Monday, January 24, 2011

Kate Middleton: A Post Modern Fairy Tale Princess?


The royal wedding is less than one hundred days away and I'm not ashamed to say, I'm getting a little excited. As someone who remembers getting up before dawn to watch the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, I'll admit my view of 'Happily Ever After' has been altered somewhat by time. Maybe it's this interminable winter we're all suffering through and my recent move to the country that's got me more than a little stir crazy, but even though I obviously should know better, I'm more than happy to embrace the modern fairy-tale that the marriage of Kate (excuse me, Catherine) Middleton and Prince William seems to embody.
Of course, so much has changed since the wedding of Diana and Charles. I wrote my first book, Diana The Secrets of Her Style, as a tribute to the late princess because I was so taken with her transformation from Shy Di to A Woman in Full. At the time I wrote, "Her journey from a rather ordinary looking kindergarten teacher to Her Royal Highness to a stunning, independent single woman was rife with images we could relate to. To women of all ages who grew up believing in fair-tale endings, Diana in her unabashedly romantic wedding dress was the embodiment of a modern day Cinderella."

When I look at Mario Testino's stunning engagement portrait of Kate and William, I am struck by how Kate looks both fresh and unaffected and coolly sophisticated as well. Take a closer look and you'll see that she looks much more at ease in this photograph than William does. And, of course, she looks radiantly happy.

In next month's Vogue, Mario Testino talks about the sitting for the portrait describing the couple as sharing the same 'energy' and, he writes, "the clear sense you get with them that they are going to work as a team." His description of Kate is reminiscent of the other famous princess Testino so brilliantly photographed. " Of Kate, he writes, "She brings life, a delightful sense of humor, and a joy into the room when she walks in."

Sound familiar?

Diana was, without question, the most famous woman in the world at the time of her death. It is unfathomable to imagine just how she would -- or wouldn't -- cope with the onslaught of the 24/7 media which hadn't existed when she was alive. Even without the Internet and the age of the instanteous image Diana was, as her brother so poignantly pointed out in his eulogy of her, "the most hunted person of the modern age." I have to wonder if mere mortals like the Kardashian sisters and movie star demi-goddesses like Angelina Jolie would have dethroned Diana over time. I'm sorry to say I think they would have. It's hard to imagine Diana's brand of stardom coexisting in a world of C-list reality stars.

Perhaps that is why I find myself fascinated with Kate. At a time where aspiring celebrities barrage us with tweets about the minutiae of their lives and offer cameras access to every tedious occurence until we are so exhausted by the onslaught, we finally relent because we have no choice but to pay attention, Kate is the rare celebrity that is not courting us. Granted, she doesn't have to, but what she will choose to do with her worldwide celebrity will be very interesting indeed.

While self-appointed pop cultural princesses of every stripe (Bethenny, Snooki, Kim) continue their quest to wring out every ounce of their (hopefully) fleeting flame in order to 'build their personal brand' (a phrase I've come to abhor), Kate need do nothing more than step out with William and she dazzles.

It is fascinating to me that since the engagement the images of her seem few and far between. There are no tawdry stories of her past that have come to light. No disgruntled former loves selling a sex tape. Imagine that.

While it's been said that Kate habors no aspirations to be the next Diana, the late princess' influence is clearly apparent in every image, every story of Kate. One cannot help but be drawn to the sapphire stunner on Kate's left hand in this portrait without conjuring up the image of Diana all those many years ago proudly wearing it for her engagement pictures. At the couple's photocall when they announced their engagement, it was if Diana was in the room with them. Prince William acknowledged as much when he told a reporter his decision to give Kate the ring (which had actually belonged to Prince Harry who chose it as a treasured momento before burying his mother) was made because, he said, he wanted to include Diana in his engagement to Kate "in a meaningful way."

There are have been enough side by side comparisions of Kate and Diana in similiar outfits (the requisite tailored coats and fanciful hats) to see that much has been made of Kate's emergence as a style icon. That may be so, but I believe it's Kate's (and William's) canny decisions about how to live their lives as a royal couple where "The Diana Effect" is plainly evident.

Kate was given video tapes of Diana to watch so as to see how so deal with hordes of photographers and, it's been reported, is getting plenty of coaching on how to handle the media. The royals have clearly learned from their mistakes. Perhaps even more importantly, one can only imagine the heartbreaking conversations William has had with Kate over how difficult things became for his mother. You can almost see in his face how resolute he is in protecting his future bride from all that.

Kate's handlers have been brilliant at building an image that could not be described any better than 'The People's Princess 2.0.' Carefully doled out stories about how William and Kate won't have servants in their home after the wedding and how she shops at the British version of TJ Maxx are clearly intended to convey the idea that this is not a young woman propelled by an air of entitlement but rather one that wants to live whatever version of 'a normal life' life as a modern day royal affords her.

This is certainly true when it comes to stories about wedding preparations. It's already been reported that Kate will not be arriving in a glass carriage like Diana did (she is clearly not a fan of Cinderella) and now comes word that Kate's parents will help foot the bill for the reception. They will also be paying for Kate's wedding dress. Reports have been circulating that the couple will request wedding guests make donations to charities in lieu of gifts. A page of out Diana's playbook, for sure.

In some ways, Diana's life lived as a princess trapped in a gilded castle with no one to advise or to love her seems much more difficult that the one Kate is about to begin. And yet, Kate has the enormous burden of being a post modern princess that embodies "reality glamour" (as Testino put it) but who also must willingly become the fairy tale princess that will restore the luster to the British royals. On top of all that, she may not have asked for it, but the world is watching to see if this young woman who really is marrying her prince can give other women everywhere someone to follow that doesn't require holding your nose or checking your brains at the door.

(Photo credit: Mario Testino)

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