub from her wayward prince. Catherine Ostler, former editor of the high-society magazine Tatler, believes Kate's poise during that period ultimately boosted her popularity. "She came out of that breakup rather well," Ostler told Time on the day the engagement was announced. "She went out, looked great, and eventually he went back with his tail between his legs. It made her look like the triumphant underdog."

Just two months after their split, the media started publishing reports of a reconciliation. Joint appearances in public — including at the July 2007 memorial concert for Princess Diana — confirmed it. When the two hit the slopes in Klosters again in March 2008, the press wondered aloud when "Waity Katie" would get her proposal. It came in October 2010, during a 10-day safari in Kenya. William took Kate to the Rutundu Log Cabins, accessible only by air, horseback or a nine-mile walk from the nearest road. He carried his mother's sapphire engagement ring, now worth about $150,000, in his backpack. "It was very romantic," Kate said in her first televised interview. "There's a true romantic in there. I really didn't expect it. It was a total shock ... and very exciting."

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