After years of play-it-safe style and shy public appearances, the Duchess of Cambridge has undergone a quiet but remarkable transformation. Kate Mansey reveals how she finally found her confidence – and her voice.
Few of those gathered at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden at Wisley, Surrey, earlier this month would have noticed, but as the Duchess of Cambridge brought her short speech to a close, she allowed herself a blink-and-you-miss-it smile.
Wearing a floaty Emilia Wickstead floral midi dress, Kate had spoken with confidence and touching humanity about how children benefit from outdoor activities and how young lives can be saved or ruined depending on the care they receive in those precious early years.
If she was feeling just a little bit pleased with herself that day, she had every right – for Kate’s speech to an audience of families to launch a new Back to Nature Garden had been a personal triumph.
It is not so long since the idea of addressing an audience filled her with dread, as her aides knew all too well. They would rarely announce Kate’s speeches in advance, giving her the chance to bow out gracefully should she find herself overcome with nerves. One early speech at the National Portrait Gallery had been memorably painful as an anxious Duchess tripped over the words, a crimson flush rising up her cheeks.
At Wisley, however, we saw a very different Kate. Here was a happy, confident senior member of the Royal Family, relaxed, humorous and entirely at ease with the role.
So much attention has been focused elsewhere in recent months – for example, on Meghan, Kate’s glamorous new sister-in-law; on rumours of a rift between William and Harry, and on the continuing difficulties facing Prince Andrew – that Kate’s quiet transformation has gone almost unnoticed.
Yet it seems that the Duchess has finally found her voice – and then some. Everything about her seems more confident, not least her appearance. There was a time when Kate was known for playing it safe. But gone is the ‘armour’ of knee-length tailored dresses and nude heels. These days she is seen in bold designer blouses, wide-legged trousers and floaty midi dresses.
Where once she brought a literal meaning to the clutch bag, grasping it with both hands like a comfort blanket in front of her stomach on engagements, now the Duchess is more likely to be seen with a chic mini-handbag at her side.
There are some clever stylists behind the fashion makeover, certainly, but those who know the Duchess well say she deserves credit for having the humility to listen. This is not a trait shared by all members of the Royal Family.
It’s all down to what her fashion advisers believe are the three Cs of style: condense, curate, create. This means aiming for ‘real life’ looks and having the confidence to match combinations of your best outfits from your wardrobe, rather than relying on a ‘star’ piece of haute couture. It demands some bravery from the Duchess, but the results are bringing out more sense of personality.
Kate’s make-up has been toned down too, while her new hairstyle incorporates her hair’s natural wave and honey-blonde highlights give a ‘winter sun’ warmth to her face, making the most of her summer tan while it lasts. No more time wasted on hair-straightening. And gone are the clipped, faux-aristo tones she once used for public speaking in favour of a more natural voice. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from recent criticism of the monarchy, it’s that the public have no time for royals posing as something they’re not.
The Queen, too, has played an important part in Kate’s transformation, by elevating her status within the Royal Family. On 29 April this year, the eighth anniversary of her marriage to Prince William, Her Majesty made the Duchess a Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. This is the highest honour available to a female member of the family and a very personal seal of approval. Kate now wears a special blue sash at state banquets as a reward for her work supporting the monarchy.
Such a public acknowledgement appeals to her ‘head girl’ outlook on life – and Kate was deeply honoured. From her earliest days competing on the school playing fields, she has been spurred on by a fierce determination to succeed. Healthy competition from her American sister-in-law has no doubt energised her still further, not least in her quiet bid to develop her own distinctive message. One well-connected source said: ‘Kate’s view is that Queen, country and family come first. She is very clear on her priorities and the values that guide how she lives and works. It’s about treating other people well to get the best out of them. She takes her role very seriously and just wants to do the best job she can.’
It is quite a contrast with the approach taken by Meghan, who seems to bring more than a touch of showbusiness to her duties. While the Sussex Instagram page features right-on quotes, the Cambridge updates are more in keeping with the Royal Family’s way of doing things – raising awareness of charities, for example, and updating followers on engagements. And while Meghan came under fire for taking no fewer than six private jets over the summer, Kate made sure her family boarded a commercial plane to visit the Queen in Balmoral.
While Meghan continues to seek out the glamour of her acting days and uses her position to pursue her international ambition to change the world and ‘break the internet’, Kate’s outlook is deliberately domestic – calculated to support both Britain and her own family. In her charitable work, the Duchess has picked organisations such as the Scouts that chime with her personal interests, including the natural world, sport, child development and photography.
