Why Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, had to step up

Far from scaling down her duties at 74, CAMILLA, DUCHESS OF CORNWALL is busier – and happier – than ever. Kate Mansey discovers how the causes close to her heart have made her one of the Royal Family’s greatest assets

Portrait: Hugo Burnand

There is a special place in hell reserved for women who don’t help other women,’ Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, once said.

No doubt the Duchess of Cornwall would concur. Later this week, she will host a mentoring session for Women in Journalism at Dumfries House, the Georgian estate saved for the nation by the Prince of Wales.

On the face of it, opening the door to journalists may not seem like a good idea, particularly as bombs are dropping all around the Royal Family with lurid accusations from the Sussexes and sex-abuse claims against the Duke of York. And Camilla certainly won’t have forgotten what it feels like to be the subject of wounding media headlines. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that she was painted as the two-dimensional ‘other woman’ – and pelted with bread rolls at Sainsbury’s.

But her success in recent years is almost entirely down to her own indomitable spirit. Whether it’s greeting ballet dancer Darcey Bussell like an old friend (‘Darcey! How lovely to see you again’), enjoying a very large glass of red wine while entertaining Joachim Sauer (aka Mr Angela Merkel) at the G7 leaders’ reception, or letting slip that she ‘can’t wait to get rid of this face mask’ on a recent visit to Wales – her duties at The Firm are all carried out with refreshing good humour and candour.

If any resentment towards the press lingers, Camilla shows little sign of it. Except perhaps on one occasion when she aimed a gun at a male reporter.

Let me explain. Camilla had specifically asked to visit the set of TV series The Killing – ‘I’m an addict!’ – during a 2012 trip to Denmark. She picked up a gun lying around in the costume department, mischievously pointed it at said hapless hack and announced with a cackle: ‘It was me all along!’ Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, standing alongside Camilla, leaned over to the reporter and added: ‘You’ll have to write something nice now!’

Camilla, who is president of Maggie’s, visits its Glasgow and Cardiff cancer care centres. Getty Images

Today, murder threats aside, it’s very easy to write ‘something nice’. Since her wedding to Prince Charles in 2005, Camilla has been transformed in the eyes of the British public. It now seems plausible – likely, even – that she will be accepted as ‘Queen Consort’ when Prince Charles ascends the throne.

While most 74-year-olds are enjoying their retirement and spending time with grandchildren, Camilla’s workload is increasing. In June this year, she stepped in to help the Queen cut a cake with a ceremonial sword at the G7 summit in Cornwall. The symbolism was not lost on palace aides, who expect to see the Duchess, along with the Prince of Wales, stepping up to fulfil more of the 95-year-old Queen’s head of state duties.

Camilla isn’t especially fond of travelling but, nevertheless, next year will see her joining Prince Charles on international visits to mark the Platinum Jubilee, celebrating the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. Palace sources say Camilla is keener than ever to define the role she plays and that women will be ‘front and centre’ of her focus. In short, she has found her voice and wants to encourage more women to have their voices heard, too.

If you look down the list of the 90-plus charities she supports, you will see that many are run by women and her involvement goes far beyond the traditional ‘ribbon cutting’. Take, for example, her visits to rape crisis centres and her work with domestic abuse survivors. She has also chosen to champion causes that help women to keep going when life becomes unbearable, whether that’s due to cancer, osteoporosis (which her own mother suffered from) or just the sheer ‘overwhelm’ of modern life.

Camilla, who is president of Maggie’s, visits its Glasgow and Cardiff cancer care centres. Getty Images

A cause close to Camilla’s heart is Maggie’s – a charity founded by cancer patient Maggie Keswick Jencks. She believed there must be a better way to deliver care beyond the sterile environment of a consultant’s office. Maggie died in 1995 but her cancer nurse, Laura Lee, carried out her vision, opening the first Maggie’s centre, in Edinburgh, the following year. Today there are 27 UK centres (plus three international ones), most of which have received a visit from Camilla.

