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My Date with Diana

November 25th, 2013

    With Thanksgiving on the horizon, I wanted to share a more personal blog this week. I have warmly embraced Thanksgiving since moving to the US; after all when else is a blackened turkey considered a thing of beauty? But this week in particular also offers a nationwide opportunity to reflect on all that we have to be grateful for. Like most people, I am immeasurably thankful for my family and friends, but as I look back on the UK’s last three triumphant years - from the royal wedding and Diamond Jubilee, to the Olympics and worldwide excitement over the birth of Prince George - I am also enormously appreciative that my job has afforded me a front row seat to history in the making. Little did I know as I was growing up that the foundations for a career I didn’t know I aspired to were being laid.

    From the age of twelve I was a boarder at a fulltime ballet school in England, and if a parent showed up mid-week, it meant bad news was imminent. The date was September 25, 1990, and my class was preparing to head into London to see the West End musical, Cats. Minutes before piling onto the coach, I was summoned to the Headmaster’s office, where I found my father waiting. My stomach dropped. Nobody ever wanted to be summoned to the Headmaster’s office, but I knew I hadn’t been caught smoking behind the chapel, so why was my father at school? While he assured me that everything was okay, I mentally ran through a list of potential catastrophes. Who had died? What had I done? And infinitely more pressing:  was I going to miss seeing Cats? Devoid of answers, I was told to change out of my school uniform and into my Sunday best. I was apparently going out for lunch to celebrate my Dad’s fiftieth birthday. Beyond weird!

    Anxiety intensified when I found my stepmother and grandmother waiting in the car, poker faces set firmly in place. Little was said until we pulled up to the police barricade at Kensington Palace. We had yet to move into the old stable block on the Palace grounds, so this was novel. “Er. . .will someone please tell me what’s going on?” Nothing. But I was beginning to suspect that whatever was about to happen was going to be well worth missing Cats for.

    Once through the gates, we parked and crossed the inner courtyard to a large, glossy-black front door marked number one. Dad rang the bell. I don’t know who I was expecting to answer, but...oh my God, I can’t breathe, I’m going be sick, bugger! It was Diana. I was immediately struck by how beautiful she was, but all I could think as I gazed at her loveliness was: I’m dressed like a man.

    I was sixteen, and far from hip. It may have been 1990, but my outfit was screaming 80s: ankle-length burgundy culottes made all the worse by my white, oversized man’s shirt and too-long navy blazer complete with shoulder pads. Think Working Girl without make-up. I still cringe thinking about it, but if Diana was appalled, she certainly didn’t show it. She couldn’t have been more gracious or welcoming.

    She ushered us across the threshold and into her house. I shook her hand while executing my best curtsy (ballet school perk number one), and we ascended the stairs to the drawing room to join the gathered guests consisting of my father’s work colleagues. With drinks in hand, everyone seemed exceedingly happy to be celebrating Dad’s special day, but perhaps it was more due to the fact that they were quaffing Champers in the middle of what should have been a standard workday. The doors to the dining room opened. It was time for lunch.

    Four tables of five had been set, and tied to each of the chairs was a helium-filled balloon emblazoned with Nifty Fifty. For anyone in doubt, Dad had graduated from the Naughty Forties, much to Diana’s amusement. My table was made up of the Princess herself along with my family members, who had been rendered articulately handicapped by her presence. I spent most of the meal trying desperately not to miss my mouth while answering questions about school. Diana had visited my ballet school the year before I was accepted, but I was amazed by how much she had remembered of her visit, and quite how fascinated she was. It’s no secret that she had hoped to be a ballet dancer one day.

    As lunch drew to an end the piece de resistance was ushered in with great ceremony - a bright blue birthday cake baked by her personal chef in the shape of my Dad’s gargantuan Gordon Gekko-esque mobile phone, and neatly iced amid the myriad candles: You’re never alone when Dickie’s got his phone.

    Even now, I am struck by all that Diana did to make my father’s birthday so memorable. From her attention to personal details, to choosing to sit at a table made up purely of my family members, she gave us a profound gift that day.

