Not too many Americans aside from Meghan Markle can call Prince Charles a friend — except Joseph Cicio.
The retailer, merchandiser and consultant to the stars recently wrote his first book titled “Friends*: *Bearing Gifts,” which chronicles the relationships he's cultivated throughout his career, including with Princess Grace of Monaco, Audrey Hepburn and Joan Rivers, among others.
But one unlikely friendship he developed was with the British royal who is first in line to the throne.
Cicio said it was through Rivers, who had a close bond with the 69-year-old, that he met Robert Higdon, the American director of The Prince’s Trust, a charity founded in 1976 by the monarch to help young people pursue the workforce or education.
To help fund the organization, Charles launched Duchy Originals, an organic food product line, in 1992.
The Telegraph reported the line was inspired by Charles’ love of farming, which stemmed from his childhood spent on the rolling green estates of Sandringham and Balmoral. Charles has even said if he wasn’t born a prince he would have been a farmer.
But in 2005, Duchy Originals needed help, and Rivers, along with Higdon, suggested Cicio meet with Charles and offer some business advice. Cicio didn’t think twice.
“I got a call and was told Prince Charles was upset with the way his business was being run and wanted to meet me,” Cicio told Fox News. “So I went over. I had an appointment at Highgrove, his country house, on a Saturday afternoon.
"I was very nervous. I had never met his royal highness. And then you’re given all sorts of protocol on how address him, what you say the first time, what you say the second time — all sorts of stuff. And of course, that only makes me more nervous.”
There were certain strict rules Cicio needed to follow in meeting Charles. For starters, you never shake hands unless Charles initiates it. Any meeting with Charles starts off with calling him “your royal highness.” Afterward, you must then refer to him as “sir.”
Cicio was worried he would slip.
“My heart was beating 100 miles an hour,” he recalled. “He reached out his hand — thank God. But he was nothing like I expected. He made you feel incredibly comfortable. He’s incredibly gracious. But you have to always remain on your guard. You never touch. And I’m a very touchy-feely Italian guy. But you never dare touch a royal.”
Despite meeting the potential future king of England, Cicio was shocked by what he witnessed.
“There were two tables set up for the meeting,” he said. “You’re expecting people to serve you. But there’s none of that… When you arrive, you’re taken to a parlor, which is where I thought I would meet his royal highness. But a houseman comes and escorts you, which I thought was great because you got to see more of the house.
"And the house was incredible. It was your quintessential English country home. It wasn’t a palace. No gold leaves… There’s a reflecting pool with goldfish swimming. It’s just beautiful.”
And Charles did his own homework for the sit-down.
“He had a file with my name on it,” said Cicio. “It looked very CIA-like… It was my professional background… We were supposed to have 45 minutes for tea, but we spent over an hour and a half together. And you could see the people who worked for his royal highness having a nervous breakdown. He was well past his schedule.
"He was very sincere, had a great sense of humor, was impeccably dressed and looked at you in the eye… That man has the worst press agent in the world. Because he’s nothing like I expected. He was divine.”
In the press, Charles comes across as cold and indifferent, especially during the time he was married to the late Princess Diana, the mother of his two sons, Princes William and Harry. And while Cicio was expecting a royal who was stern and no-nonsense, he insisted Charles was far from the persona the media has seemingly created over the years.
“I was in awe at the little credit this man gets for the hundreds of millions of dollars that he raises and gives to areas in the world,” said Cicio. “He builds schools, hospitals — and people don’t know that. Any profit that came out of Duchy Original was put into the foundation. He wasn’t banking it.
"He was giving it away to the world’s needy. He’s very generous and very sincere about his responsibility… And he possesses a sincere concern for the environment and for the world’s poor.”
For a year, Cicio served as Charles’ merchandising and retail consultant for Duchy Originals. What should have been business as usual for Cicio turned into a surprising friendship that still endures today. He claimed the royal isn’t hesitant to pick up the phone and call you personally and write long, handwritten letters frequently.
“Unfortunately they were very difficult to read since his handwriting was even worse than mine,” said Cicio.
In 2013, The Telegraph noted the brand raised over $14 million. All of its products are approved by Charles, who regularly tastes ingredients and recipes. The publication added that for the oaten biscuit alone, he sampled over 100 different products before selecting the right combination of savory and sweet.
He also reportedly meets with all the farmers individually. In 2010, Duchy Originals went into partnership with Waitrose, a British supermarket chain, offering organic products to the general public.
Cicio claimed they still stay in touch and Charles sends a Christmas card every year. He hopes revealing that friendship to others will show a new side to Charles, one that isn’t frequently covered by the press.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky, really,” he said. “It’s been quite the journey. Hopefully it’s not over.”