Tears, blushes and blurting out ‘I’m speechless!’ – how it really feels to meet the Duchess, by the people who have.
‘Despite her fame and family, she shares the same worries as us’
The Mail on Sunday’s royal editor Emily Andrews has watched Kate blossom over the past ten years.
‘Are you sure? Do you really think it suits me? I was a little hesitant.’ That was the surprising but endearingly honest reply when I complimented our future Queen on her new hairstyle. It was more than five years ago, after she’d had Princess Charlotte, that Kate debuted a new ‘mum fringe’. The most photographed – and photogenic – woman on the planet had had her hair cut, but even she was a little unsure.
She patted her hair and smiled gratefully as I reassured her that, yes, the new ‘do’ did indeed look fabulous. It was an intriguing insight that, despite her position, wealth, fame and gorgeous family, she shared the same worries and doubts as the rest of us.
And that, I think, is what has cemented the Duchess of Cambridge’s unassailable position as the linchpin of the modern Royal Family. She allows just enough daylight into her life, gives just enough to make her seem ‘one of us’, yet she is not. Or rather, she was. Once. Now marriage to Prince William gives her both a worldwide platform to effect change on whatever issue she chooses (plus unlimited dresses and jewels) but also the unstinting glare of the media spotlight.
I first met Kate, or Catherine as she prefers to be called now, just after the Royal Wedding in 2011. Self-assured and extremely amusing in private (she has a wicked sense of humour), in public she initially seemed to struggle with nerves.
Call it what you will: stage-fright, weight of expectation, never wanting to put an LK Bennett-shod foot wrong. The former Miss Middleton did not want to mess up, and that gave her a somewhat hesitant public persona.
Public speaking did not come easily to her. She had voice coaching which resulted in strangled vowels (sorry, Kate). She was criticised for taking her time. Not taking on too much in terms of either royal engagements or patronages. Was she, some whispered, just a teensy bit boring?
I remember in 2014 watching her stumble over her words at the National Portrait Gallery, as she gave a rare speech. Later that year in Sydney, she made a touching and emotional speech at a children’s hospice, yet continually looked to her husband for reassurance.
When, I wondered, would she find her metaphorical feet? For many women, motherhood can be a challenging time. Exciting, nerve-racking, alienating, isolating in the extreme. But for Kate it seemed to be the making of her. I realise that may sound slightly sexist, but it’s not.
Being a successful mother, and providing three heirs to the British throne, galvanised her public confidence and has left her much more assured in what she wants to do and where she wants to go. Yes, in her eyes, her most important job is parent to George, Charlotte and Louis. But that success has given her much-needed confidence in her public role. Her interest in children’s early years began long before she was a mum. She was the brains behind the Royal Foundation’s mental health initiative Heads Together and now she wants to see a generational shift in how the nation brings up its children. Seeing her today, comfortable and confident in her role as a senior royal, I have no doubt that the Duchess is finally stepping into the spotlight.
‘She really listened’
Kyla Lethbridge, 15, from Hertfordshire met the Duchess in 2015 when Kate visited children’s mental health unit Acorn Lodge where Kyla was an inpatient.
At the time I was nine years old and had been at Acorn Lodge for about a month. I have ADHD and was suffering from various mental-health issues, including depression. A week before we met Kate, we did an exercise where we wrote letters to her. At the time she was pregnant with Princess Charlotte, so I remember writing that I wished her well with the baby.
A week later, our headteacher came into the unit and told us that we would be meeting Kate that day. We didn’t believe him at first – then about an hour later she walked in. Most people were silent, but I was the first to say something. I think I said, ‘I’m speechless!’ She talked to us for quite a while – or rather she listened to us. There were about ten of us in the class, with a mix of mental-health problems. She seemed to understand what we were going through.
At the time I was prone to violent outbursts, but there was something about her presence that was calming. IknewIhadtobeonmybest behaviour: she is royalty, after all. But that day, she didn’t seem like it – she was so down-to-earth.
