Saturday, April 30, 2011

God Save The (Future) Queen

Congratulations to the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge! The marriage of William and Catherine actually lived up the media hype and transported an estimated 2 billion people to a place where fairy tales, at least for that day, do come true. Quite an admirable achievement, if you ask me.

Rather than deride our newfound fascination with the couple (who, let's face it, weren't all that interesting during their engagement), I think we should embrace it. Despite my husband's best efforts, I don't see it as a fluffy, escapist exercise. On the contrary. I believe my interest in William and Catherine (and that of millions of other 'royal watchers') is born out of a feverent belief that we -- humanity, not just Americans -- haven't gone to hell in a handbasket despite all the evidence to the contrary.

At a time when too many Americans have been lobotomized by bread and circuses (what other excuse is there for a Donald Trump faux presidential campaign?) the marriage of William and Catherine is reminiscent of a time when tradition, duty, decorum and (gasp!) good taste was the rule, not the exception.

Watching the coverage of the wedding one of the things I found most fascinating was genuine sense of pride that every British person on virtually every broadcast constantly referred to when talking about just how momentous an occasion the wedding was to them --- personally. Leading the charge was Piers Morgan who could barely contain himself any time he was explaining any aspect of the pageantry to his 'commoner' colleagues. After listening to the congregation sing 'God Save the Queen' Morgan proclaimed, with a noticeable catch in his voice, "And if that doesn't make you proud to be British, nothing will!"

Clearly, no other country does pomp and circumstance like the Brits. History, and tradition mean everything to its citizens who have always been more collectively conversant about their history than a majority of Americans. But what makes the royal family -- particularly a twenty-something couple that hasn't been touched by scandal, isn't starring in a reality show and seems exceedingly level headed -- interesting to Americans?

Could it be that we are actually hungering for the return of good taste? A shocking prospect, to say the least.

Maybe it's because I want to believe it, but I think it's true. Designers interviewed about Catherine's wedding dress couldn't say enough about the tastefulness of the design. Vera Wang on CNN said it was the "perfect choice" for this "modern" bride. Yes, Catherine had chosen the avant guard house of Alexander McQueen, but Sarah Burton had not designed an edgy couture confection that the house is known for but rather a dress that was the absolute epitome of appropriateness modernized mainly by the woman who was wearing it. How much more of the moment could a design house hope to be than to dress the most famous woman on the planet?

Aside from her role as instant style icon, Catherine has a far more substantial role to play in the future of the royal family. Instead of being the new Princess Diana, she must, in fact, be the anti-Diana in order to succeed -- and to ensure the future of the British monarchy.

Where Diana was desperately unhappy plodding through the rainy grounds of Balmoral or sullenly watching from the sidelines while her prince played polo, Catherine is right at home in her wellies and gamely participates in shooting parties. Although she is allergic to horses (really!), she is content to watch William indulge his passion for polo no matter how uncomfortable she may be -- always smiling for the caneras.

While Diana bore the indelible scars from her unhappy childhood, Catherine has the obvious love and support of both still-married parents who have shown her just how valuable a happy marriage is to assuring the success of the family.

The biggest difference between Catherine and Diana is in their marriages. Diana famously told Martin Bashir, "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded" when she gave that infamous interview that finally pushed the Queen demand Diana and Prince Charles divorce. Catherine has lived with and is now married to a man who loves her, who wanted to marry her and is determined to protect her. In fact, it is Diana's tragic life as a royal that has made Catherine's improbable one possible.

After 30 years of scandal culminating in Diana's death, the monarchy was pulled from the precipice by Tony Blair (it's worth noting the former prime minister was not invited to the wedding) who anointed Diana 'The People's Princess' and somehow convinced the Queen that a television tribute to Diana and the subsequent show stopping funeral were necessary. But the damage had been done; the public's relationship with the royals has never been quite the same. Up until now, there has never been a thought given to any of its members ever being as remotely popular as the late Princess of Wales. Just months before William and Catherine's wedding, students attacked the car carrying Prince Charles and Camilla pelting it with rocks and food. In a stunningly symbolic gesture of hope for the future, that same car, repaired and shining like new, carried Catherine to Westminster Abbey on her wedding day.

