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Prince William had been secretly dating Kate Middleton for almost a year when the paparazzi caught the young couple on the ski slopes of Klosters, Switzerland, in April 2004. From that moment, Kate’s private life ended and she was in the crosshairs of the British press, the first publicly acknowledged girlfriend of the future king.
It’s been 17 years since those photos were taken; 10 years since Kate Middleton walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey to marry her prince and officially become the Duchess of Cambridge, a member of the royal family.
But those photos marked the beginning of six years of hell for Kate and her family. Some paparazzi photos of Kate while she was dating William eerily recall images taken of Diana before her engagement to Prince Charles was announced.
I reviewed tens of thousands of stories from the UK outlets that make up the official royal press system, known as the “royal rota”: the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, and the Sun — all tabloids — and the Evening Standard, the Telegraph, and the Times from April 1, 2004, when the Sun broke the news of Kate and William’s relationship, to April 29, 2021, their 10th wedding anniversary. Specifically, I looked to see if there was a change in how the press covered Kate after she was officially engaged to William. There was.
Two major shifts happened after those initial nightmare years. First, Kate got married, and the coverage around her toned down, the criticism now focusing on her hair and wardrobe instead of her middle-class roots, or her and William’s perceived laziness and love of expensive vacations.
Second, Meghan Markle married Prince Harry. And in the eyes of the press, Kate could suddenly do no wrong.
The news outlets and the Palace didn’t return requests for comment.
How the British press — especially in this case the “red top” tabloids — cover the royals and engage with the Palace media operation matters. Every week, millions read their coverage of the House of Windsor, the historically colonialist head of 54 nations around the world and an institution that is grappling to stay relevant in a changing society. By what these outlets choose to cover and how, they are able to put forth and perpetuate narratives about specific members of the royal family — especially the women who marry into it — agitating race, class, and gender divides that can hyperpolarize readers.
Even though Kate’s parents had built a multimillion-dollar business, the fact that Kate’s mother had been an airline flight attendant and her father a pilot — the working class — was the subject of relentless classist jabs. They scoured the Middleton family tree for problematic members (and landed on Kate’s uncle Gary Goldsmith, who supplied a constant stream of tabloid fodder).
Her phone was hacked 155 times by one tabloid reporter at the now-defunct News of the World. She and her sister, Pippa, were nicknamed the “Wisteria Sisters'' due to their perceived social climbing. Paparazzi took photos up her skirt when she entered and exited vehicles. Endless stories citing anonymous sources were published about how members of the royal family, including the Queen, disapproved of her relationship with William.
This is the harassment that was transferred to Meghan, even after she became the Duchess of Sussex.
Kate personally hasn’t received very much serious negative press in the past decade since she became the Duchess of Cambridge in 2011, according to my analysis, and when she has, the Palace has mostly been quick to either comment or threaten legal action. (Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron leaped to her defense after a brutal 2013 essay.)
The review showed that only rarely is Kate the sole target of serious negative press — tabloid and commentator criticism of the Cambridges is usually directed at her and William.
Indeed, the vast majority of coverage of Kate specifically is neutral rather than overly positive or negative — straightforward reporting of royal engagements she carries out, what she wears. The bulk of her negative coverage concerns the superficial: Her hair. Her hems. Her eyeliner. Her fashion choices. Even her expressions.
Even when topless photos of her sunbathing were published, the near-universal reaction in the press was outrage at the invasion of privacy, not shaming.
After Harry and Meghan wed and became Duke and Duchess of Sussex on May 19, 2018, negative stories about Kate became rare, and when they did appear, they were relatively benign.
According to an analysis in the Guardian, from May 2018 to January 2020, when Harry and Meghan announced they were “stepping back” from life as senior members of the royal family, Meghan was the subject of more than five times as many negative stories as Kate in the UK press (43% versus 8%). My review indicated that many of these negative stories about Meghan could also be counted as positive stories about Kate, as she was often cited as an example of what a royal duchess should be.
And it’s true that Kate has barely put a foot wrong in her 10 years as a duchess, while in her short tenure as a working royal, Meghan made some legitimate mistakes, such as reportedly weighing in on Ireland’s abortion referendum in 2018.
