This month, a cold-blooded African rock python provided the British royal family with its most heartwarming photo op in years. In a gesture that suggests relaxed regard for the future of the monarchy, the deadly reptile was draped around the necks of a smiling Prince William and a decidedly trepidatious Prince Harry during their visit to Botswana. The snake, too, was apparently nervous, urinating on the floor. Then, in a classic younger-brother moment, Harry grabbed the snake’s head and mischievously pushed it toward his older sibling as they both laughed, and camera flashes popped.
Such affectionate gestures punctuated the brothers’ African trip, their first joint overseas tour. William showed the same easy warmth and charm for which his mother Diana, Princess of Wales, was famed; Harry followed his lead, as he bonded with orphans and visited an orphanage funded by the Sentebale AIDS charity he helped found in Lesotho.
The visit capped a year in which the two princes have assumed an increasingly public presence. In January, their first palace-sanctioned double portrait was unveiled at London’s National Portrait Gallery. In the spring, both were photographed on different occasions graduating from the military with their father Prince Charles conferring the honours and their long-term girlfriends looking on proudly—William from an advanced helicopter training course with the Royal Air Force, where he holds the rank of flight lieutenant and is now training to be a search-and-rescue pilot, Harry as a lieutenant with the Army Air Corps, awarded his flying wings after completing an eight-month pilot course.
Packaging the two young princes together is a master stroke in light of Buckingham Palace’s need for youthful bounce. Prince William, second in line to the British throne, is 28; Prince Harry, third in line, is 25. Given the longevity that runs in the Windsor clan, it’s likely William, like his 61-year-old father before him, will be in princely dry dock for decades. Their grandmother, the Queen, is going strong at age 84; the Queen Mother enjoyed her daily gin tipple to a ripe old 101. Having the two brothers share the spotlight deflects attention from either individually, and preserves the privacy they so avidly seek.
The beloved sons of a beloved princess long have occupied a tandem identity in the public imagination, one dictated by the archaic right of primogeniture. Artist Nicky Philipps cleverly captures that reality in her portrait in which the princes assume an artfully informal pose at the library of Clarence House, their official London residence. Yet their places in the royal pecking order are clearly telegraphed: William is the dominant figure, standing in an entranceway, while Harry, leaning casually against a piece of furniture, looks up to him in profile. Though identically attired in military mufti from their days as fellow officers in the Household Cavalry’s Blues and Royals, only William boasts the sash and star of the Order of the Garter, the Queen’s exclusive personal order.
“William is the one people are clearly interested in,” says Daily Mail columnist Richard Kay, a former confidant of Diana’s, in an interview with Maclean’s. Yet “Hot Harry,” as he’s been dubbed, increasingly reigns in the court of public opinion: in June, he was named “King of Cool” by GQ, beating out Robert Pattinson; his older brother, whose heartthrob status abated years ago, didn’t make the list. The young prince was defined as a “soldier, ambassador, polo player, playboy”— descriptors used for his father decades ago.
“The heir and the spare,” as the brothers were known, provide a textbook study in birth-order theory, Kay notes, with William accorded public deference—and scrutiny. It’s a dynamic that harks back a generation—to Elizabeth and her younger, more spirited and beauteous sister Margaret. Like Elizabeth, William is perceived as the more responsible, well-behaved sibling prepped for a lifetime of royal duty. And like Margaret, Harry has become the tabloid favourite whose adolescence was filled with hijinks and royal rebellion—in his case, smoking marijuana, underage drinking, scuffles with photographers and serial romantic conquests. Harry spent much of his late teens and early 20s as a serial apologizer—most notoriously in 2005 after he foolishly wore a German Wehrmacht uniform with a swastika armband to a private party that called for “colonial and native” costume (William was more appropriately outfitted as a lion, the “king of the jungle”). Never a scholar, Harry eschewed university for Sandhurst military academy. Even then, he made headlines after referring to fellow cadets as “little Paki” and “raghead” on camera.
It was Princess Margaret’s romantic scandals and marital failure, ironically, that helped pave the way for the acceptability of modern-day royal divorce. And none was more messy than that of the princes’ own parents, who both publicly admitted to infidelity. Their mother’s admission of adultery with James Hewitt exposed young Harry to cruel taunts of “Harry Hewitt” by classmates.
Through it all, they had one another. Their mother’s death, when Harry was 12 and William 15, resulted in them being given a modicum of the privacy she wanted for them, says Kay: “Diana always fought to protect them from the [media] glare. And William in particular benefited from an unwritten arrangement that he wouldn’t be hassled until after his education and it worked brilliantly for him.” Kay believes that William’s parents’ example has instilled in him a desire to preserve his privacy by retreating from public duty, a situation reaching a critical phase because the royal family is in danger of being ignored due to indifference.