Now that the couple are finally wed, the whole world is watching as the new duke and duchess assume their roles as Britain's marquee players as the country enters into a new chapter in the longest running British soap opera. The country has been energized with revitalized national pride embodied by the first royal couple in decades that actually seem to have a fighting chance for a happy marriage. People want William and Catherine to succeed.

I'm betting that as time goes on, all the royals will benefit from the reflected light of Catherine and William's stardom. As long as the couple appear to be happily married, scandal free and do just the right 'walkabouts,' they will have the Brits rooting for them and the royal family. Once their first child comes along and the marriage is still on course, there will be calls for William to become king rather than Charles. But that will not happen. There is a line of succession that must be followed. Tradition is all. William, ever the dutiful son, would never be a party to depriving his father of the role he has waited his whole life to assume. But he will have done his part is rescuing the future of the monarchy by picking the right bride.

And just maybe while dutifully playing the roles the rest of the royal family is so intent on having them play, William and Catherine will wisely carve out their own path for the future of 'the firm' they will one day lead. Things look promising. They have chosen to live on a tiny island in Wales without servants and deferred taking their honeymoon so William can finish his RAF training.

In marrying a 'commoner,' William has assumed the role Diana always wanted for him --a royal for the common man -- and assured the monarchy has a place in the modern age.

God Save the (Future) Queen.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

From Commoner to HRH: The Amazing Transformation of Catherine Middleton

Kate Middleton walked into Westminster Abbey this morning a commoner and emerged with an HRH title, but that's only the start of her amazing transformation. From this day forward, her life will never be the same. I was struck by Catherine's incredible poise. From what we saw this morning, the bride (who chose the perfect McQueen dress said to be inspired by her admiration for Grace Kelly's wedding dress) is more than up for the job as the royal family's newest star. She acted and looked as if she was born to the royal life (and, I must say, at certain points seemed much more comfortable than William).

When I started covering the engagement and in the run up to the wedding I wrote that I did not find her fascinating. All that changed this morning.

'Waity Katy' no more, Catherine (she can no longer even be thought of as 'Kate') looked so serenely happy and firmly in control as she confidently look her father's hand and glided down the aisle of Westminster Abbey. She appears to be neither skittish nor addicted to the limelight. Catherine is just one of those rare public figures who is simply is made for the spotlight. It has transformed her but she has not lost her naturalness that makes her so charming. She is simultaneously able to appear regal and 'regular' as when the couple appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace and she appeared to have said, 'Oh wow!' when Prince William gestured to the huge crowd that had gathered before them.

It's quite clear that William adores her and she him. That alone -- the added confidence she has from knowing that he married her for love, not duty, will make all the difference in how the next chapter of their lives unfolds.

And what of Catherine's family?

I have to say I was quite impressed with the entire Middleton family. Pippa (who also looked stunning in Alexander McQueen) performed her duties as Catherine's maid of honor flawlessly and was quite charming with her young charges. It would be wise for Catherine to have Pippa as her lady in waiting so as to have a true friend and sister in such an important position will be another key element in ensuring Catherine's success in her role as Princess Royal.

Her parents completely melted my heart. For whatever is or isn't true about Carole being the driving force behind the family's ascension into the social stratosphere, she struck exactly the right tone in her behavior and appearance. I believe she chose her classic Catherine Walker coat dress as a touching tribute to Diana who almost always wore a similar look whenever she attended a wedding or official royal function. Just lovely.

Michael Middleton looked and acted like the absolute perfect father of the bride. He was clearly proud but charmingly a tad nervous as evidenced by his gesture of wiping his brow as father and daughter finally made it to the altar. He's held himself with great dignity throughout this entire pre-wedding episode and when I look at him, I see a kind, thoughtful man.

Phillipa Gregory, appearing on the Today show with Meredith Vieira sounded the only discordant note of the day saying she "wasn't optimistic" about Catherine's future and speculating that her parents would quickly be "iced" out of Catherine's life by the royal family. I think she is greatly underestimating Catherine -- and William, too.