In this review, I found that in the three years since Harry and Meghan’s wedding, a prominent, positive narrative shining a spotlight on the Duchess of Cambridge has emerged in the UK media: Kate the perfect working royal. Kate the supermom. Kate the fashion icon. Kate the peacemaker. Kate the “saviour of the monarchy.”
Here are 44 examples — selected for their representativeness of these publications’ broader output — tracking how coverage of Kate changed from before she became a duchess and then again after Harry and Meghan’s wedding.
April 1, 2004:
"Privately, William has been proudly showing off Kate with her curvaceous figure and long, dark hair to friends for some months. ...
"She was the lissom figure who strutted the catwalk under his mesmerized gaze at a student charity fashion show soon after they both arrived at their Scottish university. He paid £200 for a front row seat, and his youthful appreciation was clear as Kate pirouetted in a see-through lace dress over a black bra and matching knickers." —Daily Mail, Apr. 1, 2004
Aug. 5, 2005:
"Now there is speculation that [William and Kate's] meeting at St Andrews may not have been entirely down to chance.
"The suggestion is that the attractive brunette's 'yummy mummy' mother Carole pushed her in the direction of the Scottish university with hopes of a royal encounter. Yesterday society journalist Matthew Bell claimed Kate may have been persuaded to forego her first choice of university in favor of an offer from St Andrews after learning William was heading that way." —Daily Mail, Aug. 5, 2005
Oct. 6, 2005:
"With her chestnut mane and leggy good looks, Prince William's girlfriend Kate Middleton is emerging as a safe bet to win his hand in marriage. But the race hasn't been won yet and there's a host of blue-blood beauties of impeccable breeding eager to ride off with Wills. At a recent party, prime pedigree Isabella Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe captivated Wills to such a degree that poor Kate was all but ignored." —Mirror, Oct. 6, 2005
Dec. 26, 2006:
"Revealed for the first time, the extraordinary, dirt-poor family past of the girl who would be Queen. ... Though polished, sophisticated and in every way fit to accept Prince William's proposal of marriage, Kate brings to her nuptials a vital lineage which will qualify her to be truly entitled the People's Princess." —Daily Mail, Dec. 22, 2006
Jan. 9, 2007:
"With rumors of an imminent engagement to Prince William reaching fever pitch, she was greeted by more than fifty paparazzi and television cameramen who followed her to her car under the watch of policemen. The scenes prompted the prince to express his concern at the on-going 'harassment' of his girlfriend, saying he wanted 'more than anything' for her to be left alone." —Daily Mail, Jan. 9, 2007
April 16, 2007:
"In the rarefied world of the House of Windsor, it was an unforgivable faux pas by a woman who might become mother of the future Queen. Carole Middleton, standing proudly alongside her daughter Kate, was chewing gum. Non stop. ...
"For Mrs Middleton, opening the newspapers the next day was a rude initiation into the media-driven world that her daughter had graced without putting a foot wrong in five years. The photographs merely confirmed the prejudice among some royal observers, mainly in the tabloid press but also among some of William's acquaintances, that Mrs Middleton was 'too common' for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh." —Telegraph, April 17, 2017
April 17, 2007:
"[Kate's] mother, a former air stewardess, who not only, we are told, addressed the Queen with the phrase 'Pleased to meet you' rather than the accepted 'How do you do?', but was also known to have let slip a word toffs consider quite the ghastliest blasphemy: toilet. ...
May 26, 2007:
"Since splitting from Prince William, Kate Middleton seems to have had very little trouble in keeping either her chin, or her profile, high. ... According to one well placed source: 'Kate and Pippa have already been dubbed The Wisteria Sisters - they're highly decorative, terribly fragrant and have a ferocious ability to [social] climb.'" — Daily Mail, May 26, 2007
July 11, 2007:
"A parliamentary committee said the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) should have intervened sooner to protect Miss Middleton. ... 'We conclude that editors, in failing to take care not to use pictures of Kate Middleton obtained through harassment and persistent pursuit, breached ... the code of practice.'" —Telegraph, July 11, 2007
May 31, 2008:
"‘The Queen has had conversations with a few trusted friends about how to tackle what is being called the Kate problem,’ a senior aide told The Mail on Sunday.