‘It’s about putting the kettle on and creating a safe space,’ says Laura, who was awarded a damehood by the Queen in 2019. ‘I think that’s what inspired the Duchess when she first visited. She doesn’t see what we do as soft and fluffy, even if there is a cup of tea and a cake on offer. Her involvement isn’t just turning up to an event once a year – it’s questioning, thought-provoking, looking at how we can grow. During lockdown, the Duchess called me personally and asked, “How are cancer patients coping?” She was genuinely concerned.’

Much of Camilla’s work goes under the radar, with the Duchess looking, listening and learning before jumping in. Her involvement with Women in Journalism, for example, began three years ago when she attended a drinks reception at The Ned hotel in London.

Speaking exclusively to YOU magazine, she says: ‘In 2018, I was delighted to attend a reception for Women in Journalism, where I spoke to many extremely impressive and interesting women. They told me about their experiences: their achievements, their hopes and the struggles they had encountered as they sought to build careers that would do justice to a free and robust press.

‘We know that journalism is not an easy path – especially for women – and that, in general, stories about women are less likely to be told. Women in Journalism provides a powerful forum for vital mentoring and networking, enabling its members to ensure that female voices are both expressed and heard.’ Perhaps Camilla feels she might have fared better had more women been in powerful positions in the media 30 years ago.

Women in Journalism was founded in 1992 by legendary editor Eve Pollard. At the time, only two of the country’s 19 national newspapers were edited by women – one of which was the Sunday Express, with Eve at the helm. The need for such an organisation was clear. Not only were women badly under-represented when she started out in journalism, but there was a yawning gulf between what women and men earned for the same work. ‘I found out the men were getting paid much more than my salary,’ says Eve. ‘So I asked my editor for a raise. He said: “But Eve, you have a husband!” It was a flat no.’

Eve, for all her many charms, is not one to be underestimated. When she inevitably did reach the top – becoming the second female editor in Fleet Street for more than 80 years when she edited first the Sunday Mirror and then the aforementioned Sunday Express – she was determined not to forgive and forget.

Rather than becoming a ‘Queen Bee’ – a term to describe a woman who climbs to the top only to then kick the ladder away from others – Eve installed an escalator. It didn’t make her very popular in social circles, however, where her role as a working mother was met with bafflement.

Camilla at a Buckingham Palace reception with legendary newspaper editor Eve Pollard. Photograph: Getty Images

‘At dinner parties in the 1980s, both men and women would say: “But Eve, how can you go out to work and leave your daughter?” I’d say, “She’s being well cared for!”’ Eve, who also edited YOU magazine, says, ‘I think back to those comments and say to myself, “Well, she turned out all right.”’ That’s rather an understatement. Her daughter is Strictly Come Dancing and BBC Radio 2 presenter Claudia Winkleman – one of the most successful stars on television.

Over the years, this mission to raise women up in the workforce has won Eve many accolades and the Women in Journalism mentoring scheme has helped more than 600 women. Palace aides say the subject of mentoring is of particular interest to the Duchess. How women can help other women in such a life-altering way by giving nothing more than their time.

For me, it’s very personal. I was lucky enough to have Eve Pollard as my mentor when I had just accepted a big job despite having a three-month-old baby. A year in, I was exhausted when Eve scooped me up and took me out to lunch. She leaned across the table and said: ‘Keep going. Just keep going. It does get easier.’ I may have been up half the night breastfeeding and have Weetabix smeared on my work dresses but I would think: ‘Right. Just keep going.’ Six years on, Eve and I still see each other regularly. ‘Mentoring is wonderful,’ she told me last week. ‘It’s like watching the garden grow.’ Of course, the green-fingered Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall would know all about that.

So if there truly are places in hell reserved for the Queen Bees of this world, let’s hope there are VIP suites in heaven with ‘Pollard’ and maybe even ‘Queen Camilla’ written
on the doors.