“Kate’s a lovely girl,” gushed her future mother-in-law last week in London. “We’re very lucky.” Surprisingly, it is Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, 63, who has become the closest royal adviser and mentor as Kate Middleton, 29, navigates the treacherous route from commoner to future queen, a path Camilla Parker Bowles traversed mostly solo when she married Prince Charles in 2005. They are increasingly seen out and about enjoying each other’s company. For instance, Camilla and Charles recently took Middleton to see the Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It isn’t just Camilla who is chummy with Middleton, but also most of her family from her first marriage. In February, Camilla, with her daughter Laura Lopes, took Middleton and her younger sister Pippa to a high-profile lunch at the exclusive restaurant Koffman’s that marked the end of months of palatial purdah for William’s fiancée. The four women laughed, chatted and ate for more than 2½ hours, ignoring all around them straining to listen. At one point Camilla could be heard saying tantalizingly, “If I can give you one bit of advice…”
Royal expert Penny Junor, who knows Camilla, isn’t surprised by the close relationship: “They are two very normal people. Camilla is so easy to get on with, so un-stuck-up. And Kate is young and friendly.” And they both have a keen sense of humour, something that is essential as they deal with moody royal husbands. While Middleton joked around while flipping pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, Camilla delighted in being photographed carrying a reusable tote with the label “I’m an old bag from Deptford.”
And as the hullabaloo around the wedding increases, anything associated with the Parker Bowleses commands a level of serious attention that is a far cry from the years of vilification that haunted the family of Charles’s former mistress. Soon after that giggly lunch, Middleton chose Laura’s three-year-old daughter Eliza as a bridesmaid. (Middleton’s first big public outing with the royal family was Laura Parker Bowles’s 2006 marriage to Harry Lopes, a Calvin Klein model turned accountant.) Then the Sunday Times triumphantly reported that Middleton had decided to wear—or not, depending on your source—a Sarah Burton wedding gown after consulting with Camilla’s daughter-in-law Sara Buys, who wore Burton when she married Tom Parker Bowles. Even speculation about what fashion magazine will land Middleton for its cover has a Parker Bowles twist. While Vogue usually gets the honour, the rumour mill gives Harper’s Bazaar the inside edge for one reason: Buys is one of its editors.
The rise of the Parker Bowleses also marks the nadir of Diana’s Spencer relations. Though her brother dramatically promised at her funeral that her blood relatives would look after William and Harry, they’ve rarely seen them. The Spencers were shut out of the bridal party. A senior palace source tattled to the Daily Telegraph that “all the bridesmaids and page boys are children of people [Kate] has known for many years and counts as her own friends.” And high up on that list of allies are the Parker Bowleses.
Still, a close connection with the Windsors can be a double-edged sword.”If you have association with royalty, people want to know you, people want to employ you,” Junor cautions, using Tom Parker Bowles, a Daily Mail food columnist, as an example. “He has very swiftly done very well in journalism.” But while being related might be a career boost, you can’t be seen taking advantage or talking about the connection. “That way lies madness,” says Junor. “People always always trip up, or get tripped up.” The sad, mad tale of Sarah Ferguson is a prime example. So the Parker Bowleses are notably silent about their in-laws. And that has earned them royal loyalty in return. In 2008, even though Tom and his sister were brought up as Catholics—their father is Catholic, Camilla is Anglican—his daughter Lola was granted the rare honour of being christened at the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace. Discretion and friendship have their privileges—as Kate Middleton and her new BFFs know all too well.