"‘On the few occasions the Queen has met Kate, she has thought she is a nice enough girl. But the Queen has admitted she has no idea what Kate actually does.
"‘Privately she is very concerned about what the repercussions could be if Kate is not in a stable job as and when William is ready to propose.'" —Mail on Sunday, May 31, 2008
Sept. 18, 2008:
"With her sequined halter-neck top, bright yellow hot pants, pink leg-warmers and matching bracelet, there was certainly no missing Prince William's 26-year-old girlfriend. ... Friends are wondering if Wills is ever going to get round to asking Kate to marry him. Looks like he needs to get his skates on too and pop the question. ... He'd be mad not to." —Mirror, Sept. 18, 2008
Dec. 20, 2008:
"Kate was dressed to the nines in an electric blue dress. But she showed more than she planned as she climbed into a waiting cab - and flashed her underwear at photographers." —Daily Mail, Dec. 20, 2008
July 19, 2009:
"Prince William was last night forced to cut ties with Kate Middleton's uncle after he was filmed giving hard drugs to an undercover reporter. He was left with little option but to disown Gary Goldsmith — only brother of Kate's mother Carole — after he also made lurid boasts about his relationship with the Royal Family.
"Goldsmith, 44, bragged about a holiday William and his niece had taken at his £5million villa on Ibiza before 'chopping' up lines of cocaine and offering to set the journalist up with high-class prostitutes." —Daily Mail, July 19, 2009
June 27, 2010:
"Centuries of foreign blood have made the royal family short, dark, twitchy and petulant — yet somehow still bad at fashion and chitchat. Diana brought a beautiful, blonde Britishness; Kate will bring some much-needed quiet — the latest in a new breed of vanilla royal consorts. ...
"To this day, she’s a girl with little or no concern about her career. For many, the fact that she apparently does nothing all day long apart from comb her hair and think about placements and tablewear is her greatest shortcoming. But like it or not, she was a professional wife from the start." —Sunday Times, June 27, 2010
"The Prince of Wales is delighted to announce the engagement of Prince William to Miss Catherine Middleton. ... [They] became engaged in October during a private holiday in Kenya. Prince William has informed The Queen and other close members of his family. Prince William has also sought the permission of Miss Middleton’s father." —Clarence House official statement, Nov. 16, 2010
Nov. 21, 2010:
"Prince William is taking steps to protect Kate Middleton from the pressures that led to tragedy in the life of his mother. Aides say William has abandoned many of the past conventions of royal courtship and marriage to ensure his future wife does not feel undermined. ...
"The couple will jointly decide the best way to introduce her to royal duties. Like the Queen and Prince Philip in the early days of their marriage, their priority is to create a family home together out of the limelight." —the Times, Nov. 21, 2010
April 26, 2011:
“'Kate’s not necessarily the most dynamic girl on earth, but she’s been hemmed in by not wanting to do anything wrong,' says the friend. 'She is bright, artistic and a hard worker. If she hadn’t met William, she would have had a conventional career, but she’s been driven by a desire not to do anything that’s tricky for him. She never wanted to do anything that could harm William.'
"Or harm her own prospects of getting her hands on the ultimate prize, some might add. The girl who at school was said to 'never do anything wrong' is possessed of a steely inner resolve. 'Kate isn’t interested in [social] position,' insists another royal insider, 'her attitude is, William’s my man. There’s this incredible possessiveness and she was damned if she would lose him to another girl who loved him less than she does.” —Telegraph, April 26, 2011
"On Friday 29 April 2011 at 11 o'clock HRH Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton were married in Westminster Abbey... Upon the occasion of their marriage, The Queen conferred titles upon Prince William and Miss Middleton. Henceforth they would be known as The Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus, and Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge." —Buckingham Palace, April 29, 2011
May 4, 2011:
"While a royal bride might feel it anticlimactic to swap the pomp of her wedding day for a summer ball on a blustery island off the coast of Wales, the Duchess appears to embrace the prospect of her rural retreat.
