By genealogical coincidence, the woman who has captured Prince Charles’s heart is the great-granddaughter of Alice Keppel, the famous society beauty who enjoyed a passionate affair with Charles’s great-great grandfather, King Edward VII. Edward sought Alice’s advice on everything, much to his wife’s chagrin, and the affair lasted until his death in 1910. In similar fashion, Camilla Parker Bowles has won the prince’s devotion by always being there to listen to his problems and help him overcome them. What Camilla has lacked in looks she has always made up for with a personality that men have found incredibly sexy, and still do. The very antithesis of Diana—whom she jokingly calls “Barbie”—Camilla treats Charles with irreverence, ignoring his whining and laughing at his pomposity.
But at the same time, she supports him in everything he does. She organizes his private life, arranges for him to meet the kind of people who might support him without being sycophantic and is a skilled and amusing hostess. For Charles, she is the attentive mother he never had, the expert
lover he never knew and the self-confident friend he always wanted.
Born Camilla Shand on July 17, 1947, she is the eldest of three children raised in the comfortable upper-class home of Major Bruce Shand and Rosalind Shand. Her late mother was a cousin of Lord Ashcombe, head of the Cubitt family dynasty, which made its great fortune building London’s Belgravia district. Camilla’s handsome father, a war hero, spent 16 years in the Queen’s household as the quaintly named Clerk of the Cheque and Adjutant of the Yeoman of the Guard, was a Master of Foxhounds and Vice Lord-Lieutenant of EastSussex. Together with her sister, Annabel Elliott, now an antique dealer, and her brother, the explorer Mark Shand, who married financier James Goldsmith’s niece Clio, they had a conventional upbringing. Old houses, old furniture, old wine and old money offered the backdrop to Camilla’s life.
Understanding animals and riding well were more important than education, and Camilla’s school record was undistinguished. While her contemporaries were into the Beatles, white lipstick and miniskirts, “Milla”—as she was called—was into hunting and shooting. As a teenager, her confidence was the envy of all her friends and at school dances she was the most popular partner, much to the chagrin of her prettier classmates.
After a year at finishing school in Switzerland, Camilla was plunged into the 1960s London debutante season, which she enjoyed because she was able to see the droll side of the British upper-class conveyor belt. On meeting her in the early ’70s, Charles was attracted by her earthiness and witty conversation, but the unsophisticated young prince was far from thinking of marriage. It was the dashing army officer, Andrew Parker Bowles, who won Camilla’s heart.
Their wedding in the Guards Chapel in Windsor, followed by a reception in St. James’s Palace, was one of the society events of 1975. A year later, their happiness seemed complete when their son, Thomas, was born—Prince Charles is his godfather—to be followed by a daughter,
Laura, now 20.
When Camilla’s affair with the Prince of Wales became public knowledge in 1992 following the highly embarrassing Camillagate tapes and Charles’s confession of adultery, Camilla decided she alone would shoulder the blame. When she eventually divorced Parker Bowles in 1995 and he remarried, she did everything in her considerable power to keep the family united. Both her ex-husband and his new wife, Rosemary Pitman, were guests at the 50th birthday party that Charles threw for her at Highgrove last month.
Camilla places little importance on outward appearances, and despite the trauma of the past few years, is always on form. She loves gossip and a good bit of scandal—sometimes even when it is about herself. But she would be inhuman if she did not hope one day to be accepted. Camilla has had more than her fair share of unpleasantness, and she used to deal with it by staying in the house, chain-smoking. Then, on the advice of Prince Charles, she took solace in her painting, sitting in her studio room most of the day and refusing to take calls. Now, Camilla has a far healthier approach. She has given up smoking, seldom reads what is written
about her and makes an effort with her appearance if she is going out. For a woman without a stitch of vanity, who never used to brush dog hairs off her skirt or apply lipstick, this requires a great deal of effort, but she does it for Prince Charles. Camilla is indeed a kingmaker. £ But for the moment, at least, she is I strident in her refusal to be sucked I into the vortex of royal life. The idea s of becoming his wife, she has told friends, is “farcical” and she simply could not imagine herself standing beside him while he
planted a tree or made a speech. Charles has always said that he will put his duty before his personal happiness. But as a man used to getting his own way and anxious to give Camilla some recognition, he has not dismissed the idea of marriage forever. Constitutionally, there is no reason why Camilla could not become his wife and eventually queen. But with public opinion polls revealing that 79 per cent of the British people feel this should never happen and almost half still saying they actively dislike her, it is still only a remote possibility.
Practical and straightforward, Camilla harbors no illusions about herself. She isn’t looking for gluey sympathy, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t care. Her couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude hides a warmth that is both reassuring and appropriate—like Camilla herself.
Ingrid Seward is editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine in London.
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