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Kate Middleton and Prince William's united front fell apart

Kate Middleton and Prince William in April 2023
Kate Middleton and Prince William's united front has been cracking for months.Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Exactly a week after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's interview with Oprah Winfrey catapulted the royal family into crisis in March 2021, Prince William and Kate Middleton released a photo on Mother's Day in the UK.

The picture, posted to their joint Instagram on March 14, 2021, was of a cake they said their three children made to remember Princess Diana. It was endearing and casual, far from Kate and William's typical social-media content.

Fast-forward three years, and the royal family has found themselves surrounded by controversy yet again. But this time, Kate and William are at the center of it, igniting weeks of speculation with a match in the shape of a digitally altered Mother's Day photo.

Kristen Meinzer, royal commentator

The scandal has been breathtakingly swift, turning the once-golden Prince and Princess of Wales into joke fodder for American late-night hosts — not to mention all of social media. The publicity has been so bad that even the British tabloids' loyalty is starting to crack.

Where did it all go wrong? When Kate and William stopped acting like a united front.

A comeback for the ages

prince william kate middleton
Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 27, 2021.ANDY COMMINS/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

The royal family went on the charm offensive after Harry and Meghan's interview with Winfrey, and they knew Kate and William had to be on the starting lineup.

As the world slowly emerged from lockdown, William and Kate were suddenly everywhere. They visited Westminster Abbey to mark their 10th wedding anniversary, hung out with children on a farm, launched a joint YouTube channel, played soccer with more kids, and hosted a drive-in movie night — all before June.

The ensuing photos were a PR dream for the royal family: Kate with a goat! Kate laughing with a golf club! Kate holding a tarantula! Kate in sneakers!

There were also plenty of snaps of the couple together, and many noticed that William and Kate were suddenly more affectionate in public. That May, they visited the University of St Andrews — where they first met — and an Access Hollywood story noted that William "even affectionately put his hand on Kate's back in a tender moment we don't often see from the perfectly poised heir."

It came just a month after the couple released an anniversary portrait, accompanied by a playful Instagram video far more relaxed than their previous pictures.

Taking a page from Meghan and Harry's playbook

William and Kate's public appearances in 2021 were a huge PR shift for the royal couple, celebrity brand management expert Eric Shiffer previously told Business Insider.

"They were manicured to the nth degree," he said, adding that they "played their public persona with a Buckingham Palace excellence, out of the playbook that's been mastered for centuries."

Kate and William's formal and polished persona was opposite to Meghan and Harry's easygoing and affectionate demeanor, which didn't go unnoticed by the public or press. By sharing their mental health struggles during the Oprah interview, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex positioned themselves as the antithesis of the royal family's tight-lipped and stone-faced "never complain, never explain" mantra.

Prince William, Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry visiting Sandringham in 2018.
Prince William, Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry visiting Sandringham in 2018.Samir Hussein/WireImage

"Harry and Meghan successfully came off as more human, more approachable, and more affectionate with their subjects," royal commentator Kristen Meinzer recently told BI. "Meghan was doing these things that came off as her own heart's desires, rather than 'I am doing this because I have to cut another ribbon.'"

Royal historian Clare McHugh previously told BI that Kate and William "really adjusted their style" after the Oprah interview.

"They realized if they don't, they'll be overshadowed by this couple living in California, so they have to show themselves," she said. "They have to reveal who they are more because that's the currency now. So they let the anniversary film out, and they have YouTube, and they make jokes. It's a new world."

Until it wasn't.

A shroud of secrecy

Kate Middleton at Queen Elizabeth II's funeral
Middleton at Queen Elizabeth II's funeral in September 2022.EBASTIEN BOZON/AFP via Getty Images

In the weeks leading up to the Mother's Day photo fiasco, rumors swelled around the royal family, who are underwritten by UK taxpayers and cost about $300 million annually. Kate's most recent royal appearance was on Christmas, and there have been minimal updates since Kensington Palace's announcement in January that she'd be undergoing a "planned abdominal surgery" and wouldn't resume her public duties "until after Easter."

Eyebrows were raised when William released a rare solo statement in February regarding the conflict in Gaza and when he pulled out of his godfather King Constantine's memorial service "due to a personal matter" a week later.

As speculation over Kate's whereabouts grew, Kensington Palace told BI on February 29 that she was "doing well" and that "we shall not be providing a running commentary or providing daily updates."

"With Kate, there's been a shroud of secrecy," Meinzer told BI. "The vague language around Kate's health, William's absence from the funeral, and an update from Kensington Palace that sounds exasperated and very defensive."

"It's so glaringly different from the messaging coming from Charles' office," she added. "Charles seems more human these days than William and Kate."

