The Web had a little fun this week playing up Kate Middleton’s “Marilyn moment” when her navy Orla Kiely skirt blew up during a charity appearance Wednesday. One British tabloid responded by collecting leggy photos of Kate in wind-swept appearances to suggest that the duchess follow the example of the queen and have small weights sewn into her hems.
But the iconic figure Middleton has parallels to isn’t JFK’s mistress but his wife.
In DeNeen L. Brown’s piece “The enduring legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy, a master at shaping public appearances,” Wayne Koestenbaum, the author of “Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon,” argues that Kennedy’s presence at her husband’s assassination, “a scene of martyrdom,” left her “caught in a film reel from which she would never fully escape, ‘except to become more radically private. … It is as if that moment she learns the consequences of being famous, being the object of a stranger’s attention.’
“The way she managed it: She took control. Because she coveted privacy for herself and her family, and because of the public’s hunger, she carefully doled out images. ‘My press relations will be minimum information,’ she told her press secretary, Pamela Turnure, ‘given with maximum politeness.’
“ ‘It is a contradiction, but in that contradiction lies the secret of her poise and lure,’ Koestenbaum said. ‘She did not want to be looked at, but she was in a position where she would be looked at. She was very good at being looked at.’ ”
Kate Middleton is also very good at being looked at – and her success in appealing to ordinary people while maintaining her distance underscores how the description of the former first lady’s determination to control her image in the face of worldwide attention can be applied to Middleton’s situation.
Nothing tragic has happened to Middleton. The tragedy befell the woman who would have been her mother-in-law, Diana, the Princess of Wales. Like JFK, Diana was a young, charismatic figure who was idealized by millions in life and in death. And her untimely death – the princess was 36 when she died in a car crash attempting to flee the paparazzi — altered perceptions of her children. Born into a bubble, adored for their good looks and royal status, Princes William and Harry were flooded with sympathy, and fans, simply for being the sons of the glamorous princess whose short life ended in tragedy.
The media backed off in the wake of Diana’s death, but eventually the photogenic princes were too irresistible. Media interest in William’s love life simmered during his long courtship with Kate – and boiled over at times. In July 2008, more than two years before Kate and William announced their engagement, Belle Robinson, co-owner of the clothing chain Jigsaw, where Kate briefly worked, described life in the media glare: “There were days when there were TV crews at the end of the drive. We’d say: ‘Listen, do you want to go out the back way?’ And she’d say: ‘To be honest, they’re going to hound us until they’ve got the picture. So why don’t I just go, get the picture done, and then they’ll leave us alone.’ ”
Middleton balanced such pragmatism with a determination to keep her private life private. After a photographer standing on a public footpath took photos of her playing tennis on Christmas Day the following year, she filed suit for invasion of privacy. (Represented by the same law firm that worked for Prince Charles, she won an apology and damages from the agency that syndicated the pictures.) At other times, she objected to her photo being taken as she got coffee or walked home.
Of course, the most egregious, and well-known, invasion of her privacy came after she and William married – when photos of the couple sunbathing on vacation, including images of Kate topless, were published in 2012.
As the wife of the heir to the heir to the British throne, the Duchess of Cambridge maintains a certain image. She projects a princess-perfect appearance to a celebrity-hungry public: She spikes a volleyball – in four-inch wedges – and shows just enough flat stomach three months after giving birth to spark envy the world over. She has grey roots but still sports salon-perfect blow-dries. She oozes girl-next-door charm by pushing her own grocery cart and shopping in chain stores, leaving bystanders marveling at the royal who bargain shops before heading home to the palace.
Yet what happens behind the palace walls stays largely between the two of them. There was never a question that, as the future king, William’s life would be lived publicly. But there are no photo spreads of their newly decorated home. Their close friends are tight-lipped. Much as Jackie Kennedy did despite living in the public eye, William and Kate assiduously guard their privacy and that of their young son.