Weekend Woman: The Duchess of Cambridge at 40

This Sunday the Duchess of Cambridge marks a significant birthday. She turns 40. We look at some of the steps on her journey from the teenage girlfriend of the heir prince, William, to an assured woman in her prime, wife, mother, Princess and queen consort in waiting

Updating to add this video made by Qaiser of the official birthday photographs;

2021 saw the rise of Catherine the great. It was a surprise only to those who had not been paying attention for the past two decades. 

The rise of the former Kate Middleton, now Catherine Cambridge/HRH Duchess of Cambridge, future Princess of Wales, future Queen consort was not sudden. It had been many years in the making but it burst forth with aplomb last year.

It was a year that can be summed up in 3 memorable photographs. 

Although taken at a sad occasion, the funeral of Prince Phillip, the first, a snap by photographer Chris Jackson captured a moment in history -a masked face, the symbol of a global pandemic.

It was also a strikingly beautiful photograph that could have been a still from a movie. Or even a movie poster. It had that kind of iconic quality to it.

The movie theme continued with the second photograph. In September the Duchess alighted from a car at the James Bond premiere, held at the Royal Albert Hall, to audible gasps. I was at that event and saw and heard for myself the effect that dress had on those around me. It was a genuinely dazzling redcarpet moment. And I can say that with some authority, having covered dozens of red carpet events, including the Oscars. You can read my thoughts about the dress here :

The article was the most viewed, on this site, of 2021 and when even staid male lawyers message you to ask about a women’s fashion moment, you know both the dress and the woman have made an impact. Impact is different to attention. A woman spilling out of dress two sizes too small for her can get attention, impact is creating a zeitgeist moment.

It’s safe to predict that the ‘Bond gold dress’ photos will follow the Duchess for the rest of her life, even when she is crowned Queen beside King William v.

Christmas delivered the third photo. It’s of the Duchess accompanying singer Tom Walker on piano, on a song about loss, For those who can’t be here, at a carol service organised by her, held at Westminster abbey, for the unsung heroes of the pandemic.

The photo and video (watched by millions) showed yet another side to the Duchess who, earlier in the year, had played a game of tennis with US Open champion Emma Raducanu, welcomed presidents and dignitaries at the COP26 summit, curated a book of photographs entitled Hold Still which captured images of the nation in lockdown, herself photographed Holocaust survivors for an exhibition and launched the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood – among other campaigns and activities.

Not for nothing did someone on the internet observe of the photo below that “if the monarchy ever finds itself in trouble, this woman holds the steely core that will see it triumph.’

It wasn’t always thus.

Like the mother-in-law (Diana, Princess of Wales) she never met, Kate Middleton sprang into the public consciousness aged 19. Like Diana she was immediately besieged by the paparazzi. Other women who have married into the Royal family have not had this. The wives of the ‘spares’ may get critical press (Sarah Ferguson suffered badly) but only the Royal brides of the heirs, Diana and Kate, have had the double whammy of negative press AND photographers chasing them. It’s not personal, it’s commercial. Photographers chase those whose images sell around the world. And catching a future queen sobbing or laughing or angry or with her clothes awry is a money spinner.

Unlike Diana, however, the young Kate did not wear her heart on her sleeve. Her emotions, generally, were harder to read and this has remained her armour. In the early days she had to endure the scrutiny not only of herself but also her family who were pilloried, largely for the crime of being middle-class and not Royal or aristocratic like Diana. Then she was sneered at for wanting to be a wife and mother rather than a ‘modern feminist’. She was given mean nicknames and mocked for her choices of everything from her eye make up to her perceived lack of professional ambition.

If it all pained her, and it must have done, she didn’t show it publicly. She didn’t fish for sympathy or hold herself out as a victim. The signs were there, early on, that in keeping her private thoughts to herself, Kate may have decided to take her cue from the grande dames of the royal family who never explained and never complained; the late Queen Mother who had weathered the abdication crisis and a world war, Princess Anne whose retort to an armed would-be kidnapper was “Not bloody likely”, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall who, as the other woman in the Charles and Diana marriage, had suffered the cruellest media sniping without public rancour. Most of all, perhaps, she observed the Queen herself, a woman in a man’s world, who, after decades of service to the nation, remains as enigmatic and unknown as when she first started her reign as a 25-year-old.

