'Something very special'

Their long courtship provoked ridicule. But William and Kate were friends first. They test drove marriage. And he gave her plenty of time to back out.

'Something very special'

David Davies/PA; Michael Dunlea/Daily Mail; UK Press/Keystone Press

There was nothing stately or demure about Kate Middleton that night in March 2002. Barely clothed, the lithe brunette sashayed down a dimly lit catwalk toward Prince William, who—sporting a wide grin and dark suit—appeared every bit an aristocratic frat boy. Having secured himself a front-row seat at the charity fashion show for $450, William now saw Kate, heretofore his friendly roommate, in a whole new way: stone-faced. Sexy. Hand on hip. Her straight hair twirled into tight ringlets and laced with yellow ribbons. And wearing nothing but a black band across her breasts, a bikini bottom, and—in the spirit of peekaboo flirting—a sheer, turquoise-trimmed wrap around her long torso. That’s when, it’s been said, William first saw in her his future queen consort.

That image, of course, couldn’t be more different from recent pictures of the newly engaged couple at St. James’s Palace on the day their forthcoming nuptials were announced in a 104-word press release by Clarence House, the Prince of Wales’s private residence. Arm in arm, William and Kate, both 28, stood and smiled elegantly for the requisite “photocall” to appease the press and the public’s increasingly voracious interest in their relationship status. Her royal blue dress—discreet yet celebratory—perfectly complemented the giant sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring that William gave her after proposing during a 10-day safari in Kenya in October. It had belonged to his late mother Diana.

The photogenic fiancés then cozied up on a plush sofa for their first interview as a couple. Mass fainting must have ensued among royal fanatics who’d been waiting eight?.?.?.?long?.?.?.?years for this one moment. The televised event revealed William and Kate to be endearing, regal, romantic and pragmatic. They showcased their skill at teasing: “I’m obviously really funny, and she loves that,” he said. “If you say so yourself,” she replied. They described the importance of friendship as the foundation of a good relationship. They expressed fondness for each other’s family—“I would have loved to have met her,” Kate said about William’s mother, “She was obviously an inspirational woman”—while signalling that they would be their own people—“It’s about carving your own future,” said William, “And making your own destiny.”

As for what took him so long to propose to Kate, the prince was matter-of-fact: “I wanted to give her a chance to back out if she needed to before it all got too much,” he admitted. “I’m trying to learn from lessons done in the past. I wanted to give her the best chance to settle in and see what happens on the other side.”

In this strangely sweet and rational way, the long courtship between William and Kate is unprecedented in royal history. While everyone on the outside was fretting about whether Kate, a commoner, would be scared off or snatched up if William did not hurry up and tie the knot, the couple was sorting out whether they could work—both behind closed doors, and on the world stage. Despite their exceptional circumstances and high profile today, William and Kate were able to meet and date in a rather ordinary way because of a deal the monarchy struck with the British press to leave the prince alone while he studied at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. That’s where he met Kate in 2001. They were both art history students, though he later switched to geography. They shared a flat throughout university with two others.

Kate admitted during their interview that she “turned bright red” when she met William. As a teenager she had plastered a photo of the prince on her dorm room wall at boarding school. “There wasn’t just one, there was, like, 10,” joked William during the sit-down. “He wishes,” Kate retorted, adding that she also had a crush on a Levi’s jeans model, too. “It was me and the Levi’s guy,” William acquiesced. He also admitted that Kate left an immediate impression on him: “I knew there was something very special about her I wanted to explore.”

Whatever physical attraction they may have felt for one another, initially their relationship was platonic. They studied and socialized together, and “shared a giggle,” as the prince put it. Kate is credited with encouraging William to stay in school after he struggled to acclimatize to first-year university life. The fashion show a year later may have marked an amorous turning point between them, but William continued dating a handful of blueblood blonds, while Kate had a boyfriend until late 2003.

And then, both free to try to pursue each other, William and Kate began spending more and more time together alone—even sharing weekends at the Queen’s Balmoral estate. “When I was trying to impress Kate I’d try to cook these amazing, fancy dinners,” said the prince during their interview, but “I would burn something, something would over-spill, something would catch on fire.” Inevitably, he’d feel “angst and anger,” added Kate, “and I’d have to wander in and save something.”

In March 2004, the couple was first photographed in public during a ski trip in Klosters. A “close friend” confirmed them as “an item,” while Clarence House refused to discuss the matter, saying doing so “wouldn’t be fair on him or them.” (The “or them” bit confirmed their item-ness, too.) Their courtship continued under tight wraps until the next year, when William was on another ski trip, this time with his father and brother Harry. Rumours had been flying that William would take Kate to the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. When a photographer asked if another royal wedding might be imminent, William was blunt: “No.” He didn’t take Kate to his dad’s nuptials either.

Whatever insulation university had afforded Kate and William was swiftly revoked after the couple graduated in June 2005. By the time another wedding occurred the next spring (the duchess of Cornwall’s daughter was getting hitched), Kate made her first family appearance—and fit right in with her feathered hat. She mingled at William’s polo practices that summer. And in December, she and her parents attended the high-profile occasion of William’s “passing out” from Sandhurst, the British military academy, alongside the royal family. The following February and March, the couple were seen at rugby games and horse races, and all appeared lovey. The now-defunct British retailer Woolworths had even begun production of souvenir plates and mugs in anticipation of the “royal marriage of William and Kate.”

But then, in April 2007, news broke that Kate and William had split during a ski trip at a Swiss resort. The speculation prevailed that Kate had had enough of the ever-intensifying public scrutiny. On her 25th birthday that January, a swarm of paparazzi had ambushed Kate as she left her home and rushed toward her car. It was a scene uncomfortably reminiscent of how young Diana had been stalked after she was first linked to Charles. William and his father pleaded with newspapers to leave her alone, but when the Daily Mirror insisted on running photos of her, Kate herself filed an official complaint. She received a formal apology.

By August, royal watchers were relieved to find out that Kate and William were back together: the prince spoiled her with an exotic Seychelles vacation—he’d booked the entire resort for them alone, and they checked in under the names Martin and Rosemary. Clearly, the breakup had been William’s decision. During their post-engagement interview, he said obliquely that their split occurred because they were “both very young” and “being different characters” and that “a bit of space” actually seemed to have “worked out for the better.” Kate admitted that she was unhappy about the separation, but felt their relationship was strengthened when they reunited.

Meanwhile, another theory about Kate and William was taking root: that she was tired of bracing for a proposal that wasn’t coming fast enough. The insensitive nickname “Waity Katie” was bestowed upon her. The sound of a ticking matrimonial clock was made more pronounced by an unfortunate statement William had made that 28 would be a good age to get married. That good age had come and nearly gone. Sure, she was now a fixture at royal events. Yes, she had been granted a royal bodyguard. And it’s true that she proudly accompanied William when he received his wings, became a royal knight of the Order of the Garter, and graduated from intensive aviation training. Friends even said the couple was “road-testing” wedlock by living together at a remote farmhouse. But what of the ring?

During their chatty interview, William assured the public that their engagement and future marriage was never in doubt. “Kate wasn’t in the dark at all,” he said. “We’ve been planning this for at least a year, if not longer. We came to this decision together. I just chose when and how to do it.”
And then, as if mocking impatient skeptics, the prince added: “Obviously being a real romantic, I did it extremely well.” Kate smiled.