King Charles' cancer diagnosis was announced on February 5, a few weeks after Kate's hospitalization. And while the public still doesn't know exactly what type of cancer he has, nor how severe, Charles has been photographed multiple times since resuming public duties.

King Charles reads get well cards following cancer diagnosis
King Charles III reads cards and messages, sent by well-wishers following his cancer diagnosis, in Buckingham Palace on February 21, 2024.JONATHAN BRADY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

"The Buckingham Palace team has been far more transparent than the Kensington Palace team," Meinzer said. "When we look at Charles' case, they were forthright about him having cancer, they did tell us he'd be having outpatient treatment, and they gave us photographic updates."

"Less than a week after the announcement of his cancer, he was attending church with Camilla and waving at the camera people and his subjects," she added. "There are hundreds of witnesses to see that this is actually happening in real time while these photos are being taken."

The (altered) photo seen around the world

Unlike Charles, only three photos of Kate have been released since the January announcement from Kensington Palace.

The first, a grainy paparazzi photo published by TMZ on March 4, showed Kate's face obscured by big sunglasses as she sat in the car with her mother, Carole Middleton. The third, published by the Daily Mail on March 11, showed Kate in the car with William — but her face was turned away from the camera.

The only recent clear photo of Kate's face was the picture she and William released on Mother's Day on March 10. The snap shows Kate smiling with the couple's three children, and the caption credits William with taking the picture this year.

Within hours, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse announced they would no longer distribute the image due to concerns it had been digitally altered. They sent kill notifications to media outlets worldwide with instructions to remove the picture from all platforms, including social media.

According to ABC News, the Mother's Day photo was edited twice with Adobe Photoshop — once on the night of March 8 and once on the morning of March 9 — before it was released. During an appearance on BBC Radio 4's "The Media Show," Phil Chetwynd, the global news director at Agence France-Presse, said Kensington Palace is no longer a trusted source.

"'Photogate' is a PR disaster, no matter how you look at it," royal historian Marlene Koenig told BI. "It's a major, major story, whether the fangirls like it or not. It's not about Kate being sick. It's not about Kate being a member of the royal family. It's about someone who manipulated a photograph to make it look better. Now there's definitely a lack of trust."

Kate took responsibility for the photo on Monday, writing on X: "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."

It was a move that only heightened confusion — and fuelled more rumors.

Blame the princess

Royal fans and pundits alike were shocked to see an explanation come from Kate rather than a joint statement by Kensington Palace.

"An organization of this size and this international level would normally put out a statement that does not throw one of its most esteemed members under the bus," Meinzer told BI. "I'm kind of surprised that they specifically chose to essentially hang Kate out to dry."

Kate's post on X went against the PR strategy helping her and William for years. Where was the royal family's united front?

But the Prince and Princess of Wales have been diverging from the tactics of their successful 2021 comeback tour for a while now. There's only a handful of photos and videos of the couple together in the past six months on their Instagram page, the most recent being the official Christmas card.

The Prince and Princess of Wales 2023 family Christmas card.
The Prince and Princess of Wales 2023 family Christmas card.Josh Shinner/Kensington Palace via Getty Images

With the black-and-white color, matching outfits, and plain backdrop, it starkly contrasts the sunny, laid-back, and cheerful picture they had shared the year before.

There's no denying Kate and William have reverted to the royal family's former strategy of stiff formality. It's led to increased speculation surrounding the stability of their marriage and a lack of connection to the public that's crucial to the monarchy's popularity and, in turn, its survival.

"I would have focused more on the realness of what Kate's going through. Not everything has to be elevated," Schiffer recently told BI. "People understand that when you're coming back from surgery, it can be difficult, and that's OK too. Part of Kate's charm has always been her ability to be fairly approachable and down to earth, so why move away dramatically from that strategy?"

"One thing that Kate and William should have learned from Harry and Meghan is to come across as more human," Meinzer added.

It remains to be seen if the royal rota — the British tabloids that Harry said have an "invisible contract" with the royal family — will continue to support Kate and William. While stories with sympathetic spins have continued to run on the likes of the Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Sun, there have also been several negative takes calling Prince William "ungentlemanly" or saying that "the palace can no longer be trusted."

"We're starting to see some very, very loyal members of the royal rota who have always been in William and Kate's corner suddenly not 100% in their corner," Meinzer said.

"I'm surprised any of them are asking any questions right now," she added. "I usually expect them to be firmly in the pocket of the palace."

While it's rare for the royal rota to go against the heir, or the crown for that matter, it's not unprecedented. One only needs to look at how the tabloids covered the Queen's response to Princess Diana's death.

"Show us you care," one headline screamed.

"SPEAK TO US," another shouted.

When it comes to being royal, that stiff upper-lipped silence can be your downfall.

Read the original article on Business Insider