Camilla: The relaxed and friendly face of the monarchy
With republicans, feminists and even glamour models among her biggest fans, Rosamund Urwin looks at the increasing appeal of Camilla, the royal who cheers everyone up... and who reportedly pinches bottoms.
Last week the Duchess of Cornwall and the Prince of Wales were guests of honour at a reception in Washington DC hosted by the British ambassador. The couple had only arrived an hour earlier, Camilla already wearing a Bruce Oldfield dove-grey coat, dress and pearls for the party. The 67-year-old, who once vowed not to touch royal duties "with a bargepole", also met President Obama with her husband and attended a dinner to thank donors to the Prince of Wales's US Foundation. But on the four-day trip - Camilla's third to the US as consort to the 66-year-old heir - she also pursued her own interests.
A voracious reader, she made a trip to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, as well as visiting a rape crisis unit. The District of Columbia's Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) serves victims of sexual assault, as well as running educational programmes to reduce rape. It's the kind of cause the royals normally shy away from. Which is exactly what has won the duchess's supporters in the most unlikely camps, be they Left-leaning, women's libbers or even republicans.
"Camilla's a feminist, which isn't something you really anticipate in a royal," says Catherine Mayer, a self-professed republican and author of the new unauthorised biography of Prince Charles, The Heart of a King. "She highlights the work of charities supporting victims of domestic violence. She'll talk about rape, and things that make people uncomfortable. Female genital mutilation is not a phrase you expect to hear a royal uttering."
I have experienced this first hand when she and I discussed how to tackle FGM. The duchess said she was pleased the subject was no longer such a taboo.
"She believes it is crucial that she can use her influence to make a difference for women," a senior source said. This year Camilla also became president of the Women of the World (WOW) festival. Held earlier this month at London's Southbank Centre, it's a festival that covers scores of supposedly "unsavoury" topics, from periods to porn.
"[Camilla's] undeterred by difficult subject matter and believes that one should look at things frankly, and see the world as it is," says Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre.
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"She is a tremendous person: she's very compassionate, very humorous, and she is committed to using her influence to make sure that unheard voices are given a chance to speak, and unheard stories are told. She's a great force for good."
Justine Thornton, the barrister and wife of Labour leader Ed Miliband, is also known to be an unlikely fan, applauding Camilla's laid-back approach. The two recently shared a joke after Camilla was hugged by an overly ardent Australian admirer.
So how has Camilla won over the sceptics? Alastair Campbell, the staunch republican ex-spinner to Tony Blair and author of Winners, puts it down to charm. "I was struck when researching [my] chapter on the Queen how many of the royal staff spoke of Camilla as a very positive force. She does seem to have a more natural rapport with people than [Charles] does and that makes them work well as a couple in public ... My sense is she is what she is and that is the best thing to be."
Mayer says her greatest quality is putting people at ease. "If you talk to any of the aides - past or present - they're all in love with her because they are used to working with royals who are prickly a lot of the time and not easy to manage from a press point of view. They can be confident that the more the public meets her, the more they will like her."
Her late mother Rosalind Shand felt that conversation should never dry up in a social setting. She saw talking as an art, and instilled in her daughter the notion that listening well was an integral part of good manners.
Camilla is unstuffy in a family obsessed with protocol and propriety. The Frasier star Kelsey Grammer claims that a decade ago the duchess squeezed his bottom. "She said 'So nice to meet you ... in the flesh!'," he joked in front of Camilla's son, Tom Parker Bowles. Meanwhile, at Cheltenham earlier this month, she was happily photographed with fellow equestrian Katie Price, the princess of plastic surgery and reality TV. "I don't get the fuss," Price told ES magazine. "She likes horses, I like horses. She was very nice."
Camilla also ran into her old friend, the novelist Jilly Cooper. The pair met at horse trials in Gloucestershire years ago. "I came up to her at Cheltenham and hugged her. Then I thought I shouldn't, I should curtsey or something but she didn't mind," Cooper recalls. "She never takes herself too seriously."
Camilla, say friends, would be happier padding around in the garden in her wellies than performing the exhausting rigmarole of royal duties. She's afraid of flying and suffers back pain. Yet she's industrious: taking on almost 300 official engagements a year, compared with the prince's 500-plus.
Her nephew Ben Elliot, founder of the concierge service Quintessentially, says: "She is warm, funny, direct and interested - and likes meeting interesting people."
Cooper agrees: "A friend of ours said if you were depressed [Camilla] was the one person you wanted to see because she's so good at cheering people up. She and Andrew [Parker Bowles, her first husband] are great friends. Anyone who can stay friends with their ex has got it right."
Mayer draws a distinction between Camilla's reputation here and abroad. "In the US she's still seen as the other woman. This tour should help address that. The process is so much further along here. In the UK, people have begun to have an appreciation for what she has done in terms of the campaigns she espouses."
As the pair prepare to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary next month, Camilla is increasingly credited with making Charles more approachable.
"The key to all communication is authenticity and no matter how many people cannot see how a man would prefer Camilla to Diana he clearly does and probably always has and the authenticity in her and their relationship comes through," says Campbell. "He is not the most relaxed individual but he is clearly more relaxed when she is around."
Part of her appeal is her role as a mother and grandmother. She spends many weekends with her grandchildren at Ray Mill House, while Charles is 20 miles away at Highgrove. "The prince enjoys a full grandfatherly role with her five grandchildren," says Jobson. "But they are equally relaxed about spending time apart."
Mayer believes Camilla's stability stems from her own largely happy upbringing. Lucia Santa Cruz, a close friend who introduced Camilla to Charles, told Mayer: "Camilla is resilient and has a strong sense of who she is."
Mayer adds: "The royals are quite a dysfunctional family. Camilla and Kate [Middleton] have that resilience in common, the kind that people from secure home lives have."
Since joining the Firm, Camilla's look has been revamped. The inspiration for Grayson Perry's female alter-ego Claire, Camilla is a woman largely without vanity - on a recent tour of India, she wore the same beige Russell & Bromley flats she'd worn eight years earlier. But she does have a dramatically improved wardrobe to fit her role now: the feather hats are Philip Treacy and the official outfits couture. Her hairdesser Hugh Green is also on standby to fight the frizz.
The past 20 years have seen a remarkable turnaround for Camilla. She's gone from being the Firm's albatross to one of its greatest assets. And as Prince Charles's role grows - with him taking on more of his mother's work - Camilla is helping to win over Doubting Thomases about his future rule. Her growing popularity makes it increasingly likely he'll ascend to the throne with 'Queen Camilla' by his side.
From Major’s daughter to Duchess
- Born in 1947, the eldest child of Major Bruce Shand, a British Army officer turned wine merchant, and his wife Rosalind, the daughter of a British aristocrat
- Raised in East Sussex, and educated in England, Switzerland and France
- Worked for a number of London companies, notably the decorating firm Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler
- Married British Army officer Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973, with whom she has two children and five grandchildren. They divorced in 1995
- Had a controversial relationship with the Prince of Wales for many years, but in 2005 it culminated in a civil marriage, followed by a televised Anglican blessing by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams