Rebuilding the royal family: Kate Middleton’s rough 2021 revealed

Cinderella had it easy. Sure, she had to contend with a wicked stepmother and deal with all those talking mice (and not shatter those wildly impractical glass slippers) but at the end of the day, once she had snagged the prince, her job was done. All that was left for her was to enjoy her happily-ever-after and hang out with some singing birds.

Pity then Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, the world’s most famous princess-in-waiting. She might live in a bona fide palace and enjoy semi-regular opportunities to wear tiaras but there any similarity with her fairytale counterpart ends.

Next year marks a decade since she walked up the aisle of Westminster Abbey and once and for all traded civilian life for life as a card carrying royal. Once she had a title to her name, she truly found out that being a princess-to-be isn’t all accepting flowers from curtsying children and making benign chitchat with Union Jack waving retirees.

Each year since then has seen her ramping up her official workload, adding charities, patronages and projects to her royal CV.

However, with her 10-year wedding anniversary just over the horizon, and as Kate begins her second decade as a bona fide HRH, she is about to take on the greatest – and most daunting – challenge of her career to date, with nothing short than the future of the monarchy resting on her very narrow, Zara-clad shoulders.

When biographers and scholars get around to writing about this era in royal history, I think they will be united in viewing the past 12 months or so as one of the most damaging and disastrous periods in the annals of the house of Windsor.

Indeed, in less than two years, the Queen and The Firm have gone from basking in the post-wedding glow and global adoration cast on the monarchy by the union of Harry and wife Meghan Duchess of Sussex to being the target of worldwide anger and acrimony.

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It has been a truly dramatic – and breathtakingly fast – reversal in fortune.

In November last year, Prince Andrew, and his ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, came to a disastrous, humiliating head when he was interviewed by the BBC. In just under an hour, the Duke of York managed to make himself out to be unfeeling, pompous and the butt of a lifetime jokes by offering up a suburban pizza chain and the bizarre claim he doesn’t sweat as somehow disproving claims he had sex with a teenage victim of Epstein’s.

(The royal has strenuously and repeatedly denied accusations made by Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who alleges she was trafficked by Epstein, that she had sex with him on three occasions.)

A roiling tide of public anger at his explanations for his behaviour and friendship with Epstein saw Andrew unceremoniously forced out of pubic life.

For the Queen, who is often reported to view Andrew as her favourite child, it must surely have been a painful moment however as the CEO of the royal family, so to speak, it was an unmitigated disaster of Hindenburg proportions.

Less than eight weeks after that particular “bomb” went off inside the palace, Harry and Meghan Duke and Duchess of Sussex detonated another one, reportedly blindsiding the Queen and Prince Charles by telling the world they had enough and no longer wanted to be full-time working members of the royal family. (And via Instagram no less.)

In the days and weeks that followed, intra-family anger, hurts, and frustrations boiled over into public view and the press, the Windsors were once again reduced to a painful soap opera of sorts. (Well, they say everything 90s is back in fashion again …)

When in early March, Harry and Meghan pitched up in London for their final series of official engagements, the situation seemed positively combustible.

The sour faces of the Cambridges and the Sussexes inside Westminster Abbey on that day will go down in legend.

When Harry and Meghan walked out the door for good, they took away the palace’s best chance of making the monarchy not only palatable but relevant to younger generations, an Everest-like feat. Honestly, it’s not like Princess Anne’s workmanlike dedication to saving the UK’s lighthouses is really going to impress anyone aside from the commemorative tea towel and spoon-collecting set.

After all of this, as 2020 started to really gather steam, what the house of Windsor needed was a string of pretty, hat-required photo ops to wash away the bad taste in the public’s mouths.

Covid had other ideas with the pandemic prompting a far greater, existential question: Without Ascot and Trooping the Colour to entertain the masses, what is the point of a monarchy in the 21st century?

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During the greatest global crisis since World War II, the Windsors were spun out to their country estates where they did their darnedest to embrace the possibilities of technology to try and keep spirits up.

But that in no way even comes remotely close to what they so desperately needed for 2020, which was plenty of pretty public events, outings that hammered home the theme of family unity and a lovely injection of pomp and ceremony to make the home counties’ chests swell with monarchical pride.

Finally, in November, the PR bomb that the palace long knew was coming exploded in the Buckingham Palace forecourt: The fourth season of The Crown.

With the series reaching the traumatic and miserable years of Diana, Princess of Wales and Charles’ marriage, the royal family had to know they would likely be in for a televisual mauling.

The reality was far more brutal, painting Charles as a cruel narcissist and nearly parodying the Queen’s supposed remoteness and coldness.

The band aid was ripped off the barely healed wounds of the Wales’ marriage and suddenly the image of the royal family, Her Majesty especially, as a heartless, unedifying bunch was spectacularly revived on a global scale.

For decades they had assumed the status of benignly accepted, entertaining public figures; with ten episodes, show runner Peter Morgan and his team managed to consign the house of Windsor, once again, in many people’s eyes at least, to villain status.

Taken together, both Harry and Meghan’s exit and The Crown have given new life to the perception of the royal family as an unfeeling, at times ruthless, institution hellbent on survival no matter the personal cost.

Waiting for the royal family, as the new year begins, is a gargantuan public relations project: The fight to win back the hearts and minds of the fickle masses.

It is into this breach that Kate will most likely have to step and somehow right the regal ship.

Sure, there are eight core working members of the royal family still on the books (the Queen, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall, Charles, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie Countess of Wessex, Princess Anne, and the Cambridges) but it is not their dependable faces that will launch a thousand ships worth of good press and buck up public royal sentiment.

Given the average age of the working HRHs still in service is just a smidgen under 68 years old, the job of presenting a youthful and vibrant face to the world falls entirely to the Cambridges. And of the two, let’s be honest here: William might one day be King but his balding pate and eager smile aren’t softening the coldest of republican hearts. It’s Kate.

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It is Kate whose smile and lovely hats and adorable children who is the most potent and powerful weapon that the palace has in their limited arsenal to try and repair the vast, vast reputational damage they have suffered over the past year.

And it is Kate’s hard work and dedication that will begin the slow process of rebuilding the reputation for the institution of the monarchy. It is a huge responsibility and one that she will have to bear with her smile cemented into place and all while raising three small children.

Over the years there are those who have written off the duchess as a fragrant, slightly useless addition to the Windsors. Cecil Beaton famously called the Queen Mother “a marshmallow made on a welding machine” and it is hard to find a more apt description of Kate.

In 2021, the pressure is going to be on Kate to deliver, and on an unprecedented scale but I reckon the woman knows exactly what she’s doing, no glass slipper required.

• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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