Kate Middleton at 40: Royal Experts on the Evolution of the Future Queen

To mark the Duchess of Cambridge's 40th birthday, Marie Claire spoke to experts about her evolution from poised but shy fiancée to confident powerhouse.

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Catherine “Kate” Middleton first burst into public consciousness when she was photographed on the ski slopes at Klosters, Switzerland, while on a vacation with Prince William and his family in 2004. Since that accidental photoshoot, the Berkshire, England native has married into the Royal Family, become a patron to a ton of different charities, had three children, and cemented her role as the Duchess of Cambridge, expertly blending tradition and modernity in everything she undertakes. She has also become a fashion icon in her own right, mixing designer garments with H&M and Zara finds, and being one of the first celebrities to often rewear statement pieces such as coats and dresses for public engagements.

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As the duchess prepares to turn 40 on Jan. 9, Marie Claire spoke to royal experts about Middleton’s evolution over her first decade and a bit as a royal—from poised but shy fiancée to confident powerhouse—and about what we can expect from her as she prepares to become first Princess of Wales, then eventually Queen consort. Though Middleton has shown herself to be a great asset to the Royal Family, it hasn’t all been a smooth-sailing fairytale.

Early on in her relationship with Prince William, she had to deal with snarky comments about her social standing, and then there were those cheating rumors and the fact that her husband was flying helicopters on the regular to worry about. Add to that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s recent departure from royal life, their Oprah interview, and her brother-in-law’s impending memoir, and it’s safe to say that the Duchess of Cambridge has had to put out her fair share of fires since she became a royal. Judging by the public’s continued admiration for her, she has been pretty successful at it too.

A Down-to-Earth Royal

As Kate Middleton has grown in her role as duchess and prepares to take on the prestigious and pressure-filled roles of Princess of Wales, then Queen consort, she has built a reputation as an approachable and fairly in-touch royal—the kind of public figure you could joke around with if you found yourself in her presence for some reason.

“She has become more relaxed and confident and has gradually spoken alongside William rather than letting him do all the talking,” says royal commentator and biographer Angela Levin. “This was particularly shown during the pandemic when the couple were doing Zoom calls. They both engaged with whoever they were talking to. Catherine is more open about herself and doesn’t mind admitting she was nervous or has found something difficult, for example how hard she initially found being a first-time mother.”

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Body language expert Darren Stanton agrees that the duchess’ honesty is a major part of her appeal. “The one thing about Kate Middleton that noticeably hasn’t changed over the years is that she is a very genuine person,” Stanton says on behalf of Be My Bet. “Other public figures, like celebrities and even other royal family members, can tend to show a fake smile or disingenuous displays of emotion at certain events—however, Kate is very much an open book.”

Stanton continues, “She is always seen with a very open and honest smile denoted by visible crow’s feet around her eyes. Her whole face is engaged when smiling and it’s clear she has developed a massive confidence not only as a royal and a public figure, but as a parent too.”

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A friendly, genuine, approachable senior royal, you say? Hmm, that rings a bell… “It can be said that there are also a lot of similarities between Kate and Princess Diana,” Stanton says. “Not only has Kate shown a willingness to interact with everyday people when attending public events—no other royal has interacted with the public as much as William and Kate since Diana—but she also displays the same level of true empathy and sympathy as Diana did. She’s not afraid to display her emotions, whether it be when she’s meeting with children, visiting those in hospital or connecting with members of the public around the world. She is happy to be an emotional support to others and it’s clear she truly cares.”

A Fashion Icon

When you’re as intensely in the public eye as Kate Middleton is, the clothes you wear matter. A lot. The choice of color, the selection of a designer or the decision to rewear a certain piece all hold significance in the eyes of the public, the media and the Firm itself. That means that the Duchess of Cambridge has to make consistently shrewd fashion choices that reflect the image she wants to project—a part of her job which she has thrown herself into with gusto.

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“It’s important to remember what an important icon she’s been for fashion for some time,” says royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams. “You’ve got her favorite designers, Alexander McQueen, Jenny Packham, Alice Temperley … Mulberry bags, L.K. Bennett shoes and so forth. That is significant, because it has a huge worldwide impact.”

For Stanton, the duchess has shown a clear evolution in her outfits over the years since she first joined the Royal Family. “Kate has become more and more sophisticated in her fashion choices and while she has never sought the limelight, she has learnt how to deal with being in the public eye and accepts it’s part and parcel of her marriage,” he says.