    It’s hard to believe that nearly a quarter of a century has since passed. The Duchess of Cambridge is now the likely future Princess of Wales. She and William share an apartment at Kensington Palace with their son, and her engagement ring serves as a constant reminder of the woman who walked the same path so many years ago.

    I have a deep respect for the Duchess. She possesses royal qualities in spades: compassion, empathy, good humor, and she looks good in tweed and tartan. But more importantly, like Diana, she has the ability to connect with people from all walks of life. A long and complex journey lies ahead for Kate, but times have changed, and she is already proving to be an asset to crown, country, and the great British High Street.

    People often tell me I have the best job in the world, and as I look ahead to the future of the monarchy, I’m inclined to agree. I might have missed out on seeing Cats at a time when I dreamed of a career in dance, but I have no doubt that my date with Diana laid the foundation for the job I was meant to do…and for that, I will always be thankful.

    And so, to my adopted nation, I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!




A Step Up Way Way Down

November 19th, 2013

    Prince Harry is currently in Cape Town awaiting an improvement in weather conditions so that he, along with his fellow Walking With The Wounded team mates, can fly to Antarctica's Novo Airbase and begin acclimating their bodies to the extreme conditions before their 208 mile trek to the South Pole. Weather would have to be positively equatorial in order for me to even consider setting foot on Antarctica, but as royal charity coups go this is a cracker. By committing to head to the bottom of the earth alongside his team, Harry is setting a whole new precedent in terms of royal charity involvement for the future.

    Members of the royal family serve to provide continuity, promote British interests, and act as global ambassadors by representing all that is great about Great Britain, but a large percentage of their operational life is devoted to charity work. For decades royals have travelled the length and breadth of the country, and indeed the globe, on behalf of their many organizations. They act as patron or president, raise awareness of the cause, cut ribbons, unveil plaques, attend dinners, plant trees, and most importantly - raise money.

    A royal patronage is about the best gift a charity can receive short of a wealthy benefactor bequeathing a billion dollars to the cause upon their death bed, and in times of recession and economic hardship the survival of many charities rests on the regal shoulders of its patron. At eighty-seven the Queen has over six hundred patronages and at ninety-two Prince Philip has around eight hundred. According to a recent Time Magazine article, Prince Charles raised $224 million for his charities between April 2012 and March 2013. Tickets to the upcoming Winter Whites Gala on behalf of homeless charity Centrepoint were going for the princely sum of 500 pounds before selling out almost immediately. The reason for the large price tag and instant sell out? Prince William, Patron of Centrepoint, will be in attendance.

    Charities can command top dollar when a senior royal rolls out. Along with said royal comes a legion of reporters and wealthy benefactors, and whenever Kate’s involved you can pretty much guarantee the occasion making front page news the following day. That type of attention leaves charity heads googly-eyed.

    The royals have always approached charity engagements with enthusiasm, well aware that their presence allows for worldwide exposure. One need only to look at coverage of Diana shaking hands with an AIDS patient in 1989, or her walking through a partially-cleared land mine field in Angola in 1997, to understand the power of a globally recognized figure. William and Harry, however, have taken things one step further in recent years by rolling up their proverbial sleeves and throwing themselves in at ground level.

    In December 2009 Prince William spent the night sleeping rough near Blackfriars Bridge. He did so in order to gain a better understanding of what the homeless community experiences night after night. Had he simply dished out soup and shaken hands with a few volunteers he still would have drawn attention to the work of Centrepoint, but by actually bedding down on the streets of Central London he significantly heightened public awareness.

    In March 2011 Prince Harry joined a team of injured servicemen for the first five days of their trek to the North Pole. Yes, of course it was about raising money for Walking With The Wounded, but as Harry said at the time, it was also about raising an awareness of the debt the country owes to those it sends off to fight. Harry has made no secret of his dedication to the welfare of injured servicemen and women, and the money raised enables the charity to fulfill its mission; however, by taking part alongside his fellow soldiers, Harry gave them far more than a well-funded charity. He showed them that they matter, that their loss matters, and that their lives may continue to inspire.

