The Duchess of Cambridge upstaged her Duke at nearly every photo op and pretty much all royal news could be boiled down to one of three categories: Who designed Kate’s look—and is it an outfit she’s recycled from before? Is she testing out a new hairstyle—could bangs be next? And, wait, could that possibly be the hint of a baby bump?!
Then a funny thing happened. Harry decided to settle down.
Every bit as charismatic as Kate, and media trained to boot, Meghan Markle was poised and warm, had a slew of causes she was already passionate about and was a shiny new character sending royal watchers aflutter. That her official coming out party—her and Harry’s breathlessly viewed May nuptials—coincided with Kate’s six-month maternity leave following the April arrival of Prince Louis only made Meghan’s star shine brighter and soon it became easy to forget that there was another princess bride with a perfectly bouncy blowout and a knack for pairing designer fashions with affordable wares.
It’s not so much that there’s any sort of inherent competition between the two duchesses. Despite what fun it is to speculate otherwise, insiders swear they’re each happy to cede center stage at any one given time. And they’ve made it a point to share the spotlight in recent weeks as rumors of their alleged feud reached a crescendo that even the palace couldn’t ignore, smiling side-by-side at Prince Charles‘ 70th birthday celebration, November’s Royal Foundation Dinner and, of course, Christmas Day services at St. Mary Magdalene Church.
The first hints came Oct. 2 when Kate returned to her roots, both figuratively and literally helping a group of grade-schoolers at Sayers Croft Trust Forest School and Wildlife Garden make leaf crowns, dig for “minibeasts” and water plants.
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A week later, the former art history major confidently added her brush stroke to Dairo Vargas‘ “Someone To Turn To” painting at the inaugural Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit, joking he was “very brave” to allow her and William to contribute.
And while it was Meghan’s suspiciously voluminous Givenchy coat that pulled focus at Princess Eugenie‘s Oct. 12 wedding, the normally PDA-shy Kate (in McQueen, the same label she wore for her own vows) drew notice for brazenly resting her hand on William’s upper thigh.
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The greatest honor bestowed upon a female family member, the Royal Family Order was presented to Kate last year. “Catherine is enormously proud to be have been given the brooch,” a family friend told Vanity Fair. “She waited a long time for it, and I think she was very keen to be photographed in it. It’s a badge of honor as far as she is concerned and she’s absolutely thrilled.”
So you could say she put a bit of thought into the ensemble. “After that long break, she has certainly come back with a bang,” Kaitlin Menza, co-host of the Royally Obsessed podcast asserted. “I think that’s what she’s trying to convey: ‘I’m back, baby.'”
And here to stay, her ensemble for December’s Buckingham Palace diplomatic reception also featuring the Lover’s Knot tiara and Royal Family Order pinned to a glittering Jenny Packham gown.
“Although Meghan has now joined the Firm—and temporarily taken the spotlight away from Kate—I don’t think she will ever eclipse her,” Claudia Joseph, author of How to Dress Like a Princess, told Vanity Fair. “There is a lot of affection for Kate both as a mother to three gorgeous children and a future Queen.”
Of course she intends to make statements that extend beyond fashion. Having fully grown into her senior position in the Firm after seven years, three heirs and too many walkabouts and tête-à-têtes with the Queen to count, she’s passed off her commoner-finding-her-way-amongst-the-blue-bloods crown to Meghan, who’s just starting her journey—and her family—with Harry.
In the past the daughter of former flight attendants has been labeled with the reputation of a somewhat reluctant royal, with some never shaking the image of the newly engaged University of St. Andrews grad confessing to ITV News’ Tom Bradby that she was a bit apprehensive about the role she was taking on. “It’s obviously nerve-wracking, because I don’t know what I’m sort of…I don’t know the ropes,” she admitted in the 2010 interview, the first time much of the world heard her voice. “William is obviously used to it, but no I’m willing to learn quickly and work hard.”
And incredibly effective. Lorraine Heggessey, CEO of the Royal Foundation, revealed to People it was Kate that suggested they team up to direct their focus towards eradicating the stigma that’s long been attached to mental illnesses. “I have found her to be incredibly wise,” she told the mag, noting that while she’s not the type “who pushes herself forward, she is very confident in her views. She often spots the nub of the issue or a critical thing that needs dealing with.”
“People who are often saying, ‘Well, is she jealous of Meghan?’ She’s really not,” asserts Nicholl. “Kate is happier in her life now that she ever has been. She has everything she wants. She has William, she has three beautiful children…she is where she always wanted to be.”
Yes, it’s true that Kate is saddled with certain expectation Meghan is exempt from. A presumptive queen consort who has the somewhat Herculean task of raising another future king, she’s expected to toe the line in her sensible L.K. Bennett heels while Meghan, the wife of the so-called “spare heir” is somewhat more free to subtly share her viewpoints on more hot button issues, referencing the #MeToo movement in her speech at the first annual Royal Foundation forum, labeling herself a feminist on her official royal family bio and proudly turning her Windsor Castle vows into a cross-cultural celebration.
Despite their differences, the pair have every reason to continue working together. “If they’re clever, both of them, they will make sure this is a relationship that works,” says Nicholl. “They could and should be great allies.”
Their affection has been on display ever since, with The Crown historical consultant Robert Lacey noting to People that, for Meghan, Kate and the Queen “seem to be her closest friends and partners in the official set-up.”
While an insider acknowledges to Us Weekly that the Berkshire native and the avowed California girl come “from two totally different worlds,” they’re now inhabiting the same small sphere. “They are two women under serious amounts of pressure, stress and under a huge spotlight that no one can relate to,” the source told the outlet, “they will always have a bond that no one can break.”
“The fact that there is a new glamorous sister-in-law in tow is not going to worry her one bit,” underlines Nicholl. “I think Meghan came at the right time for her because it was at a time when Kate wanted to step out of the spotlight.”
But now that she’s back and she has a few things she’d like to say and some tiaras she intends to wear, well, she’s ready to reclaim her throne. Respectfully, of course.