Royal lady in waiting
Media interest in Kate Middleton is intense but she's handling it well, writes Kelvin Chan
The apple of Prince William's eye, Kate Middleton, is not letting a media frenzy - in which she has already been crowned a future queen - go to her head. And she is proving better at weathering the paparazzi storm than the prince's mother, Diana.
As the British media continue to speculate on an impending marriage between William, the second in line to the British throne, and the middle-class commoner, royal advisers have prepared her for the paparazzi pack, especially when they visit London's nightclubs.
Whenever she leaves those nightclubs, she checks her hair and makeup in the women's restroom, so she can present the best possible image to the press pack.
She's used those skills to win over the paparazzi, who follow every move she makes. One London paper even featured photos of her receiving a ticket from a parking warden, but instead of getting angry, the photos showed her laughing it off.
Inevitably, comparisons are drawn between Kate and Diana. But Kate is seen as less naive than Diana was, royal watchers say.
'The difference is she's a much more mature girl, educated at the same level as the prince himself, and they've been together for a lot longer than Diana was with Prince Charles before they married,' said Robert Jobson, a veteran royal reporter and author of William's Princess, which chronicles the couple's relationship.
Kate has 'confidence in her abilities and confidence in her own person', he said. Indeed, legend has it that when asked if she felt lucky to be dating a prince, Kate has famously been quoted as saying: 'He's lucky to be going out with me.'
Her ability to deal with the pressure and public interest was a sign that she would make a good queen, Jobson said. 'It's not easy to deal with the onslaught of media interest,' he said. 'It bodes well for the future.'
When William watched the first day of the races at the Cheltenham festival earlier this month, Kate was by his side in the royal box. A few days later, Kate attended the festival again - only this time without the prince.
Was it a sign of a royal break-up? But, for royal watchers, it was one of the strongest signs yet that Kate, 25, is set to one day become engaged to and marry William, 24.
For only those who are close to the 'Firm', as the royal family like to refer to themselves, are accorded the honour of hanging out in the royal box. And as it happens, Prince William couldn't make it because of his military service.
Kate and Prince William have been together for three years, but interest in their love life has greatly intensified in recent months. Many believe the couple has reached the point where they are ready to get married, a belief backed up by some encouraging signs. For instance, a noted royal photographer told politicians there would be a royal wedding, while British bookies have stopped taking bets on the date of the engagement.
Such a marriage would inject new life into the fusty royal family and maybe even save it from irrelevance, veteran royal watchers say.
'We all would love it to happen because she's just gorgeous,' said Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty Magazine. 'It would be very good for the royal family to have a beautiful young couple. They've at the moment got to the stage of almost dullness.'
Seward pointed out that Queen Elizabeth would be 82 next year while Prince Charles and his new wife Camilla Parker Bowles were nearly senior citizens and 'the rest of the family are pretty dull'.
Seward and other British royal watchers all agree that a marriage between William and the beautiful, confident, stylish and poised Ms Middleton would go a long way to restoring the lustre on the British monarchy, which has never quite recovered from the death of Princess Diana nearly 10 years ago.
Most people think it's no longer a question of if, but when the two get engaged.
'I think it's definitely going to happen,' said Jobson. He added that it would be a bigger story at this point if they split up.
Speculation that William would propose reached a frenzied climax on Kate's 25th birthday in January. That day, more than 50 photographers staked out her house in upscale Chelsea, west London. The date passed, but the interest hasn't. Earlier this month, the veteran royal photographer told the House of Commons he had spoken to the prince, who told him about his plans to marry.
At about the same time, bookmakers William Hill announced they were no longer taking bets on the date of an engagement, saying they would lose too much money if they continued. And last year, department store Woolworths announced it had ordered 100,000 commemorative royal wedding souvenirs, including mugs, plates and mouse pads, featuring the couple's faces, in preparation.
William himself has been quoted as saying he doesn't want to marry until he's 28 or 30. Perhaps it's because he's learned the lessons of what happened to his mother, who was rushed into a marriage with Prince Charles.
Kate was born in the town of Reading, west of London, on January 9, 1982, to Michael and Carole Middleton. Her parents run their own very successful mail-order business, Party Pieces, selling cheap party goods and accessories.
Kate, who has two younger siblings, Philippa and James, was sent to the exclusive private boarding school Marlborough College.
By all accounts she was an average student. Then she went to study art history at the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland, which is where she met Prince William. Many female students were interested in snagging a prince but, according to Jobson, Kate won by playing it cool. When they first met, Kate was dating a young man named Rupert Finch, while William was following his father's advice and trying not to get too romantically involved too early in his university career.
They were friends for quite some time and shared a house with some friends before their friendship turned to romance. While nobody knows exactly when it happened, their first public kiss was around Christmas 2003.
They have many things in common, including an interest in sports, said Seward. 'She gets on with all his friends, I think.'
In a break from tradition, the future king's possible wife is from a middle class background. Unlike Diana, who was from the aristocracy, Kate's family has no such ties and in fact, one newspaper discovered that her great-great-great-great grandfather was a coal miner.
But that seems to suggest that the royal family has learned its lessons from their experience with Diana. Many believe part of the reason Prince William's parents' marriage broke down was because Charles' parents believed that at age 32, he was getting a bit old to be a bachelor and they rushed him into marrying Diana - the most convenient woman of blue blood - before they really knew each other.
Jobson says that's all changed. He believes the queen has an unwritten rule that the young royals must wait five years before marrying. 'Both William and Harry are quite clear they want to marry for love,' he said.
The royal family 'wants to make sure people who want to marry into the royal family know exactly what they're getting into,' he said.
The British public knows little else about their possible future queen because she has kept an extremely low profile.
'We simply don't know her. Nobody has even heard her speak,' said Joanne Leyland, editor of the Royalist.com blog. 'She's been in the public spotlight for three years, yet we have not heard an utterance from her,' Leyland added.
The closest thing came when Prince William had his military passing-out, or graduation, from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in December. Kate was in the crowd and one British TV station was so desperate to know what she said to William that it hired a lip reader. Her words were: 'I love the uniform. It's so, so sexy.'