Daniela Elser: Kate Middleton caught ‘off guard’ with Bond actor Rami Malek
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother never wanted to be a member of the royal family. She had twice turned down Prince Albert, the Duke of York’s proposals, only accepting on the third because she was so reticent about entangling herself in the monarchy.
Even though history remembers her as a diminutive, gin-loving, indomitable spirit who famously refused to leave London during the Blitz, at only age 22, what the Queen Mother understood then was something other commoner women on the precipice of marrying into the House of Windsor have clearly failed to grasp: to become a member of the royal house requires unrelenting self-sacrifice.
Going into the marriage, Elizabeth said she was “afraid never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”.
That simple question, of just how much membership of the monarchy wrests from a person, is one that is as urgent today as it was in 1922 and one which the royal house is still grappling with thanks to her great-great-granddaughters-in-law.
This week, Rami Malek, one of the stars of the new Bond movie, was out doing the press rounds and talked about a very unusual conversation he had had with Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge at the Bafta Awards in early 2019.
“I just looked at Princess Kate at one point and I said, ‘This must be exhausting,’ and she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘You just had a baby, right?'” Malek told TV host Jimmy Kimmel. (Kate had given birth to her third child Prince Louis 10 months before.)
“She was taken aback, and she said, ‘How are you doing?’ And I said, ‘How are you?’ And in the most regal, elegant way she gave me a look, but you can tell. Imagine dressed to the nines, having to talk to all these actors.
“They’re so careful, but it was so cool because I think I caught her off-guard for a second and had that look of, in the most elegant, professional, royal way, ‘Yes, it’s a lot having a kid.'”
What makes Malek’s anecdote so revealing is that it lays bare one of the most fundamental but largely ignored facts of life as a working HRH – it is exactly that. It’s a job.
For better or worse, it is about slipping into one-shouldered Alexander McQueen confection, as Kate did, and, no matter the sleep deprivation of having a baby, getting out there giving good duchess.
You cannot yawn on the job, look bored or lose your focus for a second because every blink, syllable and twitch is being photographed and videoed by the press and the smartphone-toting public.
It requires a seamless, perfect performance every. Damn. Time.
Consider this: The royal family does not take sick days. Which is to say, as far as I’m aware, no working member of the royal family has ever cried off a previously announced commitment because they are feeling under the weather. It is simply not an option to cancel things when the crowd control barricades have gone up and the local school children have been herded along to wave their tiny Union Jack flags.
What Malek’s Kate story highlights is the crucial reason that, in hindsight, maybe Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex was doomed to fail in her royal guise. Because, while the tiaras are fun and getting to wave to the assembled, adoring masses from the Buckingham Palace balcony must be wildly heady, all that flummery masks the fact that becoming a senior member of the royal family requires stuffing so much of yourself inside and smiling beatifically.
What that Kate and Rami Malek moment really drives home is that, if you are a working member of the royal family, you are there to do a job, not make friends or get hugs. If no one is tenderly checking in on you it is because the expectation is you will get on with it. It is the price you have unwittingly agreed to pay for all the shiny parts.
And, witting, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex clearly was very much not.
Wednesday next week marks two years since she and husband Prince Harry’s documentary about their Southern Africa tour aired, and during which the duchess famously said “Not many people have asked if I’m okay … it’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes.”
Whether you’re a staunch Meghan loyalist or not, the toll of her tenure as an HRH was abundantly clear and she seemed on the verge of tears.
“It’s not enough to just survive something, right? That’s not the point of life. You’ve got to thrive, you’ve got to feel happy,” she told interviewer Tom Bradby.
Within months of the TV special airing, the Sussexes would bolt the royal enclosure, unleashing the biggest upheaval in royal history in decades and triggering an existential crisis. What did it say about this whole monarchy palaver if an educated, successful woman couldn’t even last within its confines for two years?
The very institution started to take on a vampiric hue, a beast that demanded regular sacrifices to continue to survive. (At least they no longer have to be virgins…)
In retrospect, the breakneck speed that Harry and Meghan’s relationship moved might have been romantic stuff but what seems clearer and clearer is how intrinsically unaware Meghan was of what she was committing herself to. Not just to a husband but to a ceaseless, generally thankless job that required a level of self-abnegation no one can truly prepare for.
A job that means putting on a lovely dress when you are exhausted and making small talk with actors for hours on monotonous end.
Because what all those diamonds and all the lovely hats and all the frippery belies is that working members of the royal house are essentially public servants, albeit better dressed ones who are allowed to occasionally lark about on the Royal Train.
In return for occupying such elevated positions and getting to bask in the veneration of a nation; in return for occupying a wholly unattainable position at the social zenith and getting to have more Gainsboroughs than walls to put them on, one must devote one life to the twin pole stars of Duty and Service.
And that is not glamorous. That is long briefings and interminable stretches of making small talk and shaking hands in the outer reaches of Wales. And it is doing this again and again and again and with no one ever particularly praising you for doing what is actually just the bare minimum of HRH-dom.
This is far from a new problem for The Firm.
One of the Queen Mother’s ladies-in-waiting told biographer Sarah Bradford: “The thing that was hard on Diana – and Sarah Ferguson – was that they were both totally uneducated. They had no idea of what the constitutional monarchy was, either of them…they thought it was endless freebies and romantic princes riding about and everybody cheering. I don’t think they had a clue.”
And of all the post-mortems about the brief chimera that was Sussex Royal perhaps that’s the best explanation of how the brief, wild dream that was Harry and Meghan derailed so spectacularly. She didn’t have a clue.
Because she simply could not. There is no training manual, textbook or short-course in the world that a person can buy, read or take for what being absorbed into the palace ecosystem involves.
Still, that ignorance, no matter how wholly understandable, does not diminish the danger that it represents to the project of keeping the monarchy afloat.
Earlier this week, The Times’ royal correspondent Roya Nikkhah reported that one of the “triggers” that “really gets” Prince William about his uncle is the perception of the Duke of York’s “ungracious and ungrateful” attitude towards his royal position.
“Any suggestion that there isn’t gratitude for the institution, anything that could lead anyone in the public to think that senior members of the royal family aren’t grateful for their position, [William thinks] is really dangerous,” a royal source told Nikkhah.
What no one seems to have prepared Meghan for, what seems to have completely taken her aback, was that not only was she expected to martyr herself, to some degree, for a millennium-old institution and that the whole time, was meant to be ‘grateful’ for being given the opportunity to do so.
In all seriousness – who the hell would want to be a working HRH? (Now one of the minor cousins? Well, that’s a different story entirely.)
The Queen Mother once said,”I felt it my duty to marry Bertie and fell in love with him afterwards.” Sometimes the fairytale works out, I suppose. And sometimes, as it did for Meghan, it all comes crashing down.
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