    Looking to the future of the monarchy, Charles has made it clear that he wants to push for a more streamlined royal family, but it is my hope that when the time comes he will make room for extended members of the family to step up and continue their efforts on behalf of their chosen charities. As the only blood-born princesses of their generation, Beatrice and Eugenie have already shown a readiness to support causes meaningful to them. Were the Queen to give them an “official” role, their potential could be enormous. It comes down to simple mathematics: streamline the monarchy, and funding to the smaller charities that rely on a royal patron slips down the tubes.

    Royals and charity work will always go hand-in-hand. . .and may it be so. Plaques will remain, trees will grow, and the work of the charity in question will continue, but it is this new hardcore approach that is so exciting. It won’t work for everyone, and it would lose its impact if suddenly every engagement required rigorous training, compression chambers, hard hats, life vests and the likes, but we should salute Prince Harry on his epic polar endeavor. Harry’s physical disability may be limited to a broken toe, but walking alongside those brave wounded warriors will no doubt leave him with an unbreakable spirit.



Who'll Be Home For Christmas

November 14th, 2013

    The Queen has invited the Middleton Family to Sandringham for Christmas, or so the British newspaper headlines recently declared.  Oh, that it were true if only because Richard Palmer, Royal Reporter for Britain’s Daily Express, tweeted that if Carole Middleton emerged alongside the Queen and drove to church, he’d cartwheel naked down the path.  Lucky for Richard - and dare I say even luckier for us - it’s highly unlikely.

    Invitations to Christmas are never extended to the families of royal spouses and why should they be? Nothing personal, simply that Christmas provides an opportunity for the Queen to enjoy quality time with her own immediate family with no expectation of being on parade. Well, that and the issue of space. Large as Sandringham might be, it is a house, not a castle. When the whole family is in attendance, there just isn’t room for anyone else.

    The Royal Family has Christmas down to a science, and the Queen’s festive plans are as reliable as television airings of It’s a Wonderful Life and my inadvertently cooking the turkey upside down.  It’s the same every year.

    Since the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992, the royal family has gathered to celebrate Christmas at Sandringham, the Queen’s privately-owned Norfolk estate.  Following arrivals on Christmas Eve, afternoon tea is served.  The evening brings a fancy black-tie dinner, and the opening of presents - a German tradition embraced by Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert.  After breakfast on Christmas morning, it’s church, lunch, a huddle around the television to watch the Queen’s Christmas message to the nation, a country walk, and an evening of parlour games.  It is an occasion steeped in familiar tradition and protocol for the Windsors, but for the inexperienced newbie it’s enough to make you want to double-spike your eggnog.

    Sandringham is the Queen’s house, and therefore as the Lady of the Manor invitations are at her discretion.  She has consistently been open to change and has adapted to the times accordingly.  During her reign she has opened Buckingham Palace to the public, made the royal finances more transparent, made walkabouts the norm, signed the Commonwealth Charter, and she was the first reigning monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland since Irish independence.  Christmas, however, is one area where change is unlikely.

    The Queen is not obligated in any way to the extended families of either her children or her grandchildren.  The Middletons may well be the grandparents of the future king, but so too were Earl Spencer and Frances Shand Kydd, yet that didn’t see either of them swilling sherry and pulling crackers over the Queen’s Christmas goose.  Were the Queen to invite the Middleton family, it would in turn pave the way for other in-laws to attend.  Camilla’s children haven’t spent Christmas with their mother since she married Charles in 2005.  Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie haven’t celebrated Christmas with their mum since their parents’ divorce in 1996.  And how about Mike Tindall’s parents…?  The list goes on and therein lies the quandary.  Invite the Middletons, and suddenly Christmas becomes a free-for-all “plus one”.

    Last year, with the Queen’s blessing, William and Kate chose to spend Christmas with Kate’s family in Bucklebury.  While alternating families for the holidays is the standard festive headache for us regular folk, it was an unprecedented decision for the Sandringham lot.  By doing something different William and Kate effectively changed the model of a royal family Christmas.

    The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh enjoy a relaxed relationship with Michael and Carole Middleton.  Prior to the royal wedding the Queen asked them to lunch at Windsor Castle.  In June 2012 they were invited to sail on the Elizabethan Paddle Steamer during the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, and they joined other members of the royal family in the Queen’s official carriage procession to Royal Ascot in 2011 and 2012.  She has already publicly embraced the Middleton family far more than she has the family of any other royal spouse.

