Not long ago, I was on holiday in Europe when a tall, slim figure in a bikini brushed past me. I was standing on a wooden pontoon, occupied with watching my daughter as she swam in the sea. It was only when the figure bent down to speak to her husband and son, paddle-boarding and playing around in the water, that I realised with a shock that I was seeing the Duchess of Cambridge in an entirely private, off-guard moment.
I remember how she spoke to them in a soft voice, smiling tenderly and laughing. I wanted to stare but something stopped me and I looked away. Only when an inconspicuous man in shorts and a T-shirt approached my husband, who was lying close by, and asked him to put his phone away (he was reading an online article at the time but his phone looked like it was pointing in their direction), did I notice the discreet security detail around us.
Like Diana before her, we think we know everything about Catherine, but unlike the mother-in-law whose ring she wears, she has astutely obfuscated her more natural and private self behind a protective shield. Her public face aside, how much do we, 20 years on, really know about her?
Over the years I’ve heard stories about how disciplined Catherine is, but also how unsure of herself. One person I spoke to, a close friend, tells me how often she’ll say things like: “I got that wrong, I need to get that right” after a public appearance. The same friend told me how open to advice she is, and how horrified she was after Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah last year. “The way she was painted is just so far removed from who she is,” they add.
“She has a good understanding of what the Royal family stands for, what lies ahead and she is not bowled over by the frippery,” says an older friend of the royals. Not being brought up as an aristocrat is an advantage. But it’s her particular character traits – natural reticence and a palpable lack of narcissism, combined with a quiet but growing self-assurance – that make her a far more interesting study. She has intentionally made herself look boring to survive. That’s smart.
'She knows she isn’t and she has the wisdom to understand how people in the public eye can be built up and knocked down'
Credit: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images
Everyone who knows her emphasises the importance of Carole and Michael Middleton in protecting Catherine, as well as William. Back in 2011, I was asked to report live on their wedding for CNN. I did it partly out of curiosity: I was interested to see how the family would navigate such an overwhelmingly public event. Their discretion and shy comportment, as well as their evident happiness for their child, spoke volumes.
That family, including siblings, Pippa and James, sit at the core of who Catherine is. They are a tight bunch, but Carole is head of the Middleton firm; albeit not necessarily in the pushy way she has been painted. I’ve seen her at parties and she appears comfortable in her own skin: chatting away with a grin on her face, always on the dance floor, while Michael hovers good-naturedly.
A friend told me about the time she sat next to Catherine’s father at a dinner near Bucklebury, Berkshire, where the Middletons live, and how impressed she was by his lack of airs and graces; the honesty with which he recounted how he and Carole had grown their party supplies business. He spoke of how they lived frugally at first, and struggled in the early days.
At the end of the night she asked him what he thought his greatest achievement was. Middleton sat back in his chair: “My children still wanting to come on holiday with me.” When he got up to leave, he turned to my friend and said: “I’ve got to go home, Kate is coming to collect us, it’s her turn.” It was 2am and the future Queen Consort had promised to pick her parents up.
A friend of Catherine’s tells how, whenever she has had bad press in the past, she has called her parents, saying "Oh this has happened, isn’t it awful…". And while they are supportive, their advice is always the same: "remember you chose this life, you had a lot of time to think about joining the family before you got married, you have to be strong and learn to get on with it."
It says a lot about the way she was brought up, that she knows not to feel sorry for herself, not to turn everything into a pity-parade – something her counterpart, the Duchess of Sussex has been accused of. She was, friends add, endlessly supportive of Meghan at the start, always leaping to her defence and getting not a small amount of stick for doing so.
But those moments when Catherine can’t lean on her parents, in the glare of the public eye, have formed her naturally guarded temperament. When visiting her children’s school, Thomas’s Battersea, she has learnt how to be friendly without giving too much away, not because she’s trying to stand apart but to protect those who come into her orbit. It’s why she prefers to arrange playdates outside Kensington Palace to put people at ease.
Anyone who has seen the couple privately will tell you how tight they are
Credit: Ian Vogler/Daily Mirror/PA Wire
I have also been told that she constantly worries about looking “too perfect”. “She knows she isn’t and she has the wisdom to understand how people in the public eye can be built up and knocked down,” a friend tells me. This corroborates the whispers I have heard that, before an event, she is keen to tone down her look; to not appear to fashionable. “I sometimes think she chooses things deliberately not to look good in public,” an insider told me. “Her personal style is much younger and more fashionable in private.”
She is also humble in her actions. I was told how, one night at dinner in the country, the hostess had mentioned that her housekeeper was sick. Catherine excused herself from the table and when she didn’t return, the hostess went looking for her. She found her in the kitchen, hands in the sink, scrubbing an oven dish.
But there is something else at the Duchess’s core: her marriage. Anyone who has seen the couple privately will tell you how tight they are; how William is always keen to make sure she is happy. Someone who has visited them tells me how when she is working he’ll swoop in and ask: “Darling, can I get you a drink… a glass of champagne?”
In these turbulent times for the royals, the Duchess of Cambridge has been a salve – not just for the country, but the Queen. And as she becomes emboldened with each passing year, it is surely this remarkable and relatable woman who will play the biggest role in ensuring its continuing relevance.