"In part, this is because she has been wonderfully grounded by her upbringing, latterly spent in the leafy Berkshire enclave of Bucklebury. But more pertinent still, it is because what she really wanted all those years was to become, not a princess, but a wife. And from what we have seen so far of this English rose-made-royal, it is a role she will perform to perfection." —Telegraph, May 4, 2011
May 2, 2012:
"Every time she bobbed down to talk to one of the youngsters, her face was completely obliterated by a cascade of dark curls. She would flick it out of the way, fondle and fiddle with it and I lost count of the number of times she had to tuck it behind her ear. At one point she looked like Cousin It from the Addams Family — all hair, no person. It was so distracting." —Daily Mail, May 2, 2012
Jan. 11, 2013:
"Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. But as the Duchess of Cambridge’s first official portrait was unveiled to the public yesterday, art critics were, unusually, largely united in their condemnation. ...
"Kate, on her first official outing for almost a month, was far more polite. ‘It’s just amazing. Absolutely brilliant,’ she told the artist, Paul Emsley, when she met him at the National Portrait Gallery, where the picture will hang." —Daily Mail, Jan. 11, 2013
Feb. 12, 2013:
"British newspapers are unlikely to print it but other magazines around the world are expected to follow [the Italian magazine's] example. That will trigger a new row between the Palace and overseas media over the right to privacy.
"A Palace spokesman said last night: 'We are disappointed that photographs of the Duke and Duchess on a private holiday look likely to be published overseas. This is a clear breach of the couple’s right to privacy.'" —Express, Feb. 12, 2013
July 26, 2013:
"Much has been made of the ‘Middle-Class Monarchy’, and this is where Kate’s power lies. She was right there, rescuing Prince William right back, as she will continue to do for the duration of the marriage, or the monarchy – whichever lasts longer (my money’s on the marriage). She has truly saved Prince William, and he knows it." —Telegraph, July 26, 2013
March 8, 2014:
"The couple have flown to an exclusive resort on the Maldives, leaving their baby with Carole and Michael Middleton — plus his own security detail — at their Berkshire mansion. But the decision sparked a storm on social networking sites Mumsnet and Twitter.
"Critics said they were wrong to leave the young Prince for so long, while others were concerned about the extravagance of their stay only a few weeks after the whole family, including George, went to Mustique." —Daily Mail, March 8, 2014
March 22, 2014:
"Claudia Joseph, author of Kate: The Making of a Princess, warns: 'As Kate and William sink deeper into a luxury cocoon, their brand managers will have to fight harder to convince us they really do connect to the people. The common touch is subtle — and it looks like they might just have lost their grip.'" —the Sun, March 22, 2014
May 27, 2014:
"I couldn’t help but think that surely Kate could have tried a little harder to keep her modesty under wraps? As a relatively seasoned member of the Royal Family, isn’t it time she made more of an effort to cover up?
"After all, every woman — especially a public figure who is constantly photographed — knows that a lightweight fly-away dress and the merest threat of a breeze hardly marks the right occasion to wear the skimpiest knickers in your drawer." —Daily Mail, May 27, 2014
July 28, 2015:
"The Duchess of Cambridge was happy to let a few of her glossy chestnut locks go grey while she was pregnant with Princess Charlotte, but hairdresser to the stars Nicky Clarke has urged the future queen never to do so again. ... ‘Kate needs to get rid of her grey hair — it’s not a good look,’ he tells me at a party at his Mayfair salon." —Daily Mail, July 28, 2015
Nov. 15, 2015:
"Becoming a mother has made Kate so impassioned about campaigning for children that she has decided to give more speeches to get her message across, even though she finds public speaking daunting. Until now, as a new member of the royal family she has found it difficult to come to the fore, sources said.