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“Like Princess Diana, Kate has undeniably become a global fashion icon, especially when pictured conducting official royal duties. She often wears famous designers and interacts and mixes with the world’s biggest stars and celebrities, with her dress choices becoming increasingly bolder and more striking.

“Bold colors, sequins and slightly more revealing designs are a very good indicator that Kate now feels like she has found a true inner confidence in her role within the Royal Family and within her relationship with William—with the pair often portraying a power couple when on the red carpet together.”

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It has also been remarked that the duchess borrows a fashion trick from the Queen: dressing in bright monochromes to stand out in a crowd. “Although Kate has always dressed quite regally, one color that has featured heavily in her fashion choices is the color red,” Stanton says. “In many photographs, Kate is pictured wearing a vibrant shade of red, with such a color suggesting she is very confident in herself and self-assured. It is also a color of passion and Kate seems to display a sense of mischief whenever she is wearing it.

“Another shade that has become a favorite of hers is green. Green is said to convey empathy and a caring nature in a person’s personality—a nod to Kate’s maternal side.”

Kate Middleton Borrows The Queen's Fashion Trick

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A Peacemaker

The Royal Family is certainly not without its drama—and nothing has illustrated this more in recent years than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to leave royal life and make a new home in California. There have been many reports of a growing rift between Princes William and Harry since that time, and it sounds like Middleton has done her best to help them reconnect with each other.

“She has tried to act as a bridge between William and Harry,” Levin says. “There was [a] very bad feeling between H and W when H came over for the funeral of Prince Philip. Catherine started talking to H as they left the chapel. William joined her and she slowed down and let the two talk. I don’t think either of them would have made the first move to speak to each other.”

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Unfortunately, though, the story is not that straightforward. For Fitzwilliams, Middleton’s differences with Markle are likely to have had an impact on the durability of the “Fab Four,” as the two brothers and their wives were once affectionately referred to.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that it’s been very difficult for them with the interview on Oprah, with the [breakup] of the Fab Four, which oddly enough was probably an impractical concept, because what it meant was that Harry and Meghan—I mean, the fact the brothers were so close, no one thought in terms other than the fact that [they would be a foursome], when in fact Kate and Meghan were very different personalities who hadn’t much in common, and indeed how well they got on has been a matter for speculation … but there was at least one hiccup.”

Markle told Oprah Winfrey that Middleton had made her cry before her wedding, a revelation which she made to set the record straight, having been previously accused of being the one to make Middleton cry. “I'm not sharing that piece about Kate in any way to be disparaging to her,” the Suits alum said at the time. “She's a good person.”

Royal expert Katie Nicholl told OK! shortly after the interview aired that Middleton was “saddened, disappointed and hurt” by her sister-in-law’s decision to resurface the crying story. “Kate has never wanted any suggestion of a rift with Meghan to come out in the press, so for this story to be circulating is very hard,” Nicholl said. “Kate and William both feel they were hugely welcoming to Meghan and Harry. Any accusations against the monarchy are accusations against their family. It’s hurtful and they feel let down. Obviously, they still love Harry and Meghan, but this interview has ruffled feathers.”

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A Devoted Wife

Being married to a future king is not always a walk in the park—no matter what the Hallmark Channel would have you believe—but the Duchess of Cambridge has often made it look effortless, striking a seemingly perfect balance between taking a step back as wife to a future monarch and putting herself forward as a role model in her own right.

“It seems to me that she is doing very much the same as the Duchess of Cornwall by making supporting her husband her number one priority while also finding patronages that are her own and give her an independent part to play,” Levin says.

For Fitzwilliams, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have done an excellent job modeling their public personas as a couple. “The facts are that they are not only a safe pair of hands, but they’re also inspiring,” he says. “If the Royal Family [have] the most significant use of soft power—no other royal family has the profile that ours has—then I’d say that the Cambridges are the perfect example of this, and carefully making sure in the early years that they were perfect, they were the ideal team.”

Kate Middleton and Prince William smile at each other

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The royal commentator sees two major strengths to the Cambridge couple: firstly, their ability to maintain a level of privacy for themselves and their children, sharing official photos and videos to satisfy the public’s curiosity, and secondly their willingness to take their time—whether that was in progressing their relationship and getting married, or in finding their footing as working senior royals and charity patrons.

“There was a long period of course where she and William romanced, where in fact they made absolutely sure that they made the right choice,” Fitzwilliams explains. “There was the split, as we know, but the facts are, the way it was handled, firstly by them and by their friends during a period where obviously there were problems with the paparazzi at that time, there’s no question that that was as well handled as it possibly could be.”