It is rare to watch history unfold before your eyes and at the same time get a glimpse of what is to come. I felt that when I saw the newlyweds sitting on the altar and when Catherine flawlessly curtsied to the Queen before she walked out of the Abbey to greet the throngs of people awaiting a glimpse of their future queen.

Now all of England (save the Queen) must curtsy to Catherine as an HRH. As a royal, she received the title of Duchess of Cambridge. Whether she will be known formally as Princess William of Wales(which was bestowed upon her automatically -- she is not officially Princess Catherine because she is not of royal blood)remains to be seen, but one thing is clear. She is the royal family's newest and most important star and that's a currency that I believe she will use wisely.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's RNN: The Royals Script Their Own (Un)Reality Show

It's only Tuesday of 'royal wedding week' and the head-spinning amount of coverage about the royal wedding has the less than fascinated crying uncle. I happen to reside happily in the other camp. I simply can't get enough.

I started the week off watching the footage of the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana on TLC Sunday night and found myself tearing up at the thought of how badly the 'fairy tale' ended. Without going all Barbara Cartland about it (who, in case you didn't know, was Diana's step grandmother), seeing the 19 year-old Diana Spencer walking down the aisle on the arm of her father, the ailing Lord Spencer while her erstwhile mother, Frances Shand Kydd (the 'bolter' who left Diana and her siblings and ran off with a wallpaper millionaire)stood in the background, left me feeling wistful for what might have been. Not for the faux fairytale marriage which was doomed from the start, but for how Diana, had she not found herself in Paris on that August night in 1997, might have gone on to live her life as a much wiser single woman with a strong, loving relationship with her two sons and been in the church on this coming Friday to see her oldest son get to marry for love, not duty.

As she did when she was alive, Diana is still the driving force behind our obsession with the British royal family. The major difference now is that on the eve of the second 'Wedding of the Century' in the last thirty years, the Windsors have embraced the 24/7 media culture (of which Diana is the patron saint) to such an extent that they are purveyors of their own news 'packages' and B-roll on the official royal website. They have at least created the impression that they welcome the obsessive coverage. How brilliant is this week's cover of The New Yorker?

What strikes me about it all is that regardless of the subject matter, the spectre of Diana hangs over everything. Let's face it, everyone -- the reporters that cover the royals (particularly those in the UK who have been left to drum up stories about Charles and the terminally frumpy Camilla), royal watchers and the royal family themselves -- are hoping lightening will strike twice. Since Diana's death there has been something of a vacuum with the royals. There are no stars. William and Harry are popular, but not like their mother. (Although, Harry's stock is on the rise now that he has been christened the world's most eligible bachelor) Diana was a superstar. It seems that the royal family has come to recognize that to keep their glided train on the tracks, they need some real stars. They are banking on William and Kate (Killiam? Wate?) to grow into their parts in this tightly scripted reality series.

For now, it seems William and Kate (who has actually been instructed by royal insiders by watching video of Diana), are willing to play along -- but for how long?

He's done his best at putting it in the deepest recesses of his mind for the moment, but William believes -- and always will -- that the media played a key role in his mother's death. One of the reasons he waited so long to propose to Kate was because he was so reluctant to subject her to the same scrutiny that his mother faced. Kate is reportedly much more deferential than Diana, but she's not officially joined 'The Firm' yet. Remember, as Tina Brown once put it, Diana became 'the mouse that roared.' I suspect as Kate settles into her role as the new princess (and rest assured, she's getting that title) and comes to realize how important she is in the scheme of things, she'll be less inclined to embrace her role as show pony. With the added confidence of knowing she is married to a man who truly loves her, she has more power than Diana had going in.

What she and William do with it remains to be seen.


Monday, April 25, 2011

The Royal Wedding: The Madness Begins!

My front page story in Sunday's New York Post on the wall-to-wall coverage planned for Friday's royal wedding. Also: PR expert Catherine Saxton, who has worked with the British royals, gives the 411 on royal protocol. No tweeting allowed in Westminster Abbey!

Click here for the article

Here is the complete viewers guide. The usual suspects (ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN) are covering -- even The Weather Channel has gotten in on Kate and Wills fever!

