A year after wedding, British monarchy basks in 'Kate effect'

The Duchess of Cambridge, formerly known as Kate Middleton, enjoys widespread popularity a year after marrying Prince William. 

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, during her visit to Canada last summer.

For decades, wax replicas of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh have smiled benignly upon visitors from the central stage of the throne room at Madame Tussauds.

They were edged over earlier this month to make space for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge amid expectations that the duchess (formerly known as Kate Middleton), dressed in the blue dress she wore for her engagement photo, her long, shiny locks perfectly copied, would replace the queen as the attraction’s most touched and photographed waxwork.

Since Kate Middleton married Prince William in April last year, she has replaced the late Princess Diana as the “people’s princess,” an expression originally coined for Diana by the former British prime minister, Tony Blair.

Newspapers fawn over Kate's grace and beauty. There is repeated talk of the “Kate effect” on clothing brands that see their sales soar after she wears them. Crowds yell for her at her increasing number of public appearances. The shouts are loudest when she accompanies her husband, with whom she enjoys an evident happiness.

“She is really terribly popular,” says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine and a pundit on the royal family. “She’s believable – gorgeous but not uber-glam. She’s socially so adept – she can talk to trees. She makes it all look so easy when in fact I think it must be a little scarier than that.”

Her effect on the public image of the royal family has been particularly powerful.

“She’s been great for them [the royals] – they must be thanking their lucky stars for her," says Ms. Seward, who thinks that Kate's social background has been a particular benefit. Kate is often referred to in the media as a “commoner,” meaning she is middle class rather than aristocratic; though she is at the wealthy end of that grouping, having attended a high school that costs 15,000 pounds ($24,400) a year.

“A lot of aristocrats think they are grander than the royal family whereas Kate exudes a sense of 'This is the epitome of all my dreams',” says Seward.

Learning to live in the spotlight

Kate’s arrival coincides with a positive time for the royal family. The queen celebrates her diamond jubilee this year, with street parties planned throughout the country. Earlier this month Prince Harry, William’s younger brother, proved himself a charming diplomat on his first overseas tour overseas on behalf of the queen.

In his tour of the Caribbean he even developed an immediate rapport with Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who has said that his country should mark the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain by casting off the queen as ceremonial head of state.

It was not always so rosy for Prince Harry. As Kate’s advisors will have warned her, the public mood can flick like a switch, as it did after the death of Diana and the Queen’s annus horribilis, in which three of her four children got divorced.

The media particularly delights when a member of the royal family trips up. Harry did so in 2005 when he wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party two weeks before Queen Elizabeth led Holocaust memorial ceremonies. He later said it had been a "very stupid thing" to do. There are few Brits who are not familiar with Prince Philip’s most spectacular gaffes, including the time he asked a driving instructor in Oban, Scotland, how he kept, “the natives off the booze long enough to pass the [driving] test?”

Today, such blunders from the younger royals are less likely thanks to a canny team of advisors that has helped the new generation emerge as confident, charming, and popular internationally.

But Kate already knows from experience how fickle media support is. Before her engagement in 2010, Fleet Street cruelly dubbed her “waity Katy” as she continued to date the Prince she had met as an undergraduate at university. Much was made of the fact that her mother, now a successful business woman, was once an air stewardess supposedly known as “doors to manual” by some of Kate and William’s friends.

Though the media has largely respected an official request to desist from speculating about the duchess’s fertility, they are unlikely to hold off for long if the Duchess of Cambridge remains childless.

For Graham Smith, chief executive of Republic, a campaign group for the abolition of the monarchy, the exact state of Kate’s popularity in the media is a lot of hot air.

“She makes no difference at all because, despite the spin about the monarchy being more popular than it was, most people are largely indifferent to her. There is a section of society that gets excited about celebrity but that is no reflection of views about the monarchy.”

A quick straw poll of people on the street, however, suggested that that section constitutes a majority.

“We all like her,” says Muhammed Iqbal, a grocery shop owner. “She’ll be a very proper queen.”

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