Prince William’s first public engagement came just 22 hours after his birth: a brief appearance on the steps of St. Mary’s Hospital in London, swaddled in a blanket and held in the awkward clutch of his father, Charles. As the crowd cheered, reporters bellowed and cameras strobed, the jug-eared heir to the British throne dutifully displayed his own, far more telegenic successor. Then he handed the infant off to a shyly smiling Diana, steered her gently by the various photographers’ positions and opened the rear door to their chauffeur-driven station wagon as the new family prepared to speed off home.
Thirty years on, the most striking thing about the footage is the absence of a car seat, or even seat belts for that matter. But the carefully choreographed unveiling was groundbreaking for its time. William Arthur Philip Louis was the first future sovereign to be born in a hospital. His father was actually there to witness his arrival. And, as with the couple’s fairy-tale wedding 11 months before, the public and press had been invited to share the joy almost every step of the way. The news of his birth may have been declared with a traditional 41-gun salute at the Tower of London, but there were modern touches mixed in as well. William would never be a commoner, but his parents, it seemed, were determined that he might find some common ground with them.
It’s a balancing act that has come to define the young prince’s life: small, often stolen bits of normalcy that leaven his singular existence as a future monarch and global celebrity. Early on, they came mostly at the insistence of his mother—a woman raised in privilege, but not under constant scrutiny. Small escapes like outings to public playgrounds with his brother, Harry, or trips to movies or theme parks dressed in jeans and ball cap rather than the double-breasted suits and ties that function as the uniform for male members of the Windsor clan. Later, they stemmed from his own choices and bargains with the insatiable media, such as a post-high-school “gap year” spent working in anonymity on a dairy farm, travelling in Africa and volunteering as a teacher in Chile in exchange for a few sit-down interviews and the occasional photo op. And since his marriage to the former Kate Middleton in April 2011, they have presumably become joint decisions, like the one that saw the young couple eschew palace life in London in favour of a cottage on the Isle of Anglesey off the northwest coast of Wales—close to his job piloting rescue helicopters for the Royal Air Force and remote enough to discourage all but the heartiest paparazzi.
But now, with the impending birth of their first child next year—destined to become third in line for the throne, regardless of sex—the challenge for Will and Kate becomes how to protect, and perhaps even expand, those precious private moments in a world that is ever more plugged in and hungry for gossip. In recent years, even the 86-year-old Queen has come to grips with the need to transform herself from aloof monarch to accessible celebrity, going so far as to “sky dive” on film with Daniel Craig’s James Bond for the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics. Can the public dissemination of the royal ultrasounds be far behind?
The dangers of over-sharing are all too apparent to William. After all, he had barely started school when his parents’ marriage began to unravel in the press. The early promise of their union—still a teenager, Diana introduced her husband, the quintessentially stuffy Englishman, to rock music, boxer shorts and blow-dried hair—was undone by an age difference that was only 12 calendar years, but more like a century in terms of taste, style and outlook. It was the tabloids that finally put an end to the charade in 1992, by first publishing details of intercepted phone calls between Diana and a lover who called her “Squidgy,” and later, far more lurid conversations between Charles and his longtime mistress Camilla Parker Bowles. An official separation came that December, followed by a “War of the Waleses,” waged through tell-all books and all too candid interviews. Charles told the BBC that he had never loved his bride, and Diana responded in kind on ITV. “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” Neither seemed above using their boys to score points or court public sympathy, with Diana going so far as to share a story about crying in a locked bathroom after one particularly nasty fight while 10-year-old “Wills” crouched outside, stuffing tissues under the door. It wasn’t until the couple divorced, in the summer of 1996, that things started to settle down.
And it was only after their mother’s tragic death in a Paris traffic accident a year later that William and his brother gained a semblance of a private life. Cowed by public anger over the role the pursuing press played the night Diana died, Britain’s newspapers and TV networks struck a deal to leave the boys alone until they turned 18. During their years at Eton—the elite boys’ school just beyond the gates of their grandmother’s Windsor Castle—William and Harry were able to live, and occasionally misbehave, just like their peers. And Charles, who remains psychologically scarred by his own odd upbringing—distant parents, years spent away at a spartan Scottish boarding school, then a stint at Cambridge, the university his mother’s courtiers selected for him—did his best to keep them grounded. The boys’ exceptionally privileged lives—ski holidays at Klosters, a private London apartment where they could party with mates—were balanced with royal duties and calls to service.
Catherine, duchess of Cambridge, formerly known as Kate Middleton, has a far different story, of course. Descended from wool merchants on her father’s side and coal miners on her mother’s side, she is from an entirely different social stratum—the first commoner to marry a future British king in 350 years. Her father, Michael, and mother, Carole, met while they were both working for British Airways. And her childhood family home in Berkshire was a four-bedroom semi-detached rather than a sprawling palace. That the 30-year-old ever got together with a prince is in itself a testament to the U.K.’s evolving class system. When Carole was too pregnant with Kate to continue working for the airline, she started a side business making loot bags for children’s parties, running it out of a shed in the garden. Within a few years, the company, called Party Pieces, grew large enough that Michael quit his job to help manage the operation. Kate, her sister, Pippa, and brother, James, eventually moved from the local comprehensive to Marlborough College, an expensive prep school. And the family graduated to an estate house in the village of Bucklebury. Far from regal, but respectable enough. Today, the family party business is worth an estimated 30 million pounds, about four times its valuation before Kate married the real life Prince Charming she met while studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
One wonders, however, just how much influence she will have over the upbringing of her child. Many of the lessons she absorbed from own parents will not be applicable to life in the royal fishbowl. William kept her on a string for seven years, and even broke up with her for a while before finally proposing during a 2010 Kenyan safari. (Their courtship dragged on so long that the papers dubbed her “Waitey Katie.”) And she’s hardly had time to adjust to the public role, let alone to the palace intrigues that proved the undoing of both Diana and Prince Andrew’s ex-wife, Sarah Ferguson, two women who had the advantage of having been brought up in Britain’s snobbier precincts.
On the other hand, things are changing quickly for the British monarchy. A generation ago, it was unthinkable that a divorced man might be king, let alone one who married his mistress. In the wired world, even the announcement of a royal pregnancy must be rushed out, for fear that an unknown blogger or Twitter user will steal the Windsors’ thunder.
The soon-to-arrive prince or princess—a future king or queen—will be an instant celebrity. It will be a few years before he or she has to worry about tumbling to the tabloid standards of the Kardashians, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, but that’s surely the way things are heading. After all, naked snaps of Mum and Uncle Harry have already hit the Internet. Being a royal is no longer what it used to be. And the best parenting in the world can’t change that.