This story was one of NZ Herald Lifestyle's top stories for 2021
Have you been wondering of late just how Prince William's bald patch is going? Well, lucky you, because over the weekend our future King's increasingly obvious tonsure enjoyed, if that is the right word here, a moment in the social media spotlight.
To mark Anzac Day, William and wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge's Kensington Palace social media accounts shared a truly delightful video showing the prince, with his balding noggin on prominent display, writing letters to the Australian and Kiwi high commissioners before an unseen flunkie zipped across London to deliver the missives along with home-made Anzac biscuits.
Reader, it was totally charming.
And it was also indisputable proof of something that has become increasingly apparent of late: Kate is simply nailing the social media game right now.
Sure, her look might be relentlessly stuck somewhere between 1976 and 2014 (how can one person spend so much money to look so inoffensive?) but the duchess has proven she knows a thing about wielding power 2021-style.
See, while royal news over the last year has nearly been wholly consumed by the ongoing Sussex melodrama, all TV tears, pouting, posturing and eye-popping business deals, something very interesting has been going on back in the UK. That is, while the eyes of the world were by and large glued to the Harry and Meghan Show, Kate has been revolutionising the royal social media game.
Case in point, their Easter post. Rather than sharing some pretty shot of daffodils or something suitably pastoral like a playful lamb, the @KensingtonRoyal account instead featured a homespun video showing a chocolate egg being smashed with a rolling pin in reverse. Cheeky.
Or how about last year's Father's Day images, which also happened to fall on William's 38th birthday. In one lot, he was shown with his three children gloriously piled on top of him in their Norfolk garden in a fit of giggles; in another all three grinned while perched on a swing.
Elsewhere, there was a totally mould-breaking image of William with his arm around his father Prince Charles' shoulder. It is not hyperbolic to say that this was a truly extraordinary shot: Never before have two future Kings been photographed with such intimacy and warmth; never before have two future Kings been portrayed with such cockle-warming realness.
And all of these pics? Taken by Kate. In the guise of self-appointed in-palace photographer, she has been quietly moving the dial in front of our very faces.
Then there was Prince Louis' second birthday shots last year. While initially an image was released of the tiny prince with hands covered in rainbow paint in support of the NHS, Kate later shared a shot of his face also smeared in paint, titled "Instagram Versus Reality".
Consider too in July last year when William teased a mystery outing with the palace Instagram account, sharing a shot showing a half-drunk pint of beer and Indian takeaway on silver platters.
Later it was revealed that he had appeared on footballer Peter Crouch's podcast which was recorded at the palace, during which the men enjoyed a curry, a few ales and talked about mental health. (The royal, after serving up the dishes, joked: "There's an Uber driver out there on the floor being frisked." Let's just hope he tipped the poor bloke well).
One of my absolute favourites was in October last year when Prince George, Princess Charlotte and little Louis were filmed via shaky iPhone in the Kensington Palace garden asking clearly rehearsed but nonetheless heart-melting questions for David Attenborough.
I'd wager that Charlotte adorably asking the conservation legend "I like spiders, do you like spiders too?" did more for the royal family's brand than if Princess Anne industriously opened recycling centuries the length and breadth of the UK.
Essentially, over the last 12 months, William and Kate's former regimen of stiff posed pictures, generally pulled from Getty Images and which were all rictus grins and waving Union Jacks, has been supplanted by something far more subversive and quietly radical.
Don't be fooled here. This isn't an accident or some clumsy, grasping ploy to appeal to a more youthful demographic in the wake of the Sussexes' climactic exit from royal life. (Quick! Nothing gets the kids in like a well-placed hashtag! Anyone know what this TikTok caper is?)
William and Kate's social media transformation is emblematic of a far more significant intellectual shift in their journey towards the throne. Basically, this is them positioning themselves to rule – and rule in a way that will change the crown forever.
In essence, what we are witnessing via the Cambridges' social media accounts is an acknowledgment that for the monarchy to survive, it will require a new royal modus operandi predicated on a common humanity.
That is, imperious and enigmatic is out; openness and realness are in.
To understand why this is such a dramatic step we need to rewind to 1968 when Prince Philip masterminded the PR misfire that was the royal family's foray into reality TV. For a year, cameras followed the family for a behind-the-scenes documentary, however, within days of it being aired in 1969, the Queen is reported to have come to the hasty conclusion that its rendering of the royal house as a banal, inherently bourgeois bunch dramatically undermined the grandeur and mystery of the monarchy. (Aside from about 24 hours when it was mysteriously leaked onto YouTube earlier this year, the footage has been locked away in the royal archives and has never been broadcast again).
Henceforth, after the doco fiasco, being seen as too normal was viewed as intrinsically dangerous to the crown, thus forcing them to walk a ridiculous tightrope between projecting a certain magical, magisterial otherness while still seeming vaguely human.
The results have been mixed, to say the least.
What William and Kate (and their communications team) seem to have realised, as evidenced by this social media shift, is that it doesn't have to be an either/or; that monarchy and relatability don't have to be such uncomfortable bedfellows.
Rather, to keep public support buoyant and keep the entire gilded enterprise afloat they need the royal house to be viewed equally with both admiration and with affection and to do that, they need to open themselves up to the public.
What Kate has seemingly worked out is that to be real isn't to render the whole enterprise into appalling mundanity; that vignettes of heartwarming normality woven into the social media fabric are a fundamental part of setting themselves apart from the rest of the titled Windsor flock.
Underpinning all of this is authenticity. There is a certain charming naffness to much of what they now post which is … William and Kate in a guile-free nutshell.
That project goes beyond sending out a smattering of charming family snapshots every so often. One of the most marked changes in terms of the KensingtonRoyal social media presence is the injection of humour, personality and even at times tongue-in-cheek tone.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the Harry and Meghan who lost their hugely successful @SussexRoyal Instagram account when they quit official palace life last year and have not subsequently debuted any sort of social media presence.
The Sussexes have railed against the toxicity of social media. In a piece for Fast Company last year, Harry charged "online platforms" with having "stoked, and created the conditions for a crisis of hate, a crisis of health, and a crisis of truth". But what the Cambridges' new-found digital prowess has proven is just how much of a potent marketing tool they have sacrificed right as they are working to establish their Stateside brand.
It is no coincidence that all of this is coming to a head as William and Kate prepare to mark their 10-year wedding anniversary this week. The bigger picture here is that this social media metamorphosis reflects their increasing willingness to experiment and forge their own path. So too are we finally seeing the duchess, a naturally shy woman, enjoy growing confidence and assuredness in her role.
(While it would be nice to chalk all of this social media manoeuvring down to Kate's savvy, the Cambridges have had some expert help of late. In April last year it was confirmed that they had hired the Sussexes' former social media manager, David Watkins).
While hierarchy underpins royal life at all times, what we are seeing via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook is William and Kate taking the lead. Yes, Her Majesty the Queen might still sit on the throne and Charles is patiently twiddling his thumbs in the wings but when it comes to proactively preparing to rule a modern society, the Cambridges are already positioning themselves.
And thank god for that.
So, godspeed you crazy kids and David Watkins. You just might save the monarchy yet.
• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia's leading media titles.