Bringing the brothers to the fore with trips like their African junket is clearly a bid to change this. The palace also recently announced Prince William would spearhead a campaign to create 2,012 public playing fields as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012, marking his grandmother’s 60 years on the throne.
Still, Kay observes, there’s a dearth of information available about the two princes, which has created a market for books like William and Harry, a dishy new tome by Katie Nicholl, a gossip columnist with the London Mail on Sunday. “We’re being starved of information about him and Harry. But that has also had enormous benefits for them: it means they can lead a normal life at times.”
That is evident in their limited media exposure. Speaking to NBC’s Matt Lauer when they were coordinating the 2007 Concert for Diana to mark the 10-year anniversary of their mother’s death, the two lobbed sarcastic barbs and made it clear they understood that their fame was the result of genetics, not accomplishment. Last year, they displayed a well-honed brotherly banter in a TV interview in which they talked about sharing a house, with William acting the more responsible one: “Bearing in mind I cook, I feed him every day, I think he has done very well . . . Harry does do the washing up but then he leaves most of it in the sink,” he reported, adding, “I do a fair bit of tidying up after him. He snores a lot, too. He keeps me up all night long.” To this Harry responded with mock outrage: “Oh, God, they will think we are sharing a bed! We’re brothers, not lovers!”
Their choice of military career provides a protective bubble that is both public and private at the same time, says historian and royal biographer Robert Lacey in an interview with Maclean’s: “The world sees them flying helicopters but the nature of their lives is guarded.” Historical precedent is instructive, Lacey notes: the Queen has said the happiest days in her marriage were early on when she and Prince Philip lived sheltered from the public on British military bases, while he pursued his naval career. Yet the risk of danger is real. Earlier this year, it was announced Harry could return to front-line duty in Afghanistan where he was stationed for 10 weeks before being recalled in 2008 amid security concerns. The prince has expressed enthusiasm about taking on the assignment of becoming an Apache attack helicopter pilot, an opportunity far too dangerous for his brother.
The brothers’ birth order is most evident in their choice of romantic partners. “There’s a definite sense that William doesn’t want to repeat his father’s mistakes,” says Kay, referring to Prince Charles’s series of girlfriends throughout his 20s, among them Camilla Shand, his current wife. When he entered his 30s, he suddenly faced pressure to marry and produce an heir, a directive that propelled him into a mismatched union with Lady Diana Spencer, whom he barely knew.
Such a charge can’t be made about William, who has been publicly linked for the past seven years with Kate Middleton, whom he met in 2001 at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The statuesque Middleton, the commoner daughter of a former airline pilot and flight attendant who run a party supply company, has proven herself a suitably low-maintenance choice who wears clothes well and appears willing to wait for a public commitment from the prince. Together, the two, who are often photographed whispering conspiratorially, exude a regal ruling-class bearing of the sort found in Ralph Lauren ads. Yet they’re comfortable mixing with ordinary folk, attending Radio 1’s Big Weekend festival this summer and shopping at a convenience store in Wales.
Harry has been spared the same degree of fixation over his romantic partners’ suitability for palace life, to his benefit. It’s unlikely his on-again, off-again girlfriend Chelsy Davy would pass the “suitable to sit on a throne” sniff test, given her well-documented fondness for clubbing, a Red Bull vodka in hand, cigarette dangling from her lips. Then there are the rumours swirling around her father, a rich safari operator in Zimbabwe with murky links to dictator Robert Mugabe. More problematic, however, is the fact that Davy’s blond-bombshell looks and Rivera-ready wardrobe mask an ambition ill-suited for a life of ribbon-cutting. She graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in economics, then enrolled in an accelerated law course at the University of Leeds. Evidence hints of a passionate, dramatic heat in the Harry-Chelsy relationship almost absent from the G-rated William-Kate pairing. Davy reportedly pulled the plug in January 2009, fed up with her beau’s party lifestyle and flirtatious ways. (Rumour had it she blindsided the prince by changing her relationship status on Facebook to “Not in one.”) By last September, it was back on. At Harry’s graduation in May, Davy was by his side, mingling with his family. (Speculation swirling in British tabloids last week suggest it’s off again.)
Yet Davy shows every sign of pursuing her own career, very possibly in South Africa. Middleton, meanwhile, has not made use of her degree in art history, instead choosing to work under the paparazzi radar at her family’s business while continuing to audition for a permanent position at Prince William’s family’s firm. William and Kate’s extended courtship may be an attempt to quell the sort of euphoria and frenzy that accompanied news of Charles and Diana’s engagement. Yet it has not quelled rabid speculation about when they’ll set a date. A bang-up royal wedding is a photo op the nation can’t resist. Until then, they’ll have to settle for the princes.