LONDON CALLING: The Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine (Kate) Middleton turned 40 on Sunday. Called the ‘outsider’ when she first married the heir to the throne, Kate is now an intrinsic and inseparable part of the Royal Family. Ruhi Khan writes that what makes Kate different from other royal wives like Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson and Meghan Markle is not just her lack of rebellion but the perfect blend of tradition with trends that unleashes the enticing Kate Effect.
The royal family is much like any soap opera: broken hearts and broken marriages, scandals and suspense, dramas and tamashas, but all under the spotlight of the extremely nosy and often unforgiving British tabloids that throw a spotlight on every little family quibble – real and fictitious – for millions across the world to consume and gossip.
One continuous fodder for the endless consumption of the press and public have been the sagas of the royal bahus (daughters-in-law). The House of Windsor is littered with disgruntle ones – from the much-loved Princess Diana to the ‘scandalous’ Fergie and more recently the ‘homewrecker’ Meghan. Au contraire, Kate’s life shows contentment in her role as a senior member of the royal family and radiates happiness as the wife of the future king.
The Diana Fever
Diana, the youngest daughter of the 8th Earl Spencer, grew up in Althorp House, a 100,000-square-foot home in Northamptonshire that dates back centuries, to divorced parents. At 16, she met Charles who was 30 and ‘dating’ her elder sister. The two married on 29 July 1981 after only meeting a dozen times, Diana for ‘love’ and Charles for ‘whatever love means. Nevertheless, the wedding was widely watched and their famous kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace became the nation’s most memorable smooch.
Diana was a rebel royal: she picked her engagement ring from a catalogue, omitted the word ‘obey’ from her wedding vows, gave birth in a hospital (and not at the Palace), spoke candidly in press interviews, ran barefoot at a school event… the list goes on. While this often bought her at loggerheads with the royal family, her forthright manner and desire to meet and interact with the public, kept winning the hearts of the common folks and the Diana Fever spread far and wide.
When Diana discovered her husband was in love with a married Camilla Parker, she refused to grin and bear. But the undercurrents of a broken marriage, pressures from the royal household and the constantly scrutinising press, made the Princess of Wales suffer from mental health and bulimia.
In retrospect, she described her wedding day: “I felt I was a lamb to the slaughter. And I knew it, but I couldn’t do anything about it”. To BBC’s Martin Bashir who conducted the explosive and now found to be a ‘deceitful’ interview with the princess, she had said: “The day I walked down the aisle at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I felt that my personality was taken away from me, and I was taken over by the royal machine.” Of course her most famous quote from that’s interview was about her husband’s affair that stifled their marriage: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”.
Charles admitted to his affair and separated from Diana in 1992 with the divorce coming through in 1996. No longer the royal wife, Diana was still the people’s princess and constantly had the paparazzi tracking her every move. After her heart-breaking death in 1997 due to a car crash in a tunnel in Paris while on a holiday with her boyfriend Egyptian billionaire Dodi Al Fayed, Diana was laid to rest at Althorp House where visitors can pay their respect to the princess who shunned the castle but won the people.
Fergie’s toe-sucking saga
Sarah Ferguson, known as Fergie, married the Queen’s third son, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York and divorced him after a decade. The two remained co-parents to their daughters, Princess Beatrice and Princes Eugenie and have what could be considered a completely bizarre relationship in royal history.
The couple knew each other as young tots but the spark was ignited when Fergie was invited to Windsor Castle by Princess Diana in 1985 and after a whirlwind romance, the two were married a year later at Westminster Abbey in a fairy-tale wedding topped with the traditional kiss at the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
The duo is perhaps the most scandalous couple in the royal family. Before their marriage, Andrew had an affair with an American actress Koo Stark for two years before the couple split. Andrew later becomes a godparent to Stark’s daughter. Sarah had a live-in relationship with journalist and publicist Paddy McNally, 27 years her senior before she met Andrew and the two have remained friends.
In an interview with a British tabloid, Fergie said the reason for the divorce was Andrew being absent most of the time and the constant scrutiny from the Palace: “I got the palace and didn’t get him.” Of course, the proverbial icing on the cake was the photograph in a tabloid in 1992 that showed Fergie’s toes in the mouth of a Texan financial advisor John Bryan on a holiday that two took while Fergie was still legally married to Prince Andrew.
While ‘eww’ was the general public reaction, the royal family was red-faced furious and the relations deteriorated to the extent that Prince Phillip refused to be in the same room as Fergie, Prince Charles excluded her from any receptions he hosted and the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret wrote a strongly worded letter as a refusal to accepts flowers sent by her: “You have done more to bring shame on the family than could ever have been imagined… How dare you discredit us like this and how dare you send me those flowers?”
Of course, Fergie being Fergie hit back by sharing royal gossip with tabloids for money, appeared in the sitcom Friends and has authored a historical fiction novel of a young noblewoman’s coming of age in Victorian England – all much to the anguish of the royal family. She was also filmed by a controversial undercover reporter ‘Fake Sheik’ Mazer Mahmood, where she appeared to offer access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, for payment of £500,000 in 2010. And to top it all, Andrew and Fergie began living together again just a year after their 1996 divorce and Fergie was actively involved in planning their daughters’ royal weddings.
With Prince Andrew now being accused of having sex with a minor as part of the explosive Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell sex trafficking scandal, Fergie has remained Andrew firm supporter and many wonders if the two would pledge their troth once again. Fergie seems content to live along with Andrew, yet away from the royal household: ‘Some people are happily married. Well, we’re very happily divorced’.
From Megxit to Sussexit
In July 2016, Prince Harry met American actress Meghan Markle on a ‘blind date’ at a popular Soho restaurant where the duo bonded over charity work and a second date at the same place followed the very next day. They dated a few months quietly before the media glare fell on them and all hell broke loose.
Meghan was written extensively about as she was a striking contrast to the traditional royal wives. Born to mixed-race parents – her mother Doria is African-American, while her father Thomas is Dutch-Irish – Meghan would call herself “half black and half white”. Meghan was a divorcee when she met Harry. She got married to film producer Trevor Engelson on a beach in Jamaica in 2011 but divorced him two years later. She was also a working woman (starred in Suits on Netflix) and very vocal in her opinions on race and gender. When the couple announced their engagement in November 2017, Harry remarked that his mother, Princess Diana, would have loved Meghan and “they’d be thick as thieves”.
The wedding was held on 19 May 2018 at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle just outside of London. Reams of newsprint were used to spell out the many ways the Sussexes broke tradition and royal protocols from the wedding date to the cake, from the flowers to the guest list. So it is less surprising that the trend continued in the subsequent years. British press wrote endlessly about Meghan – far more negative stories than positive ones and constant comparison with Kate where Meghan was always found lacking. Meghan fought against some of the witch-hunts by taking a tabloid to court for copyright infringement and winning the case.
What ripped the fabric of the royal palace was an Instagram announcement by the Sussexes on 8 January 2020 that they would be stepping down as senior members of the royal family. A play on the word Brexit marking Britain’s exit from the EU, the British press adopted ‘Megxit’ to coin the withdrawal of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from the royal duties. After Harry called the term misogynistic (it clearly blames Meghan for Harry leaving London), BBC decided to rename it’s documentary on Harry and Meghan as ‘Sussexit’ to avoid accusations of sexism.
Whether it is Megxit or Sussexit, the reasons given by the couple for their exit reek of misogynoir. In an explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey aired in March 2020, Meghan and Harry spoke candidly about the vitriol in the British press and the discriminatory behaviour of ‘The Firm’ towards Meghan. The couple alleged that the royal family was worried about the colour of their child’s skin highlighting that Meghan’s race was always a contentious issue.
Harry alleged that the royals did not care about Meghan when she was suicidal and maintained ‘total silence’ and ‘total neglect’ towards his wife which he admitted triggered their departure from London. He told Oprah: ‘History was repeating itself… It’s incredibly triggering to potentially lose another woman in my life. And it all comes back to the same people, the same business model, the same industry.’
Meghan, the mother to Archie, 2, and infant Lillibet (after the Queen’s childhood nickname), turned 40 in August, an event that was largely ignored by the royals. A pariah from the palace, Meghan, unlike the other wives, has found in her husband her staunchest supporter.
The Kate Effect
A ‘commoner’ Catherine Middleton met Prince William at the University of St. Andrew in 2001 in Scotland where she caught his eye during a ramp walk in a bikini under a sheer ensemble. The second year of the university had the two share a flat and after graduating in 2005, they often appeared together, but briefly parted ways in early 2007 and then reunited in August when they escaped to Seychelles on a romantic holiday.
In November 2010, Will and Kate announced their engagement with Princess Diana’s blue sapphire diamond ring and in April 2011, the couple wed at a spectacular ceremony at Westminster Abbey where Kate dazzled in an Alexander McQueen gown and gave the British public much to celebrate about. Will and Kate became the talk of the town.
From much before the wedding, Kate has stood by Prince William as a royal-in-waiting: perfectly poised, elegantly attired, with a friendly smile but reserved demeanour. Over the years she has only perfected this. From official foreign tours to local charity events, Kate is charm personified. Her outfits have been the talk of every occasion and the Duchess of Cambridge combines exquisite custom-made designer ones with a healthy dose of high street brands.
Kate who draws inspiration from Princess Diana’s outfits and often complements her attire with jewels from her mother-in-law’s collection has a huge fan following among the young women who want to copy her every style and new designers who are desperate for her patronage.
Kate has also largely avoided scandal that constantly shadows the royals. In 2012, when topless pictures of Kate were printed in a French tabloid of the couple’s vacation in a secluded chateau in the south of France, Kate rode the storm in a calm and composed manner while the palace dealt with it. Even with Meghan accusing Kate of making her cry during her wedding, Kate has refused to publicly engage in a war of words.
Kate has visibly grown in confidence. From the dazzling gold gown for the Bond movie premier to recently playing piano at her Christmas carol concert to a million enthralled listeners, from being a perfect host to a hands-on mother to her three children – George (8), Charlotte (6) and Louis (3), Kate has showcased her style and talent in abundance. Her love for children and the gentle and considerate manner in which she interacts with them has her fans fondly call her The Children’s Princess. And it does help that Kate is much loved by her husband and the royal family and ticks every checklist that makes her a commendable Queen consort.
No wonder on the Duchess of Cambridge’s 40th birthday the Palace released a series of portraits to mark the occasion. Kate perfectly imbibed her ‘youthfulness and confidence’ in three outfits by her favourite designer Alexander McQueen: a scarlet one shoulder puff sleeve dress with pockets and the other two black and white portraits which capture an ethereal charm of the future Queen consort similar in profile to the Queen’s portraits done by the British photographer Sir Cecil Beaton in the 1950s.
Unlike Beaton who was known for his elaborate backdrops, the portraits taken in Kew Garden by Parisian fashion photographer Paolo Roversi aim to capture the interior beauty ‘when the exterior masks of expressions fall away’. Yet unlike the other ladies, Kate is seen as the perfect Stepford wife, making one wonder if there is perhaps a surprise lurking behind the public persona.
Kate’s portraits will be in a permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London and will serve as a reminder of the “outsider” who managed to fit in perfectly with the royal family.
Ruhi Khan is a journalist based in London and author of Escaped: True stories of Indian fugitives in London. She tweets @khanruhi.