    William and Kate are the new owners of Anmer Hall, a property on the Sandringham estate, but it is currently being renovated, so there’s no room at the inn for the Middletons there.  Even if it were ready, I don’t see William and Kate leaving her family at home while they swan off to the “big house”.

    Every family celebrates Christmas in their own unique way, and the Middletons would never presume to be included in the royals’ personal festivities, nor would the Queen, Philip, Charles and Camilla expect to load the corgis and a fruitcake into the Range Rover and head down to Bucklebury.

    There is no slight, no malice, no scandal here, rather a wish to preserve the elements of sacred family Christmas.  In that respect, the royals are “just like us”.  Looks like Richard will be keeping his clothes on this year after all.




Once Upon a Headline

November 6th, 2013

    Stories about the Royal Family splashed across the front pages of Britain’s newspapers are nothing new, but when those stories are about royal girlfriends, I start to get mildly irritated. Is this really headline news? Apparently so. Last week the front page of The Sun screamed Her Royal Highcress spends the weekend at Sandringham in reference to Harry’s latest flame, Cressida Bonas, visiting the Queen’s estate. Clearly, we were a country all the better for knowing what Cressida did two weekends prior, but, continued The Sun, although neither the Queen nor Prince Charles were in residence, such an invitation could mean only one thing: Cressida had been “Approved” by the family. Hurrah! Time to start shopping for fascinators and submitting our orders for commemorative teapots and Knit Cressida Kits. Alert the bookies, raise the flags, and secure the bunting; another royal wedding is on the horizon! Eventually. . .one day. . .far into the future. . .and maybe with a different pretty blonde altogether.

    Royal weddings are big business, and there’s nothing like a royal romance when it comes to selling newspapers, but they are perhaps jumping the gun on this one. The UK is coming off a stellar two years. 2011’s Royal Wedding created an altogether excitable, patriotic, and fervent British public. After worldwide reviews to the tune of “No-one does it like the Brits,” royalist pride rolled over into the Diamond Jubilee celebrations followed by the hugely successful Summer Olympics. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, news of the royal pregnancy broke. Seven months whizzed by; Andy Murray won Wimbledon; England clinched the Ashes over Australia; Chris Froome won the Tour de France, and Prince George was born. Kate left the hospital with residual baby bump on full display, and the country collapsed in a pool of pride after an epic two years in the glare of the global spotlight. I’m breathless just thinking about it. But now what?

    With no significant royal events on the calendar, the Olympic flame en route to Brazil, and headlines reverting back to emergency room negligence and horse meat in beef burgers, there’s only one thing for it. Harry has to get married. Or does he?

    Being a royal girlfriend really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Former actress Koo Stark, who dated Prince Andrew in 1981, was widely tipped to become his wife, even meeting the Queen at Balmoral before it surfaced that she’d starred in a saucy film called Emily. While Emily may have killed it for the Queen, Andrew’s insistence on his girlfriends (along with the rest of the planet) calling him “Sir” may have killed it for Koo. Another well-known actress, who has asked to remain nameless, loves to share her tale of spending the night with another of the Queen’s sons at Buckingham Palace. Much to her shock, the young prince was audacious enough to demand that she get out of bed to stand for the National Anthem as it played during the Changing of the Guard in the forecourt below. He continued to lounge beneath the covers while she stood in the nuddy looking down The Mall as the Grenadiers trumpeted their resounding salute…at which point she knew it probably wasn’t going to work out.

    Cruel monikers are often bestowed by the rags (although “Waity Katie” of “Wisteria Sisters” fame clinched the last laugh on that one). Legions of photographers set up camp outside girlfriends’ homes, eager to pounce. Her Royal Hotness - Pippa to you and me - isn’t even a royal girlfriend, and yet we’re bombarded with images of her buying coffee, drinking coffee, getting in car, driving car. Who’d have thought such mundane tasks could be so riveting? Phone tapping leads to sordid conversations printed word for cringe-inducing word. Magazines run the ex-girlfriend fashion face-off: “Who Wore it Best, Mollie or Flo?” There are the endless comparisons to those who have gone before: “Is Cressida Harry’s Fergie? Is Chelsy his Camilla?” The social media haters are particularly vicious. Kate doesn’t read any of it. Harry is known for reading all of it. It’s exhausting just thinking about it, which means that any girl mad enough to date a prince has to be made of some pretty stern stuff.