In observing these formidable women she would have learnt the most important lesson about the life she was entering; that royalty is not celebrity. Royalty has a unique mystique that comes from history, tradition and not following the ephemeral fads of mere fame. It would hold her in good stead in the coming years.

William and Kate’s 2011 wedding was as grand as a wedding can get. Westminster Abbey, Alexander McQueen dress. Parliament Square awash with thousands of national broadcasters and bloggers from around the world. A global television audience.

And yet there was an air of intimacy around this huge event which came largely from the Middleton family. From the moment Kate smiled and gave a small wave from the car in which she was travelling with her father, it was clear this was going to be a new kind of wedding and marriage. Not different for the sake of being different but a natural evolution of a new generation – with respect for tradition but with an eye to the future. And crucially, at the centre was family, not just the Royal Family but also the ‘commoner’ Middletons. Even though she was now in the inner sanctum of the highest possible social circles Kate’s reliance on her family as a source of support and grounding has proved a sensible and wise move. There is an air of stability and foundation about her which may not make for exciting gossip but is something so many privately aspire to and long for in an increasingly unstable world.

After the wedding the newly titled Duchess of Cambridge chose not to capitalise on her fame but to settle quietly as the wife of an RAF Search and Rescue force and later Air Ambulance helicopter pilot. Again, the press sniffed at her ordinariness.

Yet, in building a relationship with her husband and providing a solid home life for her three children the Duchess laid the foundations for the public life that was her destiny as a senior Royal. In putting her marriage and family first in those early years she did, perhaps, the most feminist thing of all – lived her life as she chose to, not how others dictated it should be.

With their increasingly high profile role in royal and public life, William and Catherine present now as a couple  in tune with each other and their position. There is no sense of the one-upmanship and resentful competition there was with Charles and Diana, nor do they inappropriately paw each other like teenagers on official engagements.

Early in her marriage It was said of her that the Duchess wished never to do anything that might undermine William’s position. And she hasn’t. She has never breached protocol. She has never pushed ahead of him to get the limelight. She has never criticised his family or blamed her own shortcomings on others.

In taking her time and learning the ropes she has shown herself as understanding the value of longevity over quick flash in the pan success, tradition over fickle celebrity, the might of history and her role in it. As a result, her fan base has grown steadily and organically over the years. It hasn’t been the heady stuff of Diana adulation but Diana was a one-off and of her time. It’s a different era now.

Recently I captured William and Catherine entering the Royal Albert Hall for the annual Royal Variety show for charity. My unplanned video, shot on an iPhone has been viewed over 3 million times, 2.8 million times more than the most popular video I’ve posted of a Hollywood star!

For those who weren’t paying attention, the Catherine of 2021 was a revelation.They reacted like the boss who, when his quiet secretary finally loosens her hair and takes off her glasses, gasps “Why Miss Perkins, but you’re beautiful!’

For those into astrology, she’s simply a typical Capricorn. Capricorns have all the right ingredients early on but they take their time to blossom and then get progressively better with each passing year.

And for those who follow the royals she is now the one to watch. 

There are still some grumbles about what to call her. The press insists on Kate Middleton, claiming that the algorithm pick up on that name best, her legions of fans prefer Catherine and she is formally HRH the Duchess of Cambridge. But perhaps she is all of these things. Kate, with her High Street fashions who gives a wink to the girls who flock to Zara and Hobbs to buy whatever she’s wearing. Catherine when she means business. And Duchess when the occasion requires. She may not have been born a royal but few do regal like her. She rocks the priceless tiaras, looks at home in state banquets and when she needs to be a fairytale princess she pulls out all the stops and gowns.

Little girls of today could do worse than look up to her as a role model.

Happy birthday !