Kate was at Wisley to visit the third version of the children’s garden she had co-created for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show and last year she convened a steering group of early years specialists to look at how to give disadvantaged children a brighter future.
Many of her meetings happen well away from the cameras, but those she has worked with say that Kate always comes prepared, having done her homework beforehand.
Kate’s next major engagement will come this autumn, when the Cambridges tour Pakistan – the first official visit from the British Royal Family since Prince Charles and Camilla visited the country in 2006.
Her aides say she now feels settled in her work and has gathered a team around her that she likes and respects. She is known to be a good boss. It is hard to imagine a more elitist institution than the Royal Family, yet well-placed sources say Kate doesn’t believe there should be a hierarchy within her team.
‘She wants everybody’s voice to be heard,’ said one source. ‘That means she takes the time to listen to ideas from the most junior members in her team. Afterwards they’ll say, “Wow, she knows my name. She asked me what I thought.” That’s just how she is. She is also very loyal to her staff. If you make a mistake she’ll realise you’re human and she’ll back you regardless.’
Palace gossip suggests sister-in-law Meghan isn’t quite so collegiate. Some courtiers, indeed, have been poleaxed by the Duchess of Sussex’s approach to royal life. No doubt this is partly down to the laudable, perhaps unprecedented energy that Meghan has brought to the role, but she has also ruffled feathers by hiring outside advisers whose views are at odds with those of her courtiers.
Kate appears to have cracked motherhood, too, another source of her new-found personal confidence. After the family’s summer break in Scotland, she looked fresher, carefree and more self-assured than ever as she walked hand-in-hand with her daughter Charlotte on the little Princess’s first day at school.
The arrival of Prince George, six, Princess Charlotte, four, and Prince Louis, one, means that Kate has more than accomplished the job of producing an ‘heir and a spare’, as they are often referred to.
Given that she’s only 37, there may even be a fourth at some stage – which would be one in the eye for Harry who said that he and Meghan would restrict themselves to ‘two children max’ to minimise the impact on the environment. How eyes must have rolled at Kensington Palace, Kate’s London home, at that little quip.
Always immaculately turned out, the mini Cambridges are well-mannered and, while it obviously helps to have nannies and aides, the Middletons’ no-nonsense middle-class values have doubtless played a role. Granny Carole, Kate’s mother, is very much a presence in the children’s lives. The family spends as much time as possible away from London in the (relative) normality of Anmer Hall, the Cambridges’ country residence on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk.
Prince George may be third in line to the throne but, when the Waitrose delivery van arrives, the little chap is dispatched to help the driver carry the bags into the house.
One thing rarely remarked upon is the unstinting support Kate gives her husband William, the second in line to the throne, whose personality isn’t especially suited to life in the spotlight. In fact, she has worked wonders. One particular moment springs to mind when the two were on tour in Canada in September 2016. They had arrived earlier that day with Prince George and Princess Charlotte in tow and William was decidedly uncomfortable, smiling awkwardly and clenching his jaw as 100,000-strong crowds applauded the royal couple. The Duchess leant over to talk to him, perhaps making a little joke or observation, and gently patted his knee. He noticeably relaxed.
Aides who know Kate and William well say they haven’t seen them looking this happy and relaxed in each other’s company for years. It was plain to see as they raced against each other in the King’s Cup yachting regatta off the Isle of Wight in August (William’s team came third and much banter ensued as Kate’s team finished last and received the booby prize of a giant wooden spoon).
The calm reassurance she has brought to their family life is what Kate now projects in public, too, and this is why her appearance at the Royal Horticultural Society was so widely praised. Kate has taken off the armour – the posh voice, safe shoes, clutch-bag shield and heavy eyeliner – and finally let her guard down. In so doing, she has proved that she is not afraid to be vulnerable, and has shown great strength as a result.
She’ll need it in the goldfish bowl of royal life, where criticism comes from every quarter, even the most unlikely.
On that day at Wisley, Kate bent down to speak to a boy who had his face painted like a tiger. ‘Are you a tiger?’ she asked little Dylan Corbin.
Looking bemused and proving that HRH status doesn’t matter a jot to a child, Dylan set her straight with the retort: ‘No, it’s facepaint.’
Just the sort of plain speaking that Kate admires, in fact.