Click here for the article

Photo credit: Mario Testino

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

William & Kate Get the Lifetime Sudser Treatment

The royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is an occasion tailor-made for the Lifetime movie treatment. Temporarily shelving their current obsession with serial killers and crazed women out for revenge, the network returns to its romantic, sudsy roots with “William & Kate” starring two relatively unknown doppelgangers as the British lovebirds.

New Zealander Nico Evers-Swindell, a dead-ringer for Prince William, “knew very little about him” so to prepare, he read whatever he could about the couple including Christopher Anderson’s gossipy book, “William and Kate,” and watched the footage of the interview William and Prince Harry gave to Matt Lauer to promote the Concert for Diana. While Evers-Swindell found the prince “incredibly likable with a good sense of humor” he was more interested in how William has been affected by his “highly dysfunctional” family. “He definitely took his time in proposing to Kate,” he says. “I think that’s a reflection of what he saw go on between Charles and Diana.”

British-born Luddington, who grew up a few miles away from Kate’s hometown of Buckleberry, had a slight advantage over her costar in preparing for her role as the commoner who won the heart of a prince. With just one week to prepare before shooting, she drew on own “casual observations of the royals” as well as her own family’s impressions of the Middletons. “My uncle knows them and they’re very down to earth,” she says. “No one has a bad word to say about them.”

The truth is, there’s been very little said by anyone that truly knows both William and Kate which makes telling their story accurately a bit of a challenge. The movie opens by telling the viewers the film is “inspired by true events” leaving the door open for the necessary creative license. “We’re not making a documentary,” says executive producer Frank Konigsberg, “And we tried not to make it overly sentimental.”

After the couple announced their engagement in November of last year, Konigsberg tried to license the footage of the couple meeting the press at St. James’ palace for the film but “the royals shot it down.” Without access to palace insiders, Konigsberg went about recreating the worlds of William and Kate “with affection” relying on a dialect coach that once worked with the royal family, 72 costume changes for Luddington and a pedigreed supporting cast which includes Ben Cross as Prince Charles and Richard Reid, the son of the real-life Keeper of the Privy Purse, to play William’s club crawling pal, Guy Pelly.

Ironically, the film’s emotional high point comes courtesy of the late Princess Diana when, a la the Oscar-winning bio pic “The Queen,” Evers-Swindell’s William is watching a television report that shows news footage of the night Diana died while concluding the formal inquest into her death ruled it an accident. In the scene, William explodes at Prince Charles telling him he did nothing to help his mother adjust to royal life and that he “won’t make the same mistake” by marrying for anything other than love. Konigsberg uses the exchange to effectively underscore how different William’s life is from Charles’ was because William is free to choose woman he loves rather than the ‘most suitable’ candidate.

When William whisks Kate off to Africa (which was shot in Los Angeles) to finally propose, Konigsberg says, “We take a liberty that William got down on bended knee” to ask for Kate’s hand in marriage. No matter. For those faithful royal watchers who will undoubtedly be reaching for the Kleenex by then, it’s the ultimate fairy tale ending.

William & Kate Monday, April 18 at 9:00 PM on Lifetime

This story first appeared in The New York Post this morning.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

All My Children: A Requiem For A TV Icon

It's the end of an era.

ABC just announced that it is canceling two of its long running soap operas, All My Children and One Life to Live. AMC will air its final show in September while OLTL will bow out next January. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I'm heartsick at the news.

Throughout Thursday afternoon as the news of the shows' demise spread long time viewers expressed similar views all over the blogosphere. Catherine Hickland, a former OLTL cast member and the ex-wife of Michael Knight, who has played AMC's Tad Martin for decades, took to Facebook to support a movement to get Oprah to take on the shows on OWN which isn't a bad idea if you think about it.

I know all about the declining audience for soaps. It's been written about since the mother of all reality shows, the OJ Simpson trial, dealt what turned out to be the first critical blow to the genre. Deprived of their afternoon soaps, the audience got its first taste of reality television and never came back in full measure to the scripted daytime variety once the trial ended.