After we’d chatted, she had a photo taken with everyone – I’ve still got mine (above). I was grateful that she’d taken time out of her busy life to spend it with us. It made me feel like there was hope. Knowing that there are good people who are willing to talk made me look on the bright side at a time when things were tough. I’ll always remember that.
‘She saw my daughter and said, “I love babies! I wish I could hold her”’
Morgan Cassius, 29, from London, met the Duchess last September at an event in Battersea Park that was part of Kate’s advocacy for early years support. Morgan was invited by Mush, an app for mothers, that she had started using shortly after her daughter was born in March last year.
I’d put my daughter Makena-Grace in the cutest outfit but, 20 minutes before the Duchess arrived, she’d made a mess of it and I’d had to change her. So at that point I wasn’t really worried about anything else going wrong!
When Kate walked towards us her reaction to Makena-Grace was so natural and instinctive. She saw her and smiled, then said to me, ‘I love babies! I wish I could hold her but obviously [because of Covid] I can’t.’
She took her sunglasses off and showed them to Makena-Grace while we were talking and, throughout our conversation, it felt as if she was genuinely interested in my experiences, and wanted to know the answers.
We talked about how I’d expected my maternity leave to be and what it had actually been like because of the pandemic. And also about how the one upside of it had been the extra time that my husband had been able to spend with me and our daughter. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘We mustn’t forget the dads. They need time and support, too.’
She’s really passionate about provision for new mothers and children. I never felt like I was talking to someone who had just put their name to something.
‘The first thing I noticed was her warm smile’
Jacqui Thompson, 54, from Nottingham, met the Duchess in November 2011 when she gave a speech at a fundraising dinner held by the Cambridges in aid of the National Memorial Arboretum. Her husband Gary – a senior aircraftman with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008 – is one of thousands of service people remembered there.
I could never have imagined I’d be giving a speech in front of the Duchess of Cambridge, but after I lost my husband I got a lot of help from the RAF Benevolent Fund, so I started fundraising for them, and, through them, for the National Memorial Arboretum.
It didn’t really hit me until I got there and I saw the Duke and Duchess walking towards us. She looked stunning in a silver one-shouldered dress – the gown was wonderful.
I was introduced to her and one of the first things I noticed was her warm smile. When she says, ‘It’s nice to meet you’, you really feel like it’s genuine. We talked about Gary and about the Arboretum. When she asked me how I felt about making a speech, I told her I was terrified. She touched me on the arm and said, ‘You’ll be wonderful.’
At dinner I was sitting opposite her but it was one of those large tables that you couldn’t speak across. I tried not to stare but every time I sneaked a look she always had a smile on her face.
I have a daughter the same age as her and having met her I feel very protective towards her. I see her at these events, meeting people and I just know what a difference she makes. I’m in awe of her.
‘It felt as though we shared a moment’
Rebecca Binstock, 49, from Hertfordshire, met Kate in October 2011, when she accompanied her father Lionel to a charity dinner at Clarence House. The event was meant to be hosted by Prince Charles, but at the last minute Kate stepped in as her father-in-law had to go to a funeral. It was her first solo engagement after marrying Prince William in April that year.
It wasn’t until we got to Clarence House and the doorman told us he had ‘a bit of news’ that we found out we’d be meeting Kate. It was a very intimate event – only around 30 people – so she made her way around the room, speaking to everyone before dinner.
She didn’t seem nervous, but not nearly as self-assured and relaxed as she now seems when you see her at public events. She kept blushing slightly, in the same way that Princess Diana used to, and I remember that striking me at the time. In person she’s so beautiful – she has an almost ethereal quality.
When she got to us, I complimented her on how stunning her wedding dress was. In July that year it had been put on display at Buckingham Palace, and she admitted she had been overwhelmed by the response to the gown. ‘I thought it would only be there for a day or so, but everyone wants to see it,’ she said.
My father can be a little eccentric. I can’t remember what he said to her, but she kept catching my eye when he was talking. It felt as if we had one of those shared moments that you get at a party when someone is trying to extricate themselves… fortunately one of her aides intervened and moved her along!
Interviews: Claire Coleman