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The Royals Have Totally Lost Control of the Narrative

The memes and conspiracy theories about Kate Middleton’s whereabouts might seem silly, but the royal family’s authority has taken a major hit

Kate Middleton


It is a controversy more befitting of a Real Housewife than a royal princess. On Monday, Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, posted a personal message — via the Kensington Royal social pages — to apologize for any “confusion” caused by a Mother’s Day photograph. (In the U.K., Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday of March.) “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused,” the post read. “I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother’s Day. C.”

What happened? The photograph seemed harmless at first — children dressed like Ralph Lauren models and Middleton’s 1,000 teeth gleaming at us. But very quickly, observers noticed myriad inconsistencies: A blurred and warped cuff near Princess Charlotte’s wrist, strangely proportioned legs, missing reflections, a plant that perhaps shouldn’t be in bloom, a missing wedding ring, crossed fingers, and even a face that looks uncannily like previous photographs of Middleton. The list goes on. 

All this sounded like tin-foil-hat conspiracism. But then, four leading image agencies — Getty Images, AFP, Reuters, and The Associated Press — withdrew the photo, with a dramatic “kill notice” suggesting that the photo had been manipulated. Suddenly, the story was leading the news cycle. The photo — which we’re genuinely supposed to believe was taken by Prince Willam, even though “amateur photographer” Middleton took responsibility for it — was intended to put weeks of suspicions (and memes) surrounding Middleton’s royal absence to bed. But it did just the opposite.

Chatter surrounding the princess’ prolonged recovery from an unspecified abdominal surgery reached comical levels last week as they escalated from rumors and speculation to full-blown conspiracies. Was the Princess of Wales debuting her BBL (“Brazilian butt lift”) while putting in a shift as “the Unknown” the doomed Glasgow Willy Wonka experience? That’s what the memes on my social media feed would have had you believe at one point. (You had to be there, I promise.)

On a more serious note, others have suspected the royal marriage is on the rocks amid the pressure of King Charles’ cancer diagnosis. And even more sinisterly, some have claimed (without any evidence, obviously) that Middleton is dead and has been replaced by a body double. (I don’t think anyone actually thinks this, but the internet is a weird place.)

The hysterical and conspiratorial reaction to Middleton’s absence from public life — on medical grounds, mind you — is telling. I was open-mouthed when I saw a royal — people who believe they are above their subjects because of divine rights given to them by God — releasing a social media apology over some clumsy photo editing. The sheer grubbiness of it, from people who have long considered themselves above “celebrity” and the PR-worded Instagram apologies that mere mortals post when they mess up. I could feel Queen Elizabeth II turning in her grave as they forsook the public relations strategy she rigidly adhered to for her 70-year reign: “Never complain, never explain.”

The death of Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning British monarch, feels tied to the reaction we’re seeing. “Liz died and the royals lost all their mystery,” posted British writer Jason Okundaye on Monday. I think he’s right. In “Ruritania”— the sixth episode of the final season of The Crown — we saw a fictionalized version of the late queen, played by Imelda Staunton, grappling with the idea of modernization. Against the instincts of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, she rejected the idea that the royals need to be more “relatable” to the public. “People don’t want to come to a royal palace and get what they could have at home,” she said. “They want the magic and the mystery.” Elizabeth argued that providing that mystery was a key part of their duty, but in recent years, it has started to waver.

Even before Queen Elizabeth died, the Sussexes’ tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey had pulled back the curtain on the firm like never before, including disturbing allegations of racism and tabloid collusion. This followed the humiliating BBC Newsnight interview with Prince Andrew in 2019, which culminated in a civil sexual assault case, which he settled in 2022. Not long after the queen’s death, Prince Harry dropped his tell-all autobiography — complete with stories about him rubbing Elizabeth Arden cream on his penis and losing his virginity in a field. Just last week, Gary Goldsmith — Middleton’s “loose canon” uncle who was convicted of assaulting his fourth wife in 2017 — appeared on the U.K.’s version of Celebrity Big Brother, where he spilled further details about Middleton and her husband, her mother Carole, and angrily called out the Sussexes. I wonder whether these conspiracy theories about Middleton — and how invested people are in the idea that all is not as it seems here — are really a craving for the mystery that is being lost in all this public mud-slinging.

