Queen-to-be Kate Middleton is global media magnet
LONDON – Are you ready for your close-up now, Kate?
When Prince William popped the question, he made fiancee Kate Middleton one of the most-photographed, most-pursued women in the world.
Since the announcement of the couple's engagement, Middleton — dubbed "the Cinderella of Bucklebury" by Italy's La Stampa newspaper — has adorned front pages and websites around the world, photographed showing off her ring and checking out a possible wedding venue, Westminster Abbey.
William is determined she will not suffer the hounding experienced by his mother, Princess Diana. But protecting her may be difficult in the face of insatiable media interest.
"She's the main event now," said Max Clifford, Britain's best-known celebrity publicist — and that means Middleton will have to watch her every step.
"She shouldn't be roller-skating in hot pants," Clifford said, referring to a much-reprinted 2008 photo of Middleton looking unsteady on wheels at a charity disco event. "She's got to eat, breathe, drink and sleep 'What's good for the royals, what would be bad for the royals?'"
She may be marrying a future king, but many British people say they don't envy Middleton.
"I feel bad for the poor girl," said Kayla Healey, 25, a social worker from Brighton in southern England. "She's been able to stay out of the limelight pretty much the entire time and now she is going to be absolutely bombarded."
At least she has a good guide in William. The 28-year-old grew up in the public eye, a handsome royal pinup, and seems to have coped well. William appears comfortable in front of the cameras — unlike his father, Prince Charles, who is often stiff and pointedly ignores the gaggle of royal reporters who cover his engagements.
But William's ease hides a deep-seated mistrust, rooted in the media hounding experienced by his mother, who was pursued by paparazzi until her death in a Paris car crash in 1997.
The intense scrutiny endured by Britain's royals is partly the reason William waited so long to ask Middleton to marry him. In an interview this week, William said he "wanted to give her a chance to see in and to back out if she needed to before it all got too much."
"I'm trying to learn from lessons done in the past," he said.
The rules of the media game have changed since Diana's death, for which many hold the press at least partly responsible. A coroner's inquest concluded that she died because of "grossly negligent driving" by her driver, Henri Paul, who was drunk, and the paparazzi who were following them.
Since Diana's death the royal family has become more savvy — and more willing to go to court, where the right to privacy has been strengthened by a series of British legal rulings over the past decade.
Rod Dadak, a privacy expert with London law firm Lewis Silkin, said there is a widespread feeling that William and Kate should be allowed to "enjoy their engagement without being pursued all the time."
"Of course they are celebrities, but they are entitled to a private life like anyone else — up to a point," he said.
Where that point lies is a matter for negotiation, and occasionally litigation.
While William was a student at St. Andrews University in Scotland, the British press agreed to leave him alone, in return for occasional photo opportunities arranged by the palace.
He and Kate were first seen together publicly on a skiing holiday in 2004, three years after they met. But when they graduated the next year, the floodgates opened.
Soon the paparazzi were snapping the couple on evenings out, staking out Kate's home as she left for work, even photographing her as she got a parking ticket. On one occasion in 2007, the pair were protected by 10 police officers as they left a London nightclub. On Kate's 25th birthday, more than two dozen photographers and television crews staked out her London home.
By late 2007 — after the couple had split up and then reunited, triggering another round of media frenzy — William's spokesman complained about the "threatening" behavior of photographers.
Lawyers representing Middleton complained several times to the media regulator, and have been prepared to go to court. In 2007 Middleton received an apology from the Daily Mirror, and earlier this year she won an out-of-court settlement from a photo agency over pictures of her playing tennis during a family Christmas holiday.
Dadak expects talks between the palace and newspaper editors to come to an agreement about coverage of William and Kate in the months leading up to the wedding. It helps that the couple will live in relatively remote north Wales, where the prince is based as an air force search-and-rescue pilot, rather than in the media epicenter of London.
"The paparazzi of course are a different kettle of fish," Dadak said. "There is always some maniac paparazzi who will try to take long-distance shots. People will be whizzing around in helicopters, because it's a great story."
While there is sympathy for Middleton, some say she must accept media scrutiny as part of her new role.
"As a public figure, she has to deal with the media," said Sean Conte, 60 a construction worker from Chester in northwest England. "She has managed to stay out of the spotlight for too long. I think we deserve to know who will be our next queen.
"I don't think the same thing will happen as with Diana — I sure hope not — but media pressure is part of the package of becoming royal."
Gillian Smith in London contributed to this report.