    So far the press has been relatively kind to Miss Bonas, her biggest sin to date being her bird’s nest hair and rather over-zealous attachment to her scrunchies. But at twenty-four she’s simply too young to get royally hitched with all that would be expected of her. There’s a reason William waited so long before proposing to Kate. Of course it is an enormously privileged life, but as glamorous as it may appear, being a royal wife can be a thankless task filled with tremendous pressures, constant scrutiny, and harsh criticism. For the time being Prince Harry is married to the army. He’s obviously crazy about Cressida and there have been bold hints to indicate as much, but it doesn’t mean that either of them are ready to take the ultimate plunge. . .and why the rush?

    The country should be grateful to William for waiting to marry. It gave the couple time to enjoy a long courtship and really get to know each other. It also gave Kate a chance to see if she was prepared to be a part of The Firm for the long haul. No one wants a return to the marital disasters of the nineties. We can only hope that Harry is as cautious when it comes to taking a bride. After all, if we’re going to dole out comparisons, we want Harry’s first and only wife to be his Camilla.




The Family Jewels

October 31st, 2013

    I often marvel at my sister-in-law’s ability to loop jewelry up her arms, drape it around her neck and dangle it from her ears, looking nothing short of spectacular, yet if I try to do the same I resemble something of an overly decked-out Christmas tree. While I have always admired jewelry, I have never been particularly interested in it. That said, I was surprised to catch myself thinking - upon seeing a photo of the Duchess of Cambridge at the 100 Women in Hedge Funds Gala Dinner last Thursday - she needs a necklace, and by necklace I didn’t mean a barely-there, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it number; I meant a full-on statement piece resting at the nape of her neck.

    Kate looked stunning wearing a black, full-length Jenny Packham evening gown. We’ve come to expect nothing less, but this was the first time I have found myself wishing that she had stepped things up in the princess stakes and worn jewels. Many have said it’s simply not her style, which is true enough, but as a senior royal, the likely future Princess of Wales and one day Queen Consort, it is a style which I hope she will cultivate and embrace over time.

    We see the word “normal” bandied about a great deal when it comes to William and Kate, and perhaps their wide appeal is due to their perceived normality, but here’s the thing: they’re not normal; they’re not just like us, and if they were, what would be the point? If I went to a “do” at Kensington Palace, and paid a staggering amount of money for the privilege to do so, I would want to meet someone who positively oozed royal. As host and patron of a gala dinner held on her own turf it was the perfect opportunity to kick things up a notch and look like a “princess”. Her natural ease would have kept her from seeming grand and elusive. It’s a fine line, but it’s one I believe she’s more than capable of walking.

    Kate’s transition from commoner to Duchess has been masterful. Always prepared, ready with a smile, and fully invested in whatever she is doing, she has proven herself to be a natural in very unnatural circumstances. While she is not the first commoner to marry into the royal family as has been widely reported, she is perhaps the most middle class. Unlike Diana - technically a commoner - Kate has not grown up as a member of a noble family with access to ornate jewels that have been passed down through the generations.  Nor would she have had the appropriate occasion to trot out said family jewels, so perhaps she too feels like a Christmas tree when faced with regal diamonds, rubies, and pearls.

    I’m not going to presume to know how Kate thinks, but my guess is as a relative newbie to the royal world, she’s paying deference to the Queen and Camilla by not being overly showy. Smart girl. Kate is not the queen. She’s not even on deck. She’s well aware of the hierarchy and her place in it, which is why I’m not suggesting she wear St. Edward’s Crown to Top Shop…but there are rare occasions when a bit of royal’s-only bling fits the bill.