The royal institution has backed itself into a corner here. When Middleton joined the royal family, she became its highest-ranking “commoner.” (The Middletons are a very wealthy family, but until the princess married Prince William, they had no rank in the British aristocracy.) The sympathetic British press would fawn over Middleton as she wore high-street brands like Zara and — shock horror — wore clothes more than once. How relatable! 

At other times, we’re kept at a distance. Reacting to the fervor over Middleton’s whereabouts earlier this month, Kensington Palace offered a curt response: “We were very clear from the outset that the Princess of Wales was out until after Easter and Kensington Palace would only be providing updates when something was significant.” (Posh British translation? “Shut the f*ck up, peasants!”) The royals want to be “relatable” when it suits them but also want to be far removed from scrutiny at other times. The mismatched combination of “relatable royalty” and the sudden reappearance of distant, strict protocols is a gray area where the boundaries of privacy and transparency are unclear.

What is crystal clear, though, is that the royal institution is still struggling to adapt to the dynamics of the social media landscape. This furor reminds me of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s disastrous tour of the Caribbean in 2022. The duo were seen being carried on thrones and also photographed greeting children behind a cage-like metal fence. In the past, they would have released favorable images to the press, who would have run them alongside near-sycophantic coverage. But now, everyone has a phone and a platform to scrutinize and amplify images that are less flattering.

The same thing happened with this Mother’s Day photo — the one we’re supposed to believe Middleton was on her laptop editing herself after it was taken by Prince William, her loving husband, who she is definitely still on speaking terms with. (If it really was Middleton, I hope she is removing “proficient in Photoshop” from her CV — and if it was William, congrats on being the first straight guy to take a family photo this well-composed.) Regardless of who took and edited the photo, it’s noteworthy that it was four agencies outside the U.K. that were the first to reject it, while the British press ran the picture without questioning it. Only when the image was accused of manipulation by the above agencies did it become a controversy they couldn’t avoid covering.

All this might seem silly, but the mob-like mentality regarding Middleton’s whereabouts speaks to a wider disconnect and distrust between the royals and their subjects. Not everyone agreed with Queen Elizabeth II, but rightly or wrongly there was an undercurrent of trust there, built over decades. Many people who were anti-Monarchist begrudgingly respected her — even if they’re only realizing that now that she’s gone. With King Charles still new to the throne and now diagnosed with cancer and the younger generation unable to stage a simple photo-op without creating an international incident, this mess highlights their vulnerability. Elizabeth’s reverence doesn’t yet apply to the next generations — and they’re lucky that, for now, this scandal remains fairly low stakes.

What should worry the royals is that the British press is clearly getting tired of their bizarre antics and explanations. There was an understanding that paparazzi pictures of the princess would not be printed while Middleton was recovering from surgery. But on Monday, many outlets published a grainy shot of the princess’s side profile inside a car, next to her husband. The photo is unlikely to appease the most ardent “Where is Kate?” truthers, but seems like a warning — a symbol of how much this situation has strained the institution’s relations with the media that it depends on for survival.

Watching this all unfold, I couldn’t help but think how Middleton’s loudest media defenders would be reacting if Meghan Markle was in this position. If there is any truth to the allegations that royal representatives, including those acting on behalf of the Prince and Princess of Wales, have colluded with the press to smear the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, then they might live to regret tacitly endorsing such intense scrutiny and invasions of privacy. After a few short weeks of experiencing something even vaguely similar, the Kensington Palace media operation has become an international laughing stock.

Perhaps this controversy is overblown. But a public apology — personally signed off by a royal, no less — is very rare. It’s a sign that they have totally lost control of the narrative. Clearly, the future king and queen are being tested by their subjects. It feels similar to how schoolchildren might haze a substitute teacher who is technically in charge but isn’t yet recognized as an authority figure. And if they’re not careful, they might never be.

From Rolling Stone US