Europe's royal families are finding salvation in middle-class girls without a drop of blue blood. As Spain crowns a former journalist and granddaughter of a taxi driver queen, Emily Hourican looks at the 'Princess Promise'.
In a fantastic modern subversion of old-fashioned fairytales, these days it is no longer the handsome prince who rides to the rescue of the distressed princess. Instead, the princesses are doing the saving, lending credibility not just to the prince, but increasingly his entire family too.
Whether it is a distraction from financial scandal, a bit of cheering up following the grim effects of recession, or some kind of response to the growing discontented mutterings of ‘out-dated', ‘useless', ‘expensive and obsolete', Europe's remaining royal families know that by wheeling out a young and lovely princess they can buy themselves time and space. And so, like the eagled-eyed Queen in story of The Princess and the Pea, they are looking far and wide for ‘a real Princess,' who these days doesn't need a drop of royal blood, as long as she is photogenic, stylish, with that indefinable something that will capture the imagination of the public, and win their hearts.
A princess, the right princess, can turn attention away from the cost of keeping these Royals, away from their dullness, indiscretions and lack of empathy. She can refocus all that irritation and indifference into one giant sigh of ‘ahh, isn't she lovely?' Not to mention the injection of some badly-needed romance into the stuffy image of most monarchies, via the appealing notion of a prince defying convention and the dictates of his office by daring to follow his heart and marry the girl he loves, despite her common birth. Even the most anodyne and over-bred of royal princes can seem vibrant, manly, passionate, with such a princess at his side.
This, essentially, is ‘the Kate Middleton effect', and can be found in the royal families of Spain, Norway, Monaco, Sweden and Denmark, as well as the House of Windsor. It has, in turn, replaced (after a good few false starts) ‘the Diana effect'. The endless soap opera that was Diana's life, from the first shots of her as a shy young bride-to-be, through to the final pictures of her, alone and pensive, on the diving board of the yacht Jonikal off the coast of Italy, a week before her death, kept much of the world hooked.
This kind of obsession, monarchists argue, isn't just a passive thing, it is an active, money-generating, economy-boosting thing. The British Royal family is worth around £500m a year in tourism revenue. There isn't an actual break-down for how much of that is Kate Middleton-related, but it is safe to assume a lot. The birth of Baby George alone apparently boosted consumer spending to the tune of £225m, while the royal wedding of Wills and Kate is supposed to have contributed £107m to London's economy.
Spain was the latest monarchy to gamble on the Princess Promise, when King Juan Carlos and his wife Queen Sophia announced their abdication last month in favour of Crown Prince Felipe, and his wife, Letizia, a former TV journalist with impeccable good looks and elegance but not a drop of aristocratic blood. The old king — the third of Europe's monarchs to step aside in favour of the younger generation recently — had become snarled in a series of financial scandals that wouldn't go away, with his daughter Cristina, sister of the new king, currently facing possible trial for tax fraud alongside her husband, the Duke of Palma.
Even though the palace moved immediately to ban the Duke from royal functions, and Cristina too, when she made it clear she would stand by him, the latest scandal hit hard after years in which Spain, viciously hurt by recession, with unemployment at 25 per cent, increasingly groaned at the spending and cost of maintenance of the royals.
Juan Carlos’ tearful departure may have been an affecting sight, but the feeling in the background, among those silent men and women whose job it is to run royal families like corporate brands, was one of barely-restrained eagerness. Out with the old, in with the new, and particularly Queen Letizia.
The coronation was a low-key affair, a concession to the continuing recession, but the 41-year-old Letizia played it perfectly, dressed in a white silk skirt suit and diamond accessories, with her hair worn loose, and a simple, charming but elegant braid across her forehead. With her two young daughters, she looked youthful, modern, relaxed and lovely; not a million miles from Kate Middleton's own style. No wonder the New York Times has leapt to brand her “a living, breathing marketing bonanza for both the mass market and the high-end apparel sector”.
Letizia Ortiz was born in Northern Spain, granddaughter of a taxi driver, daughter of a journalist and nurse. Described as ambitious and motivated from her earliest years, she moved to Madrid to study communications and finish a Masters in broadcast journalism, and soon became a recognisable TV personality, appearing on TVE, Bloomberg Television, and CNN, including reporting from New York in the aftermath of 9/11, and won the Madrid Press Association's prestigious Larra Award, for the best Spanish journalist under the age of 30.
She met Prince Felipe at the scene of an oil spill in Northern Spain where she was reporting, and they began dating — secretly at first — marrying two years later. From the start, her focus and determination to get it right were apparent, even rubbing off on the rather distant and aloof prince. He may be more modest and frugal than his father, but before Letizia, Felipe clearly struggled to find common ground with his people, delivering his set addresses in plodding tones, eyes glued to the text, lacking any connection with his audience. As well as encouraging him to mix outside his usual rarefied circles of aristocrats and old-money, even counselling him to accept a dinner invitation from Joaquín Sabina, a well-known singer and republican, Letizia has personally taken on his media coaching, the results of which have been a great improvement in his engagement and delivery; recently, the Royal House of Bourbon even opened a Twitter account.