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As for their marriage, “it took a long time, some felt, to get there, but I think they were absolutely right,” the expert continues. “The first time the public learnt about them, I think it was a ski trip, 17 years ago now, and then of course the fact they were clear to have been a couple as of 2003. It’s a long time, but it’s a long time which has led to I think the perfect partnership. But also, they seem happy in their roles, roles that will get them, as we very, very clearly have seen, a tremendous amount of pull.”

Fitzwilliams also contrasted the Cambridges with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who follow a totally different approach now that they’re no longer working royals. “People talk about the Sussexes and their brand,” he says. “People don’t talk so much about the Cambridges and brand, because it’s more than that—you’re looking at the future King and Queen consort, but you’re also looking at certain specific areas where their input is so significant.

“With Catherine, you’ve got the Early Years, the Royal Foundation for Early Childhood, she loves working with children, and this I think comes across very well. Also the mental health area, and the areas where she can specialize, [like] sports and photography.”

A Loving Mom

A royal family friend recently told Fabulous, “All Catherine ever wanted was a house in the countryside, loads of kids, dogs and an AGA. She wasn’t interested in having a big job or becoming famous.” Her royal brood, then—Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis—is her pride and joy, her first priority at all times.

“Her maternal instinct is often displayed through her body language, which too has evolved as she’s got older,” Stanton says. “In many photos and video clips, Kate is seen kneeling down to the height of her children when she is talking to them—a gesture that is both nurturing and protective.

“Kate has also been seen to chastise Princess Charlotte in photos where her daughter was misbehaving. While other royals would never have been happy to be seen in this light, Kate’s body language remains open and transparent. She seems happy to be seen as a relatable mum, dealing with all things parents would usually deal with while raising three young children—what you see is what you get with her.”

Kate Middleton and Prince George

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But the duchess is far from being a harsh disciplinarian—it’s actually quite the opposite, when you compare her to other members of the Windsor bunch. “The main difference with Kate compared to other royals is that we do not see such displays of affection with the royal children like she gives,” Stanton says. “If you look at historical footage of the Queen with the children, and also Princess Anne, we do not see the same level of rapport as we do with Kate. Historically, the royal children have been chaperoned by staff during public engagements, but Kate tends not to do that and both her and Will are often seen hand-in-hand with their brood—choosing to be present and hands-on.”

For Levin, Middleton’s desire to be a very present mom might become more difficult as she rises in the royal ranks. “Catherine will have more work to do as Prince Charles wants a slimmed-down monarchy,” she explains. “There will also be trips abroad. People say she doesn’t mind leaving the children with their nanny and her parents for a few days but any longer trip will be difficult and perhaps organised during the children’s school holidays if she feels that they should go along too.”

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A Multitalented Duchess

From her days as a Brownie and a school hockey player to most recently exhibiting her photos and playing the piano at the royal carol concert, the Duchess of Cambridge has proven time and again that she is skilled at—and passionate about—a really wide range of disciplines, which she finds creative ways to integrate into her work.

“I think part of the key to her success, the fact that she has such poise, and now she’s become so confident, it does go back to the days of her schooling,” Fitzwilliams says. “She had a very happy childhood, and she has very supportive parents and siblings. … And I do think also that her interest in sport, you know, she’s always been sporty, that too has given her a great deal of confidence. … If one looks at the way she and William balance their activities, there’s very often a sport of some sort, whether it’s rowing or whether it’s some sort of ball game or whatever it is, and then also her links with Wimbledon.”

For Fitzwilliams, the Cambridges are careful when it comes to selecting causes to champion, and try their best to be as involved as they can be. “I think also that with her we’re seeing, she and William, if you contrast them with, say, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, the duke supposedly had 830-something patronages, somebody counted, the Queen has some 500,” the expert says. “I think William and Kate are concentrating on fewer, but doing more for those that they are attached to and I think it’s a good idea.”

Happy birthday, Duchess Kate!

Iris Goldsztajn
Morning Editor

Iris Goldsztajn is a London-based journalist, editor and author. She is the morning editor at Marie Claire, and her work has appeared in the likes of British Vogue, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29 and SELF. Iris writes about everything from celebrity news and relationship advice to the pitfalls of diet culture and the joys of exercise. She has many opinions on Harry Styles, and can typically be found eating her body weight in cheap chocolate.