    In 1985 at an official event in Melbourne, Diana wore an art deco diamond and emerald choker as a headband. It had been a wedding present from the Queen and was once owned by Queen Mary. It was bold (hey, it was the eighties), and Queen Mary may have been rolling in her grave, but it fulfilled everyone’s fantasies of meeting a princess that night. You’d be hard pressed to find a picture of Diana not dripping in jewels at an official evening engagement. Sure, times have changed, and the monarchy is keen to not look ostentatious, but at the end of the day, jewels are a part of the royal brand. There is a reason why millions queue up every year to view the Crown Jewels to the tune of twenty-one pounds per ticket.

    As a senior royal, Kate has access to a plethora of jewels. Many are personal items; others belong to a family name, a title, the Queen, or the State. My hope is that there will come a time when she throws caution to the wind, thinks stuff the naysayers, and rocks a diamond-encrusted tiara, choker, or maybe even a headband.

    There will always be cynics and elitists ready to grumble, “Who does she think she is?” But who she is, is exactly the point. She is no longer Miss Catherine Middleton, but rather HRH The Duchess of Cambridge. My guess is were she to take the leap and throw on a corker of a family jewel, she’d make one heck of a dazzling Christmas tree.




Traditionally Speaking

October 25th, 2013

    “In a break with tradition. . .” officially wins the prize as the most over used statement this week with regard to Prince George’s christening. In fact for the first time since William and Kate’s wedding, the royal couple broke with their own tradition of breaking tradition by not breaking any of the traditions associated with a royal christening.

    The couple chose the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace as the venue because, according to an aide, they “liked it”. Though steeped in history, the chapel holds personal sentiment for William and Kate. Kate was confirmed there prior to her wedding, and Diana lay at rest before the altar in the days leading up to her funeral. The presence of Richard Chartres, Dean of the Chapel Royal, who was responsible for confirming Kate and delivering the address at the couple’s 2011 wedding, only made the choice of the Chapel Royal more fitting.

    The Cambridges’ choice was not, however, a “break with tradition”. In looking at the heirs who have gone before, William and his father, Prince Charles, were both christened in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace, but a relatively recent two-time occurrence does not a tradition make. The Queen was christened in a private chapel at Buckingham Palace; her uncle, Edward VIII at White Lodge; her father, George VI at Sandringham, and her great-grandfather, George V, at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Traditions broken? None.

    Quite the brouhaha erupted over the apparent invitation snub to William’s uncles and aunt, but christenings are often small, intimate gatherings for immediate family. William and Kate invited their siblings just as Charles invited his siblings to William’s service in 1982. This was not a slight on the extended family, but rather in keeping with the way things are done. Princess Margaret, who would at the time have been the equivalent relation as Princess Anne today (great-aunt), did not attend William’s christening. Traditions broken? None.

    William and Kate chose seven godparents for Prince George, reportedly a “break with tradition,” and yet Charles has eight, William has six, and Edward I had twelve. Find me the tradition in that and I’ll find you the key to the Crown Jewels. While the line-up does not, at first glance, appear to be quite as noble as the godparents of old, this bunch has more royal connections and lifelong ties to the royal family than you could shake an orb and sceptre at. Traditions broken? None.

    The fact is William and Kate stuck rigidly to all the traditions of a royal christening, many of which date back to the mid-nineteenth century, some even earlier. Prince George, wearing the replica of the 1841 Honiton lace and satin gown, was christened by the Archbishop of Canterbury with water from the River Jordan contained by the silver-gilt lily font designed by Prince Albert. . .and therein followed in the footsteps of generations of royal babies. The christening party then retired to Clarence House for tea and a slice of cake cut from a tier of William and Kate’s two-year-old wedding cake (one tradition perhaps worth dispensing with).

    While William and Kate are keen to put their own stamp on things and have been much lauded for modernizing the monarchy, it’s clear that some traditions die hard. Tradition is defined as doing something that has been done by the people in a particular group, family, or society for a long time. Given the vitality the couple has brought to the monarchy, there seems to be a staunch desire for them to break every tradition associated with the Royal Family. But let’s remember it’s continuity that has kept the monarchy going for well over a thousand years. There’s something to be said for sticking to tradition every now and then, even if it does mean wearing a frilly, lace and satin dress!


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