However much she may resemble the Duchess of Cambridge in style and aesthetic appeal, successfully mixing high-street labels like Zara with haute couture, Queen Letizia's background has far more of a whiff of scandal to it. Along with the usual inevitable speculation around her weight, Letizia also has to put up with rumours of cosmetic surgery and teenage drug abuse. Initially anyway, she was seen as rather cold, too perfectionist, even too ‘queenly' for a royal. This changed somewhat after 2007, first with a wave of sympathy after her sister Erika committed suicide, then gathering pace when Letizia began to carve out a role for herself as
champion of research into rare diseases, but a faint chill still remains.
Another mark against her is the fact she was previously married, to a high-school literature teacher, although the marriage lasted less than a year and was never celebrated in a church, much to the relief of Spain's Catholic hierarchy. Most importantly, however, Letizia seems to lack the conspicuously devoted, loving family who are Kate Middleton's greatest asset. She is said to be suspicious of some of her relatives, convinced they are feeding stories about her to the media — she apparently even confided in one of them that she was pregnant with a boy, knowing the baby was actually a girl, in order to see if the story would appear. And she is clearly justified in at least some of these suspicions — a cousin, David Rocasolano, recently published a book, Adios Princesa, in which he claims Letizia had an abortion in Mexico at a time when this was illegal in Spain, and that she tried to cover it up by requesting that all relevant paperwork be destroyed. Letizia denies this.
Another significant difference between her and the Duchess of Cambridge is Letizia's outspoken and even opinionated nature. Where Kate is careful never to court controversy or offer a divisive opinion, Letizia is known to have strong views about the future role of the Spanish royal family, and to have little reticence about expressing these. Interviewed with her husband a few years ago on TV, Letizia at one point turned to him, and said coolly, “Please, do not interrupt me. I know what I want to say.” This, in the long run, may make Letizia a more engaging figure, capable of holding as well as capturing the public's interest.
In Denmark, hopes are pinned on Mary Donaldson, formerly marketing manager in a Sydney advertising company, now the Crown Princess since her marriage to Prince Frederik in 2004, who insists she “never dreamed” of being a princess, and didn't know who Fredrick was when first introduced to him in a pub during the Sydney Olympics.
Named “one of the world's most fashionable people” by Vanity Fair, Mary has the same kind of clean-cut, low-key glamour as Kate Middleton, with similar glossy brown hair and a good line in simple, elegant dresses. Her promotion of Danish designers, such as Malene Birger and Georg Jensen, has been astute and effective, and since becoming Crown Princess, Mary has steered her energies in clever ways — Denmark's largest anti-bullying campaign, based on an Australian model, and her own Mary Foundation, to advance cultural diversity and encourage the right to a sense of social belonging.
Less successful is Monaco's second attempt at the Princess Promise. It delivered so spectacularly for them first time round, with Grace Kelly — the original of the genre — that a second go must have made perfect sense. Charlene Wittstock, a beautiful, blonde South African Olympic swimmer, was supposed to reignite all the glorious dazzle of the Grace Kelly era by marrying Prince Albert, and quash the growing rumours of more unacknowledged children that gather around him.
However, the fairytale wedding was rather overshadowed by stories of her attempts to escape, and the decidedly ambiguous tears she shed during the ceremony — whether of joy or despair was hard to say — were uncomfortable to watch. Now pregnant, it remains to be seen what impact the birth of a legitimate heir will have on the marriage.
Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby was not only a commoner, but a single mother, one-time waitress and self-confessed former wild child when she met the Crown Prince of Norway at a garden party. Their engagement deeply disturbed the Norwegian establishment, who felt she was a possible liability, but thrilled a public who warmed to Mette-Marit's tearful TV confession of regret over her past —sending her approval rating soaring to 80 per cent. The couple lived together openly before marrying, and her four-year-old son was central to the wedding ceremony, affectionately holding the hand of his new step-father as the crowds cheered on a thoroughly modern royal marriage.
The new princesses have all had careers, educations, life experience and normal upbringings, away from the awful scrutiny and weight of royal expectation. As such, they can speak to and identify with the people, who of course hold ultimate power in this relationship. The new princesses will, it is hoped, bring up their own children to be more in touch, more normal, more like those they wish to continue ruling.
But, for some royal watchers, this is precisely the problem — their very normality will strip the monarchy of its last mystique, making it too accessible, too average, entirely eroding its purpose.
In the case of Kate Middleton, Mary Donaldson and Letizia Ortiz anyway, the understanding of what is required, and willingness to put in the effort, are obvious. Their goodwill and determination positively shine out, illuminating even the dusty old establishments into which they have stepped.