Air hostess’s daughter helping to fuel the royal revival
If anyone has truly lived the royal fairytale, it is the girl formerly known as Kate Middleton.
Last year, the classic English rose became the first commoner in more than three centuries to marry a prince close to the British throne.
Now, with her fashion flair, much-commented-on figure and speeches celebrating good causes, the Duchess of Cambridge is also reviving memories of that ultimate royal celebrity, Diana.
Yet this is where the similarities end. Because while the late “Princess of Hearts” certainly raised the profile of the monarchy, she also exposed the all-too-human flaws at the heart of the House of Windsor.
By contrast, Prince William’s wife – who arrived in Singapore yesterday as part of the couple's tour of the region – possesses the kind of level-headed, predictable qualities that make her a key chess piece in the royal rebranding exercise that has been underway since the 1990s.
As anyone following the recent diamond jubilee celebrations will have noticed, a strange thing is happening in Britain. The Windsors have suddenly become “cool”.
From Prince Harry busting some “lightning” moves with Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in March to the Queen starring as a rather unlikely Bond girl in the video for the Olympics opening ceremony, “the firm” seems to be finally shaking off its stuffy, tweed jacket-wearing image and embracing popular culture.
Key to this transformation is the former Kate Middleton. The eldest daughter of a self-made millionaire and a one-time air hostess, she has been dubbed “cut-price Kate” for her habit of decking herself out in clothes from ordinary high-street shops instead of the upmarket couture that might be expected of a future queen.
Yet this was a shrewd move on the part of her public relations advisors, designed to demonstrate her empathy for a nation languishing in recession, while drumming home the idea that the Windsors are “just like us”.
Of course, this message is not new. The Queen's wedding to Prince Philip in 1947 was billed as an “austerity event” in keeping with a country still recovering from the ravages of war.
Then, more than three decades later, the glamorous and charismatic Diana burst onto the scene, immediately making the Windsors appear more human and accessible.
The trouble was, the humanity that Diana represented came with warts and all. As her marriage to Prince Charles disintegrated, the picture that emerged was a far cry from the polished portrait offered by the royal publicity machine.When a wave of mourning swept Britain following Diana's untimely death in a Paris car crash, the palace was again wrong-footed, with critics complaining that the Queen appeared remote and out-of-touch.
Since those dark days in the late 1990s, the family appears to have learned its lesson, handling its image in a way that has become noticeably more slick.
Writing in the New Statesman magazine, public relations specialist George Pascoe-Watson called it “perhaps the most successful brand resurrection in public relations history” - a transformation that was ultimately driven by the Queen herself. A new, more “professional” media team was hired, while a strategy of not favouring any particular news organisation helped to ensure that most the stories that appeared in the press were “official” ones coming from the royals themselves.
In this new, polished environment, Prince William's fairytale courtship with his former university flatmate provided the perfect tonic to pep up the Windsors’ battered image.
Romance blossomed around Christmas 2003, when the young royal began dating the then Miss Middleton, who grew up in Berkshire and attended the exclusive Marlborough College. But it was not until pictures emerged of her shimmying down the catwalk in a see-through dress during a university fashion show that her name truly entered the public consciousness.
Since then, the 30-year-old has barely put a foot wrong. After waiting patiently for seven years before her prince charming popped the question, she finally got her fairytale wedding just under eighteen months ago, walking down the aisle in a ivory and lace gown created by English designer Sarah Burton.
The “Wills n’ Kate” phenomenon has led many to hail the Duchess as an inspiration for British style, despite the fact her wardrobe is sometimes criticised for being too conservative. Last week, fashion designer Alice Temperley even credited her with helping to boost the ailing British economy through her savvy dress sense, telling The Daily Telegraph: “There's no one else who has an effect like her.”
Now, as the Queen ages and the young royals become more involved in official duties, the former Ms Middleton is beginning to add another string to her bow: public speaking.
In her first speech in a foreign country later this week, she is expected to cover a very Diana-like topic – caring for the dying at a hospice in Malaysia.
Of course, the Duchess is no Diana. Royal observers have commented that she seems far less emotionally vulnerable than the “People’s Princess”. Crucially, she has also fully bought into “the firm”, with all of its pressures and demands. Perhaps this cool-headed approach will earn her the fairytale ending that Diana was so tragically denied.