"But the 33-year-old has been honing her oratory skills to overcome her fears so she can 'lead conversations' about issues most important to her. The mother-of-two plans to step out of William’s shadow to take her own charity work to 'the next level', according to royal insiders." —Express, Nov. 15, 2015
Dec. 13, 2015:
"With her normally lustrous and bouncy hair scraped into an updo and her eyes puffy and lined, the 33-year-old Duchess of Cambridge looked absolutely shattered as she left Peter Jones, the Sloane Square department store. Along with her shopping, she was clutching a checked tablecloth under one arm. Some online critics unkindly suggested that Kate – wrapped up in a £325 houndstooth coat from Reiss – looked closer to 40 than 30." —Daily Mail, Dec. 13, 2015
Feb. 14, 2016:
"Royals are permitted to take flights between residences according to Buckingham Palace’s visits committee, although the Queen regularly chooses to travel to and from Sandringham by train.
"While the two trips were not entirely comparable – not least because Kate made the journey to and from Anmer Hall – the difference between their modes of transport was certainly notable." —MailOnline, Feb. 14, 2016
March 8, 2016:
"William and Kate invited just a single photographer who took a small number of posed pictures on the brief trip. [Their] decision to travel without telling British media has landed the young parents at the centre of a privacy row. [The] family reportedly chartered [a] private jet owned by Duke of Westminster to fly to Courchevel in the French Alps. It comes after Prince William was accused of being 'workshy' over his lack of royal engagements and hours at work." —Daily Mail, March 8, 2016
March 19, 2016:
"When William and Kate first married they insisted they didn’t want to be hidden in the ivory tower of royalty. They wanted to be with the people doing what they did, not surrounded by riches and privilege. Now they are doing just that." —Daily Mail, March 19, 2016
Dec. 30, 2016:
"One royal insider said: 'The Cambridges are the reluctant royals. They would much rather be at home with the children but so would most British parents. Unfortunately, ordinary people don’t get the choice.'" —the Sun, Dec. 30, 2016
Jan. 23, 2017:
"Last night one Bafta insider revealed: 'William has faced serious criticism from the film industry for missing the Baftas the last two years, despite being our president. As a result of that feedback, he made it clear he wants to go this year and even bring Kate. It would be a real show of his commitment towards Bafta and create headlines around the world. But it was then expressed by senior staff within Bafta that Kate’s attendance will totally distract from all the film stars there.'" —the Sun, Jan. 23, 2017
March 14, 2017:
"'The possibility of them being booed, or heckled, on their walkabouts, or finding some barbed comments in the welcoming speeches, is a cause for concern,’ says a royal source." —Daily Mail, March 14, 2017
May 27, 2017:
"A source at the Queen’s nearby Sandringham Estate said: 'Sadie’s a hard worker but the job’s demands got too much, even for her. They wanted her to spend more time at Kensington Palace and her work was increasing all the time. She wasn’t having a normal life outside work. Sadie’s serving her notice and it seems nothing will change her mind. It’s their loss.'" —the Sun, May 27, 2017
"On 19 May 2018, the wedding of Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle took place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. On the morning of the wedding it was announced that The Queen had conferred a dukedom on Prince Henry of Wales; The Duke of Sussex. His titles are therefore Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton and Baron Kilkeel. On her marriage to The Duke of Sussex, Ms. Meghan Markle [became] known as Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex." —Buckingham Palace, May 19, 2018
Oct. 2, 2018:
"It appears that Kate Middleton isn’t above closing her own door either, as she was filmed today following suit at the Paddington Recreation Ground in London. ...
"Following the frenzy that occurred after Meghan shut her door, royal fans were quick to point out that Kate Middleton regularly does the same – and shared numerous videos as proof." —the Sun, Oct. 2, 2018
Oct. 13, 2018:
"The mum-of-three was captured giggling as a huge gust of wind threatened to fully blow up the hem of the dress at Princess Eugenie’s wedding to Jack Brooksbank.
"Thankfully Kate handled the situation like a pro and managed to smooth down the dress as she left St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle with husband Prince William." —the Sun, Oct. 13, 2018
Dec. 24, 2018:
“Their protection officers were keeping a discreet distance so they looked like any other family out grabbing last-minute Christmas bargains.
