Kate Middleton: An uncommon princess

Her rise from middle-class roots to the royal family
An uncommon princess
Stephen Gibson/Marie Nirme/Zuma/Keystone Press; Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Catherine Elizabeth Middleton was born on Jan. 9, 1982, at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, England, a large commercial town just west of London on the River Thames. Three years earlier, Michael and Carole Middleton, her parents, had purchased a semi-detached home in the nearby village of Bradfield Southend for the middling sum of $165,000. It was here that Kate spent the early part of her rather unremarkable childhood. Yet despite these bland beginnings, she would go on, at age 28, to become the first commoner betrothed to a future British king since Anne Hyde did so in the tumultuous mid-17th century. Unlike Anne, however, Kate, with her thick brown tresses and steely good looks, would first have to endure the longest job interview in history and the sobriquet “Waity Katie.”

Hers was a decidedly middle-class family: Michael and Carole first met while working as flight attendants (he later became a pilot), and Carole’s ancestry in particular is rooted in the coal-mining clans of Hetton-le-Hole, south of Newcastle. Yet Michael’s Middleton progenitors were entrepreneurs whose lucrative wool and cloth concerns date back to 18th century Yorkshire. So it was not a surprise that, in 1987, shortly after the birth of their third child, James, Carole would launch a Middleton venture—Party Pieces, selling ready-made loot bags and other children’s party paraphernalia. It was here, in the mail-order catalogues Carole put together, that Kate received her first public exposure, in photographs modelling her parents’ merchandise.

The business proved successful enough that the Middletons were soon sending their three children to expensive Marlborough College, in Wiltshire (Kate was reportedly bullied at an earlier private school). And they moved into a new home in Berkshire, one of the so-called “home counties” bordering London. The Middletons’ $1.6-million homestead, in the village of Bucklebury, sits on expansive grounds complete with horses and a tennis court, and Party Pieces is now a multi-million-pound party-supply company run out of an old farm with packers stuffing the loot bags in a converted cow shed.

Such upward mobility might have instilled immodest aspirations in Kate—she and younger sibling Pippa did secure nouveau riche reputations as the “wisteria sisters” (coincidentally, decorative and “climbing” wisteria grows up the outside walls of the Middleton home). But in fact, Kate’s hopes for the future stayed down to earth. She once told friends all she wanted from life was to “get married, have a nice house, a couple of dogs and go skiing every year”—and neighbours have become famous among British journalists for their loyalty to the family and unwillingness to dish.

Kate met William in 2001, while the pair were studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Kate, five months older, was already romantically involved, as was William. Both students of art history, they remained friends for a year or so, and their outside romantic entanglements soon permitted them to move in together with two other friends as roommates (a British media agreement that William be left alone while at university didn’t hurt). When Kate modelled lingerie on stage during a charity fashion show—an athletic young woman, her appearance was rather more wholesome than steamy—William sat obviously riveted in a $450 front-row seat. They were soon an item.

She appears to have a soothing influence on her man. When William, unhappy as an art history student, contemplated leaving St. Andrews, Kate talked him out of it, suggesting he merely change his field of study to geography. He did just that (the pair both graduated from the university in 2005). William and Kate were first photographed together in 2004 skiing at Klosters, a Swiss mountain resort, amounting to a sort of postcard announcement of their relationship. That snapshot triggered a maelstrom of media interest and handed the paparazzi enormous incentive to hound William’s potential consort. The Times reported that a single picture of a bikini-clad Kate might fetch upwards of $50,000.

At the same time, Elizabeth II reportedly expressed concern that Kate should secure a job—something to ground her through the chaos of royal celebrity. She began working at Jigsaw, a clothing chain, as an accessories buyer, but left in the fall of 2008, first to pursue a career in photography, and later to take up work at the family firm.

That first job as a buyer helped cement her reputation as a fashion icon, albeit of a tamer variety than Diana. In 2006, attending the Cheltenham races, she wore tailored tweed complemented by a controversial mink hat. She appeared to be tempering the audacity of Diana with the sobriety of Camilla, duchess of Cornwall. Sometimes, her inner Diana won out. Watching William graduate from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in early 2006, Kate whispered to friends: “I love the uniform. It’s so, so sexy.” (A lip reader hired for the occasion by the ITN television news outlet to watch Kate caught the remark.)

Her attendance at Sandhurst, along with the Queen, Charles and Camilla, was a sure sign Kate was entering the royal fold. Yet for some there was not enough Princess Di verve, prompting complaints that Kate is dull—that she did little more than ride horses in Berkshire, shoot in Scotland, and go to exclusive London nightclubs.

In 2007, on her 25th birthday, the paparazzi hordes arrived at the door of the $1.5-million flat her parents had purchased for her in London’s fashionable Chelsea district. Worries surrounding her safety—and very likely the memories of Diana’s history with the press—reportedly persuaded Prince Charles to pay for Kate’s protection (she was not entitled to police guards until William formalized the relationship). William, meanwhile, pleaded with media to spare her. Later that year, Kate, who sometime during 2006 hired Gerrard Tyrrell, a lawyer whose other celebrity clients include Kate Moss, filed a harassment complaint against the Daily Mail. It all lent her an air of confidence in the face of bedlam—she was never once rattled. Told by a friend how lucky she was to be in a relationship with William, she countered he was lucky to have her.

The media blitz and the couple’s response to it unfolded against a backdrop of anticipation they would quickly become engaged. Instead, they broke up. “I wasn’t very happy about it, but it made me a stronger person,” Kate told the world earlier this week, during her first television interview alongside William. The split, in the spring of 2007, unleashed a torrent of nastiness from friends of the prince, much of it describing Kate as grasping—a circumstance that led some to wonder whether the breakup was not fabricated to weed out disloyal hangers-on. Their reunion soon took place on an island in the Seychelles, where they agreed they would take the notion of marriage seriously.

It would not, however, be a swift process. Despite the new commitment, still Kate appeared in a limbo of endless courting. The press called her “Waity Katie.” The Daily Mail wrote that “waiting for the prince to put a ring on her finger seems to be the primary objective in her life.” And now they are betrothed. After all this time she has proven her mettle. This—the long courtships, the scrutiny—is now the new normal in royal marriage. The house of Windsor has learned from Diana that the unprepared will flame out, and they have hit upon how to properly groom a new recruit. Kate Middleton, cool and composed, has passed the test.