Spotlight shines on Kate Middleton, another princess-to-be

Sitting by Prince William in her only televised interview to date, bride-to-be Kate Middleton appeared to sidestep one question more than any other. Is it hard, she was asked, following in the footsteps of Diana, Princess of Wales, “the most famous figure of our age?”

As she prepares to walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey for the royal wedding next week — an event set to draw one of the largest audiences in global television history — Middleton is already beginning to find out. Though profoundly different women in profoundly different times, she has found herself sharing one major challenge with her would-have-been mother-in-law: instant fame.

Despite an effort by Buckingham Palace to limit her public exposure, Middleton appears on the road to becoming the new “most photographed woman in the world,” filling a void in the tabloid press left by Diana. As Prince William’s longtime girlfriend, she was relatively well-known for years in Britain and among a small pool of royal watchers beyond these shores. But like Diana, her engagement has suddenly propelled her into the global spotlight.

In an echo of Diana in her day, celebrity-centered Splash News said last week that in the five-short months since the royal engagement was announced, the price for a candid shot of Middleton has soared “well into six figures,” higher than for Lady Gaga or Angelina Jolie. This week, a Texas-based research firm published a report saying citations of Middleton on Internet media and social networking sites have already eclipsed all members of the royal family, including her soon-to-be husband and Diana’s son, Prince William.

It raises an eerily familiar question for Buckingham Palace, an institution that is not amused at being upstaged: how to manage Middleton’s skyrocketing popularity and avoid the pitfalls that befell Diana’s shot to fame.

“In terms of their popularity, the similarities are amazing, and this is going to be a delicate balance for the palace,” said Ken Wharfe, Diana’s former bodyguard and longtime confidant.

“The royal family does want the public popularity that Diana brought the royal family and that Kate is now getting,” he continued. “But they don’t want someone who will co-opt their image the way Diana did, either. I get no sense that Kate has any interest in doing that. But my only fear is that whether she likes it or not, all the eyes — and the cameras — will be on her.”

To Middleton’s benefit, the rules of engagement for the British tabloid press have changed since Diana died in a 1997 car crash in Paris with her lover Dodi Fayed, after their intoxicated chauffeur sped away from a band of paparazzi. New government guidelines in Britain have made photographers less aggressive, and editors less willing to run ill-gotten shots.

But the allure of Middleton is testing the willpower of the paparazzi. Already, Britain’s media watchdog was forced to issue a warning this month after photographers chased down Middleton’s mother and sister during a London shopping trip. And like Diana, Middleton is finding herself under a microscope, as illustrated by a run of tabloid stories about her recent weight loss — she is reportedly on a crash diet ahead of her wedding day.

The weight stories have dug up memories of Diana’s more serious struggle with eating disorders, showing that Middleton may face a lifetime of comparisons.

“Clearly there is a drive to try to link them, to make her the new Diana,” said Richard Kay, a Daily Mail journalist and one of those in whom Diana confided the details of her battle with bulimia. “Yet this Kate weight story is tricky, and I haven’t wanted to write anything about it because I don’t detect she is doing anything other than what most brides do before their wedding day. But because of who she is, the headlines are there.”

Different paths

Despite the echoes of Diana’s place in the media, though, the women share few other similarities. Born of non-noble blood, Middleton met her groom at university, and the couple dated for eight years before getting engaged. Diana, meanwhile, hailed from one of the most aristocratic families in Britain, and her courtship with Prince Charles was seen as perfunctory and semi-arranged.

Diana had just turned 20 when she and Charles wed in 1981; she was 12 years her husband’s junior. Middleton, 29, is four months older than Prince William. Though both women inspired fashioned trends, Diana’s style was pure couture, while Kate is more off-the-rack.

And no one here is yet predicting that Middleton could match Diana’s iconic status, nor perhaps would she want to. Diana’s image grew larger than life in part through a warmth atypical for the royal family — perhaps best illustrated by her famous ungloved handshake with an AIDS patient in 1987 — but also because of her disastrous marriage and tragic early death.

And unlike Diana, who sought out the press as much as it sought her, Middleton has thus far displayed little interest in planting positive stories or cultivating favorite journalists. The couple’s inner circle has been compared by some here to the Obama administration, with insiders tight-lipped and leaks exceedingly rare.

Nevertheless, the palace is going to great lengths to avoid the mistakes of the past. Unlike Diana, who was paraded out as a bauble for the press to shoot before her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981, Middleton has done only one tightly scripted TV interview alongside William and attended only a handful of carefully orchestrated public engagements in which the media has been kept largely at bay. Peter Hunt, the BBC’s royal correspondent, went as far as to say Middleton was being “hidden from public view” by the palace, a fact that has only seemed to fuel media interest.

Seeking a low profile

In their one TV interview last November, Middleton appeared uncomfortable with the question of how she would deal with Diana’s legacy. “Obviously, I would love to have met her, and she is obviously an inspirational woman to look up to and to this day and going forward . . . she’s very inspirational.”

But Prince William, who famously gave Middleton his mother’s sapphire engagement ring, gave a more pointed response: “It’s about carving your own future, and no one is trying to fill my mother’s shoes.”

In what may aid William and Kate in escaping the media eye, they will settle, at least for a time, in relatively distant Wales, where the prince is based with the Royal Air Force. And in the months to come, the young couple is likely to appear in public only for limited spikes of activity.

That, many here believe, is in part to shield Middleton from too much press too soon. But Prince William is still second in line to the throne after his more awkward father, who is now married to his second wife and former mistress, Camilla. Many here privately say the handsome young couple will be keeping a relatively low profile to avoid overshadowing Charles and Camilla — and to keep a lid on calls to have Prince William leapfrog his father to the throne.

Hunt said the popularity of William — who is a celebrity in his own right and bears a striking resemblance to his mother — is also likely to take some of the pressure off his wife.

“He has an ease his father never had,” Hunt said. “When Charles and Diana went on walkabouts, and he went to one side and she the other, you would hear the crowd say, “Oh, it’s not Diana.” But you are not likely to get that with William and Kate.”

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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