Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

From 'the other woman' to Queen: how Camilla turned her image around

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Over the past several decades, the one-time Camilla Parker Bowles has been known as many things - wife of the rakish brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, girlfriend of the heir to the throne, but most of all, the other woman in what turned out to be the not-so-fairy-tale marriage of Charles and Diana. And this Saturday, she will officially have a new title - queen. Tina Brown wrote "The Palace Papers: Inside The House Of Windsor," and she's on the line to talk with us about Camilla's winding journey. Tina, welcome back to the show.

TINA BROWN: Thank you so much.

PFEIFFER: For Americans who are not obsessed with the royals and who might know Camilla mainly for her role in the breakup of King Charles' - then-Prince Charles' - first marriage. Remind us of her background, separate from Charles.

BROWN: Well, Camilla comes from a very upper class squirearchy kind of a background. Her father was a major - very, very, extremely well-regarded veteran hero, actually, in the Second World War. Her mother was an aristocrat. So she always was raised in the extremely sort of aristocratic milieu of a country debutante, if you like, in - on the Sussex Downs. So her whole - her circle was always extremely upper class, bumping up against royals in every conceivable shape and form.

PFEIFFER: I've always thought of Charles as sort of a stiff, kind of awkward person, although he's grown into his role over the years. What is her reputation or the public's sense of her as a person?

BROWN: Always wildly attractive, tremendously earthy, fun, absolute catnip to men at all times - you know, Camilla really was. And, indeed, her brother and sister were very appealing too. They were known as the Sexy Shands because the Shand family - she was, you know, Camilla Shand - you know, they were a very appealing country family, always the sort of toast of every debutante party and so on. So she was a very appealing woman, and she could have really married anyone. She was definitely extremely popular on the sort of - you know, the single woman circuit.

PFEIFFER: Well, you say appealing, but there was a point where she was one of the most hated women in Britain. I believe the year after she married Charles, which was 2005, a poll for The Times of London found only 21% of the British public would be happy to have her as queen. But last year, just a few days after Queen Elizabeth died, a different poll showed that 53% of the British public thought she'd do a good job in her new role. How did she manage that turnaround?

BROWN: Well, first of all, you know, that's - the reason she was so unpopular was really because she was always seen through the prism of being, you know, the usurper of the adored Princess Diana. So, you know, Diana used to call her the Rottweiler. And, you know, she was not a glamour girl, Camilla, at any point. I mean, part of her appeal is that this is a woman who likes to wear comfortable shoes that - you know, because she doesn't like to get bunions. You know, she has gardener's hands in the sense - you know, rather dirty fingernails from her plunging into - amongst the greenery, a real kind of dog walker covered in dog hairs. You know, she's not a glamour woman. And unfortunately for her, you know, people knew nothing really about her 'cause she was so very, very private. Her friends knew she was this extraordinarily attractive and appealing woman.

But, you know, in terms of the public feeling about her, they saw her through Diana's eyes, which was usurper. And she had to have that stigma. And the press went after her with such viciousness. I mean, the really appalling sexist comments about Camilla - I mean, they used to call her, you know, old bag, old trout. You know, I mean, there was even a dish named after her as Haddock Parker Bowles. I mean, just the rudest thing - and to the point that she used to joke to Charles and sign her letter to him, your devoted old bag, Camilla, you know, because she'd been called it so often.

PFEIFFER: Sounds like she was a good sport about the abuse.

BROWN: Yes. She had a great sense of humor. That was part of her strength.

PFEIFFER: So do you think over time the public has forgiven her and it thinks, look, this is a legitimate relationship, it's a legitimate love between these two and with time - time healed how the public felt about her?

BROWN: Well, yes, because she's now been a working royal for 20 years, actually, really - or nearly 20 years, I mean, as wife of Charles. There has been an acceptance. I mean, in some ways, because Charles now becomes king so late - and she's a woman of 75, after all - she's now become sort of the nation's grandmother and is sort of on her way to becoming sort of a national treasure. So having - kind of getting the reward, as it were, so late has really been beneficial to her because earlier, I don't think the public would have accepted it. But they're beginning to see that she's a very hardworking, very gracious, humorous, unpretentious woman, actually, who has definitely improved Charles' life and has really transformed him into being an unapologetically happy man.

PFEIFFER: In Prince Harry's very popular recent memoir, he was very critical of her. And I suppose, like any blended family, let's call it, the Windsors have some complicated relationships to navigate. But he accused her of feeding the press negative stories about him so she could get better press. Is that likely to contaminate how Brits feel about her?

BROWN: Well, I think that there was a period when Charles, to really rehabilitate both his own image and that of Camilla after the death of Diana, hired a quite resourceful and, shall we say, sophisticated press secretary who was all about making her reputation better and making Charles' reputation better. But Harry felt strongly that he and William were sometimes thrown under the bus for the sake of their father and for Camilla's PR. You know, I think that Harry also does very much see that through the furious, you know, lens of being the son of, you know, the beloved Diana, his wonderful mother. The only real misery in her life was this figure, Camilla. So it's not really unlikely that Harry would feel so strongly about it because all his life he was raised to think of her as the enemy.

PFEIFFER: And do you think the public's view of her changes based on what Harry says?

BROWN: I don't think so, no. I think that the public have made up their mind about Camilla. I think they've forgiven it. I think they've recognized that, oddly and ironically, the Charles-Diana love story that went tragically awry is the one everyone focuses on. But the greater love story, the real love story, is that between Camilla and Charles. And I think that even Harry says in his book that she makes his father happy, and she does. I mean, it's been decades, this relationship. And she's stayed and she's hung in. And they do love each other. I mean, the irony is that all Charles wanted to be allowed to do was to marry an age-appropriate countrywoman who is the absolute opposite of a trophy wife. And he finally got his wish. You know, it's such an ironic story, really, and you've got to sort of think - there's something very touching about that, actually.

PFEIFFER: Yeah, it has a happy ending after a tragedy, really.

BROWN: Yes.

PFEIFFER: How do you think Camilla views her role as queen and what she wants to do with that platform?

BROWN: She has really embraced public life. I mean, this is a woman who used to like lying on the sofa, smoking a cigarette and reading a book.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

BROWN: And she wasn't - I mean, you know, she was not actually known for being a wildly - sort of, you know, running around doing public work. She totally wasn't. But now she is queen now and, indeed, for the last 15, 20 years has been, you know, an active member of the royal family. She's embraced it enormously. I mean, she has now 90 patronages. She has particularly done well with her domestic violence - anti-domestic violence sort of work because she's really espoused that. She's had friends who she knows have suffered from domestic violence, and she's really taken that on with a lot of profile. And it's been extremely effective. I think people really understand that she's authentic about that.

Also, her work with reading - I mean, she's a passionate reader. She started a book club. And I think that, again, they're very authentic, her choices of things to do. You know, she also works with animals, and we know she's passionate about riding and dogs. And, you know, she's an absolute countrywoman to her brogues. So, I mean, all of the things she's taken on have a very authentic ring. They don't sound pole-tested. And I think she's going to be very much continuing with that work as queen.

PFEIFFER: Latest chapter in quite a soap opera life of Camilla Parker Bowles.

BROWN: Indeed. Indeed.

PFEIFFER: That's Tina Brown, author of "The Palace Papers." Tina, thank you very much.

BROWN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Elena Burnett