Beanies with knitted bobbles don’t usually figure largely in the royal wardrobe. Knee-length floral dresses, yes; hats that cost as much as a small, second-hand car, of course; and pearls? Oh, they have enough of the things to spark a South Sea frenzy.
So, homely beanies? Not so much.
But then this has been a strange week in royal-dom which has seen Prince Harry rebuked by a British judge over his criticism of the Daily Mail, despite him winning the case in question against the newspaper, and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, squaring off against the palace in a very public ‘she said/they said’ showdown over who was responsible for editing her given names out of son Archie’s birth certificate.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that these two particular stories were all that the house of Windsor and it’s recalcitrant Californian branch had been up to this week, but then there is Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and her (actually very sweet) bobble hat.
This week the 39-year-old made royal history by recording her first official selfie, a momentous occasion that took place in a grey field somewhere in Norfolk where the Cambridge family are holed up as the UK suffers through its third Covid lockdown.
This extraordinary milestone was in aid of one of Kate’s ongoing support of Children’s Mental Health Week.
Wearing only the briefest hint of makeup, she urged viewers young and old to “share your thoughts, ideas and feelings” no matter “whether that’s through photography, through art, through drama, through music or poetry, it’s finding those things that make you feel good about yourself”.
But chances are, unless you spend far too much time stalking the byways of royal Twitter (oh, it can be a very dark place at times) or are Carole Middleton then there is every chance you would have missed Kate’s digital first.
(And then there’s poor old Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall’s truly groundbreaking royal book club … which you don’t even know if I made that up or not*.)
If ever there was a week to remind Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, Fleet Street, social media, various HRHs and royal scribes everywhere about which Windsors people really care about in the royal pecking order, it was this one, with the brouhaha over who excised Meghan’s given names from her son’s official documents dominating.
As fingers were pointed across the Atlantic, with both the royal and the palace pointedly laying blame on the other, poor Kate’s video, which should have been a sure-fire PR win, was eclipsed.
(So too did the reporting on whether Harry will be able to hang on to his prized honorary military roles obscure the selfie stunt further.)
Let’s imagine for a moment that Kate and her dedicated team coming up with the idea (oh you just know that a white board and a packet of Hobnobs was involved), polite claps on the back all around as they decided on the Duchess recording a far more personal and intimate message than normal for this year’s charity drive.
The assumption, surely, would have been that opting for a selfie would garner the video and cause lots of lovely publicity, an all-round publicity slam dunk.
Instead, as has happened numerous times before, the latest chapter in Keeping Up With The Sussexes had us – the media, royal watchers, the sentient public, anyone with opposable thumbs – totally enthralled and in the wash, Kate and Her Good Work was largely obliterated.
The selfie largely went unremarked upon outside the less tabloid sections of the UK press, such as in the Telegraph and the Times, aside from her ultra casual get-up getting a style mention.
You’ve got to feel for Kate. April this year marks 10 years since she became an official member of the royal house and in that time she has achieved the previously unthinkable: She has remained assiduously scandal-free.
(Well, aside from all the criticism she got in the early years for supposedly being a work-shy princess-in-the-making with an over fondness for popping off to Mustique or the Swiss ski slopes with alarming regularity.)
Over the past decade, the duchess has slowly built up her portfolio of charities and organisations, solidifying her career and sharpening her legacy-defining focus on early childhood development.
Along the way she has, visibly, become far more comfortable and relaxed in front of cameras and giving public speeches, making her case and sharing her message with increasing warmth, humour and even a touch of charming vulnerability.
Basically, Kate has done everything right (well, apart from racking up far too many frequent flyer points jetting off to the Caribbean, I’m guessing) and yet despite all that, she still is forced to take second place behind her sister-in-law Meghan when it comes to global media coverage and public interest.
As the famous saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history; in this case, I’d say that well-behaved duchesses seldom dominate the news cycle.
And while sure, being a hardworking HRH is not a popularity contest (again, sorry Camilla) doing the job well requires generating lots of publicity and helping shine a spotlight on a particular cause, message or charity. People need to see and hear what you are doing to have an impact, a goal that is much harder when the world is watching agog, noses pressed up against the glass and are looking in a whole other direction.
Kate, what? Selfie, who? Oh. Now did you see what Meghan just said!
If there is some comfort for Kate in all this then she doesn’t have to look any further than to her late mother-in-law Diana, Princess of Wales’ example in the late ’80s after the arrival of Sarah, Duchess of York, into the Windsor fold. Shoulder pads, Wham! and fun-loving Fergs were decidedly in; ladylike restraint and dull good works were out.
Fergie, was according to a Vanity Fair story from the time, a “rambunctious redhead” who had “romped away with the hearts of the British public” with the same report lauding “her angst-free antics”.
Prince Andrew’s wife was the captivating one, the wife of the spare, free to take on royal duties in her own irrepressible, status quo smashing style. Di, by contrast, seemed “flat”.
People reacted to Fergie’s heart-on-her-sleeve, all-authenticity-all-the-time energetic approach to royal life, leaving Diana looking a tad stale.
However, more than three decades on, the only significant thing which anyone remembers about Fergie’s royal career was her embarrassing turn on the royal version of It’s A Knockout and the time she poked someone in the bottom with an umbrella at Ascot while the press looked on.
Diana, instead, is hailed as having played a seismic role in the fight against HIV and AIDS, helping smash the stigma of the disease and the paranoia that you could catch it by shaking hands. (She did exactly that on camera and later wheeled out the same game-changing, power move in India with a leprosy patient.)
One of the most important things we remember about the princess is her profound humanitarian impact which more than 20 years after her death can still be felt.
The lesson for Kate in all of this is that while media outlets and social media might be only giving her good works the most cursory of glances right now, history is indeed watching. While Meghan, unlike Fergie, is en route to also carving out a weighty philanthropic career and legacy of her own, the point is that Kate’s dutiful hard work is not going wholly to waste.
However, that does not change the fact that in the short term she should probably resign herself to essentially taking second place, interest-wise, to Meghan and her electrifying, impossible-to-look-away approach to public life.
And if Kate really does want to “win” the news cycle then all she has to do is take a leaf out of Fergie’s rule-busting approach and wear that bobble hat to Ascot next time. Trust me, the media won’t be able to look away.
*It’s real all right and going on right now! You can take part here.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
— to www.nzherald.co.nz