William and Kate's mystique rooted in Diana's legacy, experts say
TORONTO - The relentless glare of the media spotlight was focused on Diana, Princess of Wales, for nearly half her life, illuminating in painstaking detail every step along her tumultuous journey from kindergarten teacher to A-list celebrity.
Fourteen years after her death, the Diana mystique has widened to encompass her eldest son and his new wife, making them the undisputed new stars of the Royal Family.
These days, the faces of Prince William and Kate are routinely splashed across magazine covers and websites that typically set their sights firmly on Hollywood.
Those media outlets — indeed, the entire world — will turn their gaze to Canada this week as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge show off their unique combination of regal appeal and celebrity glamour during their first foreign tour as newlyweds.
A new Harris-Decima poll conducted for The Canadian Press suggests Canada hasn't seen a royal visit generate this sort of buzz in a very long time.
Some 77 per cent of people surveyed said they were aware that William and Kate were on their way to Canada, up sharply from a year ago, when only 55 per cent of respondents reported being aware that the Queen was due on Canadian soil.
"That is a remarkably high degree of saturation; basically, everybody knows," said Harris-Decima senior vice-president Doug Anderson, attributing the high level of awareness to the intense media coverage of the recent royal wedding.
But the coverage is fuelled by an insatiable public appetite, said People Magazine senior editor Nancy Jeffrey. The magazine's 220-page Royal Wedding issue sold 2.5 million copies and generated 162 million page views on its website.
Jeffrey attributed the couple's overwhelming popularity to Prince William's mother Diana, who appeared on People's cover a record 57 times.
"She was in many ways the ultimate celebrity — beautiful, fashionable, iconic, had a lot of drama in her life, then went on and made a new life for herself," she said.
"For our readers, that really counts. They like glamour, but they also like heroes and people who do good for others."
History seems to be repeating itself, she added: Kate has already claimed Diana's former status as a global style icon, while William has taken on high-profile charitable causes such as the homeless and the preservation of African wildlife.
Carolyn Harris, a Ph.D candidate at Queen's University who specializes in royal history, said Diana's sudden death in 1997 fuelled public affection for her children, which turned to familial glee when he found love with Kate.
It remains an open question whether the couple has inherited the media savvy that elevated Diana's image.
The Princess of Wales had an uncanny ability to present herself as approachable, a more endearing trait to the public than all the royal titles and charitable causes in the world. William and Kate, who were front and centre at Wimbledon on Monday amid mounting buzz about their impending travels, also seem to have pitch-perfect media instincts.
By contrast, other royals, like Princess Anne — a generous philanthropist and Save the Children patron with an agenda thick with public engagements — seem to lack the intangibles that allow them a more direct, personal connection with people, Harris suggested.
"You'll never see press photos of her cuddling one of the children when she's visiting the work that Save the Children does."
Forty per cent of Canadians who responded to the Harris-Decima poll said they would go see the newlyweds if they came to their community, while roughly one-third of those surveyed said they would pay close attention to the upcoming tour. Twenty-four per cent of respondents said the tour would end up strengthening royal ties to the monarchy.
The poll was conducted by telephone June 16-19, and surveyed just over a thousand people. It carries a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Of the 53 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 34 who said they were aware of the visit, 40 per cent said they planned to see the royals in person, while 27 per cent predicted stronger ties to the monarchy.
Those statistics fly in the face of conventional wisdom that suggests Canadian youth have little interest in royal affairs, Anderson said. "It probably has something to do with the age of the royal couple and the different kind of appeal that they have."
Of course, the popularity of William and Kate hasn't swayed the detractors of the Royal Family, who see them as a bloated and unnecessary drain on the public purse both in Britain and in Canada.
Tom Freda, national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, said he believes the couple's appeal has everything to do with modern-day celebrity culture and no relevance to their position in the Royal Family.
As such, Freda said Prince William and his bride should take advantage of their celebrity status by seeking private endorsements in order to finance their travels and take the costs off the backs of taxpayers.
"These royals have star power and celebrity status," he said. "They should capitalize on it and save us our taxpayers' money. They'll probably have a much better trip."
But it's their unique status as royals that enhances William and Kate's appeal by playing to a collective taste for the exotic, Jeffreys countered.
"We have celebrities, we don't have princes and princesses," she said.
"We don't have castles or people who ride in carriages. For us to see these long-standing traditions, and kings and queens and princes and princesses, I think for us it's just this wonderful, real-life fairy tale."