What ‘KateGate’ says about royalty, celebrity and internet culture

    The Hawk
    March26/ 2024
    Last Updated:

    Amidst a digital era obsessed with celebrity culture, the British monarchy's traditional allure shifts as Americans engage with royal family scandals and personal battles like Catherine's courageous fight against cancer, igniting debates on royal transparency and modernization.

    Princes of Wales, Kate Middleto

    London: Once upon a time, the British monarchy exerted a unique hold over the imaginations of millions of Americans, an interest that elevated its crown-bearing figureheads above the average A-lister or Hollywood hoi polloi.

    Lately, however, a succession of births, deaths and marriages in the royal family, and several high-profile scandals, have collided with the rise of an internet culture evermore obsessed with celebrity. The monthslong frenzy over the whereabouts of Catherine, Princess of Wales — culminating in a televised statement Friday in which she revealed she was battling cancer — reflects a fundamental shift in the sentiment of a growing faction of the public: that the Windsors are like any other celebrity family in the public eye and that they deserve to be treated as such.

    The online maelstrom that fueled KateGate came largely from outside Britain — and especially from across the Atlantic. It exploded thanks to a 24-hour news cycle, a boom in conspiracy theories and rabid social media punditry, as millions of users sought clicks and a boost in followers with increasingly provocative posts.

    “Everyone is watching a different thread on their phone, following a different theory or even becoming an armchair expert or sleuth broadcasting about the royals from their living room,” Wendy Naugle, editor-in-chief of People magazine, said last week.

    These days, many of Naugle’s American readers follow every update about the British royals as they would other celebrities — “for the outfits and family drama,” she said. And while millions of people wanted only to offer well wishes to the princess, the criticism, mockery and expectation that interested parties should be given boundless information about her reached levels rarely seen before.

    Matters were not helped by an edited photo released by Kensington Palace on Mother’s Day that fed speculation that Catherine, also known as Kate, was missing, dying, using a body double or seeking a divorce. TMZ footage of the princess in a car with her mother, Carole Middleton, was published widely in the United States. Thousands of posts and reposts asked whether, given the angle of her face, it was even her.

    “The moment grew far beyond the corners of social media into the mainstream media and the national conversation in America,” Elizabeth Holmes, a journalist and royal expert in Los Angeles, said last week, before Kate’s statement was aired. New ground was broken by outlets and individuals with audiences of millions in terms of what they said publicly about royals. Certainly any expectation that three months of silence by a family in the public eye was shown to be unrealistic.

    A more brazen and derisive tone toward the royal family, which echoes a similar shift in attitude toward establishment positions like the American presidency, extended to the well-oiled cogs of the United States entertainment machine. On “The Late Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Colbert suggested that Kate’s “disappearance” was linked to Prince William’s alleged extramarital affairs, to hoots from the audience. A constellation of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Blake Lively, posted jokes on Instagram about her absence from public life. (Lively apologized after her cancer diagnosis came to light.) The British tabloid press, notorious for hounding royals and celebrities but who have shown restraint in recent weeks, have openly accused the United States and its media of intensifying the frenzied rumor mill.

    The Windsors have long held an outsize role in the imaginations and interests of Americans. A war may have been fought to escape British rule, but Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana and, more recently, Kate were by and large adored. The centuries-old pageantry, palaces and traditions associated with the House of Windsor may be tinged with tyranny and imperialism, but they remain a subject of enduring fixation across the Atlantic, as shown by the 33 million Americans who watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 and the 29 million who woke up at the crack of dawn to watch Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry 21 years later.

    “People of all ages and backgrounds still take the British royal family very seriously,” Sally Bedell Smith, a journalist and serial royal biographer, said of its American fan base, dismissing any suggestion that they are seen as a British version of a reality television family like, say, the Kardashians. “They are interested in their lives and their history, and they respect their work.”

    But there has always been detachment in the American attitude toward the British royals, which holds fascination and curiosity but has evolved for some to include resentment and even ridicule. The Windsors are not funded by American taxpayer dollars. Nor are they deeply woven into the fabric of American society as they are in Britain, where in recent weeks public consensus on the royals, which resists easy interpretation and remains tied up with centuries of tradition, was to leave the princess alone.

    American interest in the royals waned after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, especially among older generations. King Charles III, who recently underwent cancer treatment, has yet to inspire the same degree of affection. But the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex created a younger fan base in the United States, many of whom began to feel negatively toward the royal family following the fracturing of relations between the Sussexes and the Palace. The couple’s subsequent relocation to California, Prince Harry’s autobiography and a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey have married the conventions of a royal title with the business of modern celebrity with products to sell and a more commercialized relationship with fans.

    The Duke and Duchess of Sussex wished Kate “health and healing” in a statement Friday. But many of the Sussexes’ followers continue to be vocal contributors to online conversation around the Princess of Wales, comparing the treatment of the Duchess of Sussex and the Princess of Wales by the faceless “palace,” as well as what modern royalty should look like.

    “Queen Elizabeth was famously private, and people accepted that for a woman of her generation,” Naugle said. “Now Meghan and Harry have prompted some people in younger generations to question the true costs of the monarchy. They want transparency and expect authenticity.”

    The same could be said of Hollywood celebrities and reality television stars, though many of them arguably have more control over the information they share about their lives. Or they employ experienced communications handlers with a strong sense of how to navigate the sometimes savage cycles and spirals of 21st-century media. But royals, crucially, aren’t supposed to disappear from sight. As Queen Elizabeth II is rumored to have said, she and her family had to be seen to be believed. That means providing a steady stream of photos for public consumption, be it in moments of celebration — or profound crisis.

    Since Kate’s statement Friday, there has been a global outpouring of well wishes — and contrition — and backlash toward those showing contrition. But the more outlandish theories have continued, with some social media users believe her latest video was either fake or generated by artificial intelligence. On Monday, The Telegraph reported another factor amplifying certain conspiracy theories: disinformation spread by hostile states like China, Russia and Iran.

    Others continue to rail against what they perceive as a botched communications job by palace executives and that her cancer diagnosis should have unveiled sooner. Few choose to believe Kate has had any authority or agency in the handling of the matter as she and her family processed her news, even though this is what she stated from a garden of daffodils as she asked for privacy while she underwent chemotherapy.

    “People fill silence with their own noise,” Holmes said last week.

    —International New York Times