Capturing the moment the royals became slebs
Those grainy pics of a naked Kate Middleton tell a striking story about the celebrification of the Windsors.
They are so much more than a few long-range snaps of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on holiday, the latter without her bikini top. They are the moment when the transformation was complete, the moment when the imprimatur was gained. Because that’s all it needed: a few shots published in some gossipy magazines of the couple on holiday in some sun-drenched location and they became what they have always flirted with. That is, they became bona-fide, let-it-all-hang-out-at-the-beach, twenty-first-century celebrities. Not royalty, celebrity. To the likes of Kim and Kanye, Wayne and Colleen, Chantelle and Alex, we can now add, at long last, the names of Will and Kate.
Not that British commentators and politicians seem too happy with Wills and Kate’s anointment as proper, paparazzi-teasing slebs. Quite the contrary. They are ‘outraged’ and ‘angered’ at this ‘grotesque’ invasion of a young-ish couple’s private space. Why should this normal couple, albeit one infused by blue blood and handpicked by God to rule o’er us, have to suffer the indignity of being treated like public property, critics contend? Furthermore, you can see her tits, they aver.
Underpinning the frothy-mouthed reaction is a desire to vent some anti-tabloid and anti-tabloid reader spleen. As one columnist shrieked: ‘This Kate incident has all the nasty hallmarks of the worst excesses of the paparazzi: the sneaking in bushes, the enormous long lenses, the grainy photos, the popular trashy press lapping it up.’ In fact, the only thing more fulfilling for our political and respectable media classes than having a pop at the ‘trashy press’ is surely the opportunity to have a pop at Johnny Foreigner’s ‘trashy press’. Which, given the fact that, so far, only the French Closer, the Italian Chi, the Irish Daily Star and some Scandinavian outlets have published the photos, has made Kate-gate perfect fodder for a spot of righteous posturing. Enter ex-prime minister John Major: ‘I have often in the past been critical of the British media. I thoroughly applaud the fact that they will not touch these pictures with a barge pole. They deserve credit for not doing so. It is a pity that other people overseas have lower standards.’
But here’s the thing: ‘other people overseas’ don’t have lower standards; they have a better perspective. And I’m not just talking about the view from the road overlooking Will and Kate’s chateau getaway. It is a perspective which, by dint of its distance from the UK, reveals something of the true nature of the British monarchy today. In short, French magazine Closer or the Irish Daily Star can see Britsh royals not for what they used to be, but for what they have become: mere celebrities. And they therefore treat them accordingly. In the words of Mike O’Kane, editor of the Irish Daily Star before he was suspended for publishing the Kate pics: ‘The duchess would be no different to any other celeb pics we would get in, for example Rihanna or Lady Gaga. She’s not the future queen of Ireland, so really the only place this is causing fury seems to be in the UK.’
It is important to understand that this transformation of British royalty into the equivalent of Rihanna or Lady Gaga on the world stage is not an accident. The status of celebrity is precisely what the royal family has aspired to.
Since Elizabeth II’s ascension 60 years ago, the monarchy has consistently tried to reinvent itself, to find some new, workable source of authority, some purpose to their exceptional social position. And with good reason: the traditional sources of authority, be it the British Empire or the divine right to rule, no longer resonate in a secular, demotic nation which has long since shed its colonies. The royal family seemed almost keen to veil its own prefix. It was to be a more ordinary family, like us but glamorous and other-worldly at the same time. Such is the nature of celebrity. In 1969, for instance, the TV documentary Royal Family showed the royals at home, supposedly chatting and relaxing just like every other family.
This effacement of the regal in favour of the normal has picked up pace throughout the Elizabeth’s reign. But it has also combined with a drive to find an alternative source of lustre, too. And it has found this in the one facet of public life which still commands a strange sort of awe: celebrity. Because that is what the royal family has done. It has disavowed its traditional sources of authority, and has reinvented itself in terms of celebrity.
As Brendan O’Neill argued on spiked last year, the monarchy is hardly alone in this hankering after celebrity as a source of authority. Over the past few decades, while church and nation have increasingly lacked popular purchase, celebrity has acquired an unprecedented position of authority in public life. As O’Neill suggests, the prefix that might once have granted an organisation or campaign with authority, ‘royal’, has been replaced with a new authoritative prefix, ‘celebrity’ – and the old royal prerogative has been replaced by the ‘celebrity prerogative’: ‘the use of slebs to push frequently illiberal or interventionist campaigns, from the parent-bashing school-dinners crusade to the depiction of Africa as in need of rescue.’ Indeed, even the tabloid-bashing to which the publication of Will and Kate pics has given rise has its own celebrity endorsement in the form of Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan.
It is this modern form of public authority that the royal family has sought to acquire. And nowhere has this been more apparent than in the self-consciously mundane glamour of Will and Kate ‘I wear high-street brands’ Windsor. They have never sought to be aloof. They have never seemingly expected deference. And they have also actively distanced themselves from the traditional, hence the drive-around in an Austin Powers-style Aston Martin during their royal wedding last year. With the help of Clarence House’s PR team, they have acted like, well, celebrities. Unlike the queen, for instance, they give interviews much in the way that a soap opera star might pop up on breakfast TV to chat about his battle with the bulge. They can also be found treading the red carpet for move premieres and looking serious on trips abroad, as Kate did this week, while ‘raising awareness’ of women’s issues in South East Asia. This is not the modernisation of the royal family so much as its celebrification. Brad and Angelina provide its template, not Victoria and Albert.
Yet the celebrification of royalty also presents a problem. What, after all, differentiates Will and Kate, let alone the Liam Gallagher of the litter, Prince Harry, from every other celebrity? The very things that leant royal fame its distinction – the tradition of queen and country, the unironic pomp and ceremony – are precisely the aspects that Will and Kate have tried to shake off. And it is this confusion, this blurring of lines, that the press overseas can see so clearly. In those grainy pictures of Kate with her top off, it seems that something of the truth was caught. The royals are simply not very royal anymore.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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