Once again, fervid rumours are swirling that the world’s longest job interview is finally coming to an end. This latest round kicked off in March, when DailyBeast.com editor Tina Brown reported Buckingham Palace would announce the engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton, his girlfriend of seven years, on June 3 or 4. Brown, who wrote a biography of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, cited unnamed palace sources confirming the Queen’s schedule was cleared on those days—from which she deduced a November wedding is in the offing. People plastered a photo of the couple on its cover earlier this month under the headline, “The Next Princess!”, the certitude of the punctuation supported by an anecdote alleging that the prince called Middleton’s father “Dad” on a recent skiing holiday. A friend of the prince’s shot down the speculation in early May, which didn’t stop Sarah Ferguson, the divorced Duchess of York, from offering marital advice to the 28-year-old Middleton: “Remember that you’re marrying a beautiful man you are in love with and remember to make time for him,” she told Popeater.com.
The suggestion that Middleton needed to “make time” for the prince was greeted with guffaws in the U.K., where the comely commoner has earned the nickname “Waity Katie” for her willingness to remain on standby without a public commitment. She’s proven far more patient than the retailers who’ll profit from royal wedding mania. Two years ago, Woolworths scrapped a line of commemorative knick-knacks “Celebrating the royal marriage of William & Kate” because the photo on them, William with a full head of hair, was out of date. Recent signs suggest it might be time to reissue those mugs and thimbles. Next month, the prince turns 28, the age he once told reporters he’d consider marrying. And Middleton has let it be known she’s taking a more active role in charities, a signal she’s being readied for royal prime time.
Middleton has been subject to more due diligence than most corporate mergers for a reason: the spectre of William’s parents’ doomed union—with its whirlwind courtship, 12-year age difference, stark incompatibilities and tabloid divorce. “He’s determined not to make the same mistakes his father did,” says Richard Kay, a Daily Mail columnist and former confidant of Diana’s, who says no one outside the royal orbit knows what’s going on: “They’re an incredibly tight couple; the people around them are tight. William expects complete discretion from his friends.”
That’s another post-Diana legacy, says Ingrid Seward, the editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. “Diana’s death had an effect on how William perceives the media—he hates them without reservation.” Kay agrees. “His overriding wish is for privacy his mother never had,” he says.
Middleton, who met the prince in 2001 when both studied art history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has proven a compliant companion—photogenic, yet so discreet her voice is unknown. Kate hasn’t made a misstep, says the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade, even during the couple’s brief 2007 breakup. She passed the audition, says British historian Robert Lacey. “Her behaviour reflects her total commitment to him, which augurs very well for her future performance as a queen consort.”
Middleton’s boring normalcy makes her a stealthy pick. “There is so little to say about Kate,” laments Seward, clearly fearing dwindling circulation. “She has led a very ordinary, organized, happy life—nothing happens of any note; there are no dramas.” (Her family offers the tabloids hope: her brother James was photographed urinating in public while drunk. And there’s “Uncle Gary, the cokehead!”, as Seward refers to Gary Goldsmith, who spilled details to an undercover journalist about the couple’s holiday at his villa on Ibiza before snorting cocaine and offering to set the journalist up with a hooker.)
Middleton has also proven her mettle dealing with paparazzi who’ve put a bounty upward of $50,000 on bikini shots, of which there are plenty. She has mounted legal action against the media, winning an invasion of privacy suit against a photographer in February. “I think she quite enjoys the attention,” says Kay, “though I’m sure at times it’s distressing.” Middleton receives full palace protection, unprecedented for a non-royal, says Greenslade: “They’re not going to let happen to her what happened to Diana.”
The lithe five-foot-nine brunette captured the future king’s attention at a fashion show where she modelled sheer lingerie—and revealed a comfort with public display. Since then her clothing choices—Ascot-worthy Philip Treacy hats, tailored jackets, wrap dresses and boots—have been more demure, yet stylish enough to win her a place on best-dressed lists.
“She has ticked every box with one exception,” says Kay: “She’s not from the aristocracy [like Diana].” Yet William’s turning to the Leeds white pages rather than Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage for a future bride is seen as shrewd. “She’s more ‘of us’ and most people will identify with that,” says Kay. “She’s a nice middle-class girl.”
Make that upwardly climbing middle-class, as reflected in the media’s nickname for Kate and her sister Pippa: “the wisteria sisters.” The Middletons are brand-new money: Kate’s father, a former pilot, and mother, a former flight attendant, run a mail-order party supply company, Party Pieces, where Kate now works—and which recently launched a wedding accessories line. In March, Middleton shared memories of childhood parties on the company’s website, recalling an “amazing white rabbit marshmallow cake that Mummy made me when I was seven.” The banal puffery, declared “Kate’s first interview” by the press, was removed, presumably on the advice of lawyers who knew she couldn’t both demand privacy and promote the family business.
It was a rare show of public enterprise for Middleton, whose “work-shy” tendencies—and pampered, hermetic existence filled with shopping, yacht-bobbing and bleary-eyed exits from fashionable clubs—have stoked criticism. Modern princesses don’t have to be vestal virgins, but they are expected to show off a real-world career and a social conscience before donning the tiara. Prince Harry’s on-off girlfriend, Chelsy Davy, earned a law degree in between attending polo matches. Even Diana, who failed her O levels twice, wrangled toddlers in a kindergarten.
Of course, any woman William marries is destined to be measured against Diana’s mythology. “I don’t see the public warming to Kate in the way they warmed to Diana,” Kay says. “But that’s also because they don’t know her. She hasn’t committed herself to anything.”
Except, of course, to William, which Lacey sees as her trump card. “The strength of Kate to William is that she is prepared to be ‘Waity Katie.’ That’s one of the big differences between Kate and Diana; Diana would never have tolerated a situation like this.” He sees the bond between the two as one of “co-conspirators” and “co-protectors of the institution.” Having Kate as the steadfast girlfriend is convenient for William, says Kay, and not only because she screens him from scrutiny about romantic dalliances with other women, which have been rumoured: “He knows that once he marries Kate they’ll be the main event; they’ll eclipse Camilla [Parker Bowles] and his father.” Until then, the media can be kept at bay. “We see very little of them, except when they want us to see them.”
But that has resulted in a problematic Catch-22: “The monarchy survives on public interest and willingness to buy into the whole thing,” says Kay. “So you need to see them, to be interested in them.” Yet the royals’ demand for privacy has translated into declining interest, particularly among young people. Papers no longer employ royal correspondents and run far fewer stories than they did even 10 years ago. A wedding could tip the scales. “People accept the current state of affairs on the assumption we’re going to get a bloody good blow-up at the end of it,” says Lacey.
All that’s standing in its way is William’s tendency to procrastinate, says Kay: “I think he will marry her but he will delay it, just as he has used his decision to join the Royal Air Force to postpone the inevitable [royal duties]—the day he becomes a full-time ribbon cutter.” Still, Kay wonders whether something else is at play: “It’s been seven years; there must be some gnawing doubt that this girl is not ‘the one.’ ” Dumping Middleton isn’t an option, he says: “He hates criticism and he would get so much criticism.” Which means that like his father, he’s destined to marry for duty, knowing that royal weddings that end happily ever after exist only in fairy tales.