Inside a royal charm offensive:Will & Kate meet street kids, hope to save monarchy

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QUEBEC - As a 20-something Quebecer with a green mohawk, tattoo-laden limbs, lobe-stretching ear loops and a nose ring, he hardly fit the stereotypical pro-monarchist demographic

P.A. shrugged his shoulders when asked about his impending meeting Sunday with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. He said he was just doing it as a favour for Maison Dauphine, the centre for street kids that helped him get his life together over seven years.

The centre gave him food and a place to stay, helped him during troubles with the police, and encouraged him to get back to school. After graduating high school and junior college, he's now studying to become a juggler and clown.

He was asked to perform for Prince William and Kate. Before meeting them, P.A. was terse when asked about his feelings toward the royals: "I'm going to make my small show and that's all I have to say about that."

An hour later, the 24-year-old was rather laudatory.

"(William) seemed interested in what I was doing.... He asked me about my past, why I was here, what Dauphine did for me — then he asked about my studies ... where I was going," said P.A. Officials at the centre asked that the media not publish any full names.

"Of course he's royalty, always surrounded by people... But he seems close to people. He seemed like a normal guy."

That encounter at a shelter in old Quebec City offers some insight into the ongoing tour, and the Royal Family's hope of keeping the institution relevant for generations to come.

The logic being that if it can win over P.A., not to mention other young people, the monarchy's chances of flourishing only increase. With William's grandmother aging and his father far less popular, the youthful prince is considered key to that charm offensive.

Sunday's meeting, however, did not begin well.

William stumbled over P.A.'s work tools. The prince missed a step as his foot struck a rubber carpet stacked with juggling instruments, knocking them about.

"Oh I'm sorry. I ruined it," William said with a gentle, apologetic hand wave to the young man. P.A. didn't seem bothered.

In the meantime, the royal couple worked the room.

The sounds of the Beatles' Let It Be album, then '80s-style heavy metal, had played over the loudspeaker as the royals arrived in a centre that works with 500 youth per year.

Near one corner, a broad-shouldered young man nervously practised magic tricks. Stephane, 26, is already getting gigs as a magician while studying his new trade.

The cheerful young man said he was thrilled. How many magicians get to ply their trade for royalty, he asked rhetorically, let alone ones who are just apprentices?

The royal couple split apart upon entering the room, each one engaging youth in conversation. Reporters, who were standing about 10 metres away, could frequently hear them laughing in groups.

Kate later gave the magician a high-five when he repeatedly locked and unlocked his arms from metal shackles. The trick was originally performed by the legendary Harry Houdini, Stephane explained.

"That's impressive," the duchess told him afterward. The duke pointed to his watch and quipped that he was keeping track of how long it took him to wiggle free.

William played table soccer with one of the centre's guides. The duke's performance on a foosball table is more expressive than impressive.

William commented on every goal, groaned when he was scored upon, and even appeared to emit a yelp when one ball got past him.

The prince managed to slice the ball and occasionally strike from a sharp angle — but his little plastic men occasionally stumbled along the way and sent the ball sputtering backwards.

But he rallied from behind. The prince, down 4-3, scored the final goal to eke out a 4-4 tie against his new acquaintance Steve.

Eventually it was P.A.'s moment in the spotlight.

He picked up three wooden boxes — the ones William had accidentally kicked — and began tossing them around, almost like a traditional juggler except, instead of balls, he would use the boxes to catch each other, constantly flipping them around one or two at a time.

Everyone applauded.

The royals came to shake P.A.'s hand and they chatted for a bit. William emphatically declined when someone suggested he could take up juggling.

The prince gestured skyward with his hands and, referring to the wooden boxes, said: "They would go everywhere!"

At seemingly every stop on this Canadian tour, people who have met the royals share similar impressions — that they take the time to make a personal connection.

Rather than speed-networking through a room and delivering a rat-a-tat procession of handshakes, they have frequently fallen behind schedule while engaging in conversation.

Of course when you're young, attractive and famous, it might not take much to impress a stranger. Perhaps a little small talk and a personal question or two might suffice.

But the one-time street kids who met the royals Sunday were glad to tell their stories. And the royal couple, they said, seemed glad to listen.

"I was very happy," said Stephane, the magician. "This means something to me. They were really interested in my life story.

"I never expected that. It was a real surprise. ... I wasn't sure what to expect — but they are people with such an open spirit. I think they enjoyed themselves."

The young woman who shepherded William through the building and occasionally helped with translation, said it was similar during a round-table discussion with the youngsters.

"I was surprised with the quality of the exchange they had," Marie-Pier said.

"They didn't just ask some questions. They were truly interested and were looking at you in the eyes and really trying to make a contact."

Kate's guide, Steve, echoed that sentiment almost word-for-word: "(William and Kate) didn't want for us to be firm and formal. They wanted us to be as we are. We spoke to them with our hearts and I think we touched them."

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