Photographer Cecil Beaton once infamously described the Queen Mother as "a marshmallow made on a welding machine" and last week, veteran journalist Anna Pasternak used the same expression in a profile piece about Kate Duchess of Cambridge for Tatler magazine.

Perhaps Pasternak did not realise quite how dangerously apt that expression is right now.

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When the Tatler piece hit the internet last week, jaws could be heard dropping around the smarter streets of London. This was, whether consciously or not, a stealth hit piece stuffed with quotes from unnamed, supposed Cambridge confidants.

Gone was the image of Kate as an Alice band-loving, goodie-gumdrops royal, all pretty dresses, pretty children and pretty thoughts, and instead painted her as a lackadaisical toff, resentfully contending with increased workload thanks to the Sussexes' dramatic departure.

Within 24 hours of the story being published, Kensington Palace took the rare step of issuing a statement saying: "This story contains a swath of inaccuracies and false misrepresentations which were not put to Kensington Palace prior to publication."

There one would have assumed, things would be left, with the story fading into obscurity in coming days and weeks.

However, the palace has now gone a step further and lawyers representing the duchess have sent a legal complaint to the society bible asking them to remove the "Catherine the Great" story from their website.

Tatler shows no sign of apologetically backing down. The magazine responded to the palace's original statement by saying "Tatler's editor-in-chief Richard Dennen stands behind the reporting of Anna Pasternak and her sources" before Dennen then posted an image on Instagram stories showing two pugs reading the controversial issue of the magazine.

The magazine claimed Kate had become
The magazine claimed Kate had become "become perilously thin". Photo / Getty Images

Tatler later said: "We can confirm we have received correspondence from lawyers acting for the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge and believe it has no merit."

What is so surprising here is that Tatler has long been a devoutly pro-monarchy title, which usually wheels out fawning, pro-Windsor stories with cheerful regularity. For the 309-year-old magazine and a future Princess to square off so publicly is akin to the Queen booting the corgis out of the castle; that is, pretty much unthinkable.


So, how did we get to this strange, confrontational place where society stalwarts are turning on one another?

To understand why Kate has taken such a hawkish position is to understand that the Tatler story is not just unflattering, a recitation of bitchy asides and less-than-flattering anecdotes, but very neatly takes aim at the carefully calibrated image that she has conscientiously built up in recent years.

'Exhausted and frustrated'

The most potentially damaging claim in the story comes to the particularly touchy subject of Kate and work, suggesting that the 38-year-old is bitter about her supposedly increased workload since the Sussexes' dramatic departure so they could "thrive" elsewhere.

In the piece, Pasternak quotes a friend of the royal saying: "Kate is furious about the larger workload. Of course she's smiling and dressing appropriately but she doesn't want this. She feels exhausted and trapped. She's working as hard as a top CEO, who has to be wheeled out all the time, without the benefits of boundaries and plenty of holidays."

The numbers would suggest otherwise. From January to March, Kate undertook 29 official engagements, down from 35 during the same time period last year.

But, I would wager, image matters far more than boring figures.

For years and years before her marriage to William, Kate was cast as a work-shy Sloane whose greatest accomplishments were her year-round tan and knowledge of the Mahiki cocktail menu.

Over the past decade, Kate has toiled away assiduously to dispel that image, taking on more and more patronages and more active roles in the organisations she is involved with.

The Kate of 2020 is largely seen as a quietly industrious HRH, beavering away on impactful, harmless, universally lauded projects such as the launch of her children's garden at the Chelsea Flower Show and her Five Big Questions early childhood campaign this year.

That carefully calibrated image is now at stake. The idea that Kate is "exhausted and trapped" while working from her 10-bedroom country home, replete with a team of staff and extensive collection of pastel dresses, threatens to transform her into the Marie Antoinette of the Instagram age.

'She's the mummy he always wanted'

One "country grandee" is quoted saying of Kate's mother, Carole Middleton, "I've heard that Prince William is obsessed with Carole. She's the mummy he always wanted." Implicitly criticising William's relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales, comes dangerously close to sacrilege.

'Perilously thin'

Then, there is the nearly throwaway line about the duchess' weight. "Outwardly, it seems that with years of scrutinising public pressure Kate has become perilously thin, just like – some point out – Princess Diana," Pasternak writes. Though the author does also suggest that the royal is "naturally slim", "a vigorous exerciser" and "perhaps her size is down to the stress of being a multi-tasking mother of three", there is still the unspoken suggestion that an eating disorder might be at play.

On this quote, a royal source told The Mail on Sunday: "That is such an extremely cruel and wounding barb. It's disgusting. It's sexist and woman-shaming at its very worst."


Whether Tatler yields to the Cambridges' wishes, this entire episode is particularly telling.

Kate has called in the lawyers before (such as when she was photographed topless in 2012) but it has been about press intrusion and privacy. By contrast, this brewing legal stoush is all about Kate's carefully cultivated public image.

The fact that Kensington Palace is going to such swift and combative lengths reflects how precious a commodity Kate's brand – industrious, caring and flawless – is to The Firm and to what lengths they will go to safeguard it. Essentially, going down the legal route betrays just how valuable and central a "piece" Kate is on the royal chessboard. It would seem that in life, like chess, the Queen (and future Queens) have to be protected at all costs.