I also know that while the audience is small, but it is among the most loyal in all of television. Almost half the people I know have watched one soap or another since they were kids and continue to watch thanks to the advent of the DVR. I have been watching soaps for four decades. (Okay, do the math. Yes, I'm that old)It started when I'd run home from school to catch the last fifteen minutes of OLTL before Dark Shadows. I came to know the residents of Llanview by accident while I waited to be transported back in time with Barnabas Collins, his werewolf cousin Quentin and the ultimate damsel in distress, Maggie Evans.

As someone who grew up watching the iconic television of the sixties, seventies and eighties and went on to make a living writing about television, there have always been particular shows -- mainly soaps -- that I associate with the benchmarks of my life. When I was in college, my entire sorority crammed into our tiny TV room to watch General Hospital every afternoon at 3. No one, absolutely no one, went to class the week of Luke and Laura's wedding. Come to think of it, I don't think there was anyone on campus the Friday afternoon the wedding episode aired.

I was in college when, during school breaks, my mother and I had a Thursday night ritual of watching Knots Landing. We did that for the 13 years the show was in the air. When I first started working, I wouldn't go out on a Friday night until Dallas was over.

All those shows came and went during very specific periods of my life. Only one show -- All My Children -- has endured.

I started watching shortly after the show premiered in 1970. In the summer, I would leave my friends at the pool to come home and watch the racy show that dealt with abortion, the Vietnam War, a mother and daughter vying for the same guy. Years later, when VCRs came along, I loved nothing more than coming home at the end of a work week and watching a marathon of episodes.

The show took on a special meaning to me in the nineties when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and we'd watch it together as she lay in bed doing her best to keep the conversation firmly focused on Erica and her latest romance.It was during that time that my mother encouraged me to leave the corporate world I hated and pursue my dream of becoming a entertainment writer. After she died, I spent many an afternoon planted in front of the television. As it turned out AMC's Erica Kane lost her beloved mom, Mona, around the same time my mother died. I don't think I've ever cried harder watching a television episode. (Okay, maybe during Lost's series finale but you get the idea)

I got so involved in AMC I began picking up the magazines that covered daytime television. That's when I got the idea of writing for soap magazines. I got my start writing about celebrities for Soap Opera Weekly and Soap Opera Magazine and AMC was my beat. The first 'big star' I interviewed was Marcy Walker, who was then playing Liza Colby. I was so nervous I left my tape recorder behind. Walker was gracious enough to chase me down in the street to return it to me. Another time, I was interviewing Jennifer Bassey, who was then played her Liza's mother, and she sensed I was feeling very bad that day. When I told her about my mother's death, she was exceedingly kind and put me in touch with an organization that was very helpful to me at a time when I really needed it.

Years later, both women along with David Canary (one of daytime's finest actors), Catherine Hickland and Grant Aleksander all said 'yes' when I asked them to act as celebrity judges for a fundraiser for an animal rescue organization I was working with. I have countless stories like that about many of the actors I came to meet and know in the years that I covered soaps. I can honestly say they are among the hardest working and most genuine people in all of the entertainment industry.

As characters on AMC they are also something else that is increasingly rare in the world today: a comforting presence that connects the unsteady present to a time when we knew what to expect. The breakneck speed of change that we are experiencing in our everyday lives is, to say the least, unsettling. There is little we can count on to be the same as it was last week, let alone last year. I know the 'cool' thing is to embrace change. We've had little choice in the matter. Well, I don't know about you, but I like having at least a few things stay the same while everyone around me tries to tell me I have to accept the new social order of things. I liked turning on the television and knowing that the residents of Pine Valley were still going to be there no matter what.

Today's news is really the beginning of the end of a chapter in television which is really a tremendous loss. For millions of fans like me. For the actors, AFTRA members, union crew members and production staffs of the shows as well as those journalists who have hung on covering the soap beat. It won't be long before the remaining magazines devoted to the genre disappear as well.

It's been reported that AMC will be replaced by the unfortunately titled 'lifestyle' show, The Chew. When OLTL signs off, The Revolution will fill its time slot. This decision was no doubt made in part because executives have seen the runaway success The View has become. ABC Daytime president Brian Frons said as much in the official statement posted on the network's website.

The handwriting is not only on the wall, it's on the billboards in Times Square. Reality and talk shows are the future. My only question is: if everyone is talking at the same time, is there anyone left who wants to listen?

Goodbye, Erica Kane and all the residents of Pine Valley. I, for one, will really miss you.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Royal Wedding Schedule Announced! Will Victoria Beckham design Kate's dress?

I'm starting to really like this more modern -- definitely more forthcoming -- approach the British royals have taken in the handling of the dissemination of information on the royal wedding. Admittedly, it's taken some of the fun of getting 'scoops,' but these days since the Internet has made it all but impossible to claim one part of a story as an 'exclusive,' you might as well go with the flow.

Today, the wedding day schedule (It's Friday, April 29th if you've been living in a cave) was announced and it's a doozy -- especially for stateside royal watchers who will need to get to bed very early the night before so as not to miss a moment of the festivities. We're keeping our tiara at our bedside so we just have to slip it on and head into the family room at 5 am to catch the start of a marathon of wall to wall coverage. Here are the highlights:

8:30am An announcement will be made regarding the titles that Kate and William be getting from the Queen on the occasion of their marriage. There has been some speculation that the couple who has done their best to downplay the pomp and circumstance associated with everyday royal life (Have you heard they're moving in with Harry after their honeymoon while they decide on their permanent London digs?)might eschew titles altogether. I find that highly unlikely. While William has opted to be known as William Wales since his days at university, there is little chance that he would deprive his bride of the 'princess' title she reported really, really wants. After all, his mother made the title chic again and it's clear that everyone from the Queen to the Middleton family are more than happy to have Kate thought of as Diana 2.0. So, you heard it here first. It's going to be HRH Princess Catherine of Wales.

10:00 am Guests will begin arriving at Westminster Abbey. Don't look for Sarah Ferguson or President Obama since neither made the invite list but Victoria and David Beckham will be there with bells on.

10:40 am The royal family will arrive. Watch for plenty of Philip Tracey hats.

11:00 am Kate and her five bridesmaids arrive. Kate will be chauffeured to the Abbey in the same Rolls Royce limousine that was used by Prince Charles and Camilla when they were attacked during student protests earlier this year. Rest assured the broken window and pesky paint splatters have been removed.
An interesting choice, wouldn't you say? (I think Kate is proving to be very savvy in the PR department. Rumor has it that she is being advised by Sophie Essex, Prince Edward's wife who used to toil as a publicist and is one of the Queen's favorites)

At the very same time Kate first appears in her dress, the palace will finally release a press release with the name of the designer of her dress complete with sketches and photos. The 7,000 journalists that are camped out all along the procession route will be getting the very same information at the exact same time that I will as I cover the same event in my pajamas from Greenwich. This is when I love technology. I have heard a lot of conflicting information from my sources in the UK regarding the designer of the dress. I think Bruce Oldfield would be a lovely choice and there is a lot of buzz around him but since the Middleton gals have been photographed around his boutique of late it seems too obvious. Maybe he's doing the bridemaids' dresses and mom for the big day. It would be a lovely choice and yet another nod to Diana who wore many of his designs.

I'm thinking that Victoria Beckham has the inside track. Here's why: She would be an inspired, modern choice in keeping with Kate and William's younger, hipper take on things.She is already designing some things for Kate for the honeymoon. Word is that Kate's parents are paying for the dress so I'm guessing this would be a more affordable choice than McQueen couture. I also think Beckham, who seems quite earnest about her career as a designer and has been making gorgeous dresses embraced by editors everywhere, would come up with something stunning for Kate that would be roundly applauded. And, I think there's a real possibility that it's happening because no one is talking about her as a candidate and Kate seems determined to surprise everyone. I think I should be invited for tea if Im right since Im calling it first!

12:15 pm Kate and William depart for Buckingham Palace where the Queen will host a reception for them attended by 650 guests. On the menu: passed canapes and cocktails and two cakes (inexplicably one is reportedly a fruitcake).

7:00 pm Prince Charles will host a more intimate affair for 300 where there will be dinner and dancing. Prince Harry recently told reporters that his father has been helping Kate select the music for the evening's festivities.

That's all I know for now. More updates to come as the big day draws closer. Cheerio old bean!