"When Kate got to the checkouts I plucked up courage to ask if she’d do a selfie with me and my kids. She very politely declined. She was so nice, explaining she was just doing a bit of Christmas shopping.” —the Sun, Dec. 24, 2018
Sept. 15, 2019:
“Kate is a huge inspiration, as she has provided a princess masterclass since she married William, and Meghan realizes she has a lot to learn from her. Kate has been constantly graceful and elegant — flawless, actually — and has an intuition for how ordinary British people think and feel about things, which Meghan has struggled to grasp." —the Sun, Sept. 15, 2019
Nov. 2, 2019:
"'Like the finest of wines, she has taken years to mature to perfection, but the woman you see today has no peers on the global stage,' a well-placed royal source tells [the Sun]. ... The fact that even royal insiders are making complimentary comparisons to Diana speaks volumes about how far Kate has come." —the Sun, Nov. 2, 2019
Jan. 24, 2020:
"When she first came into the Royal Family she was understandably shy, a bit stiff and wrongly considered by some to be aloof and standoffish. Now Kate can instantly put everyone in the room at ease. ... It’s a rare skill and one that will be invaluable as the Royal Family undergoes a modernisation period, becoming leaner, more streamlined and remaining relevant.
"That’s not going to be plain sailing, especially with scandals such as Prince Andrew’s involvement with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein refusing to go away. But Kate is their trump card, and like her late, much-missed mum-in-law, could one day be our Queen of Hearts." —the Sun, Jan. 24, 2020
March 22, 2020:
"With the Duke and Duchess of Sussex now out of the picture, the onus on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has never been greater. Yet as the royal couple prepare to step up to the front line in boosting morale, the Duchess of Cambridge has already been doing her bit to secure the future of the monarchy in the public’s affections. ...
"The girl from Bucklebury is fast becoming the nation’s sweetheart. Having largely been seen but not heard during the formative years of her now almost decade-long marriage to Prince William, there is a sense that the 38-year-old mum of three has not only found her voice but decided to turn up the volume." —Telegraph, March 22, 2020
May 31, 2020:
"The lawsuit concerns the magazine's 'Catherine the Great' article. The Duchess of Cambridge is upset about how the magazine represented her family, how it discussed her children and how it referenced her weight. The Tatler article had also claimed Kate had fallen out with Meghan Markle ahead of her wedding with Prince Harry. Kensington Palace have issued a strong rebuke of the article and labelled it as having a 'swathe of inaccuracies and false representations.'
"This is a highly unusual move for the princess. Kensington Palace have sent legal letters on her behalf to have the "Catherine the Great" article taken down. Another point of contention was that the article suggested Kate feels 'exhausted and trapped' by the increased workload following Harry and Meghan's decision to step back. The princess is said to be furious about the claims made in the article." —Express, May 31, 2020
Sept. 14, 2020:
"The Queen has praised her grandson's wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, for her moving lockdown photography project in a rare personal statement. Kate asked Brits to send her photos which summed up their experiences during the coronavirus lockdown, with the aim of putting together a series that captured the nation’s mood and feelings during the pandemic. ...
"To mark the final series being announced, the Queen released a statement praising Kate and everyone else who sent in an image. She explains that she's looked through many of the final images, saying she and Kate were 'inspired' by what they saw." — Mirror, Sept. 14, 2020
April 3, 2021:
"Unlike some of her royal relatives, Kate, 39, has barely put a foot wrong in her public embrace of worthy causes over the past few years. ...
"All this might well be encouraging news for a family that seems to specialize in disaster mismanagement. After the transatlantic travails of the Duke of York and the ongoing agonies of the Sussexes, a duchess who gets things right might yet prove an invaluable asset." —the Times, April 3, 2021
April 20, 2021:
"There was one big winner: Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, whose poise and nimble thinking made sure she was assertive enough to catch the camera lenses and tactful enough to head out of the way, allowing the feuding brothers to walk together in the procession. ...
"Whatever difficulties she might have had ... Kate bears it with equanimity, good grace and a hefty amount of eyeliner. When the extremes present a problem, the wisest answer is to rely on moderation. And amid the Sturm und Drang, with a lot of men around her in a strop, the centrist duchess is quietly nailing the part." —Evening Standard, April 20, 2021