03.24.11

Meet Kate Middleton's Parents, Carole and Michael

Prince William's future in-laws may be thrilled with their daughter's match, but they're also dodging accusations of exploiting the royal wedding. Harry Cole on the new social climbers.

At a time of government spending cuts, austerity, penny pinching and a war opening up on a second Middle East front, if there is one thing that could distract a somber Britain from its multiple woes, it’s a fairytale that comes flush with cash.

With two and half billion people expected to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton’s plummy “I do” on April 29, the networks, the tabloids, and the hotel owners will all be raking it in. A certain young wife will never have to worry about carrying money again, but most shockingly to the establishment, Kate’s controversial parents are also basking in their moment in the sun.

Michael and Carole Middleton started their careers and met as a flight dispatcher and flight attendant with British Airways. They married in 1980 and in 1987 founded Party Pieces, a mail-order party supply company. The entrepreneurs now reportedly have a couple of million to their name as well as London and country properties. Their self-made success allowed Kate and her siblings to be schooled with the cream of English youth at the exclusive Marlborough College. Kate then went on to Scotland’s ancient—and quite pricey—University of St. Andrews.

Now, it seems the industrious couple is using their ingenuity to capitalize on the upcoming nuptials. The Middletons’ mail-order website covers hundreds of themes, from cartoon characters to pirates. You just enter your credit card number and banners, plates, cups, flags, and balloons turn up on your doorstep for a tidy sum. Something strange has happened to the website in recent months though, with " Princess Parties" and “Rule Brittania” scratch-off cards given top billing. It’s hard to distinguish the site’s offerings from the hundreds of merchandise sellers shilling china, coins, tea towels, and more. (To be fair, Prince Charles is also brazenly cashing in, selling a jigsaw puzzle of William and Kate at his official store.)

There was the scent of scandal around the Middletons when they were accused of selling customers’ personal data late last year, but the real tabloid venom was unleashed in recent days when it emerged that their website was also selling branded and produced “ Street Party Kits.” Roll up for your bunting, British flags, crowns, and everything you could possibly need to prepare for one of the many thousand expected parties that are set to close many of Britain’s side roads and villages on the big day. The condemnation for clear profiteering on the back of their daughter’s fortune has come from even normally sympathetic corners of the media. Many commentators fought in Carole’s corner against the cruel jibes about the family’s middle-class beginnings by the snobbier parts of the British establishment, but now the evidence of their quick-buck activities are proving harder to defend.

Gallery: Michael and Carole Middleton

The Middletons have offered £50,000 ($80,000) toward the wedding, yet that sum looks a little hollow when they are directly tapping into the national hysteria and lining their pockets.

Kate’s mother in particular is under the watchful eye of British media as she pushes her daughter down the aisle. She first felt their sting when she was photographed chewing gum as William passed out of Sandhurst Military Academy. Her pushy antics have become the thing of legend, with many speculating she had as much to do with this engagement as her eager daughter. Colleagues of the Middleton siblings have suggested their mother prepared them for university with a list of whom they should be targeting for friendship, and there is no prize for guessing who was on top of Kate’s list.

The Middletons have laid low in some respects. They refuse to speak to the press, and their desire not to be seen as jeopardizing their daughter’s marriage prospects is evident in how quickly Carole cut off her own wild-living brother. In 2009, Gary Goldsmith arranged drug deals and boasted to undercover journalists about his royal connections, leading to a firestorm of criticism. Apparently the relationship is now patched up—even Gary is invited to the royal wedding.

With a few scandals weathered, Carole appears to have her eye trained on bigger and better things. Reports surfaced this week that she has looked around, with a view to buying, a £5 million residence. It happens to be Bolehyde Manor, home to Prince Charles’ current wife Camilla during their infamous affair when he was married to Princess Diana. This revelation has taken some beating as encapsulating the Middletons’ hunger to better themselves.

Kate’s younger sister Pippa is also accused of using her royal connections for career advancement. Eyebrows were raised when she joined the family business last year running an online magazine for Party Pieces and gave her first public interview two weeks before the engagement was announced. A photo of Kate was even used to promote products on the Party Pieces site, but an image of her socialite sister, voted Britain's most eligible female, quickly replaced it.

Amidst all of this build-up around the royal wedding, a note of hypocrisy was struck in recent days. Locals in the Middleton’s village report that Carole was upset with a pub owner who had the audacity to start selling tickets for £15 for a BBQ and big screen event in his pub on the big day. There is something quite inoffensive about some locals coming together to see the village girl live her princess fantasy, especially when compared to some of the more obvious marketing closer to home.

With just over a month to go until the big day, and thousands of eyes fixed on the in-laws, it’s going to be a tightrope for Britain’s most upwardly mobile family.

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Harry Cole is a British journalist. Based in Westminster, he is the News Editor of Order-Order.com, the UK's most read political blog. In 2009 Harry co-founded the Sunlight Centre for Open Politics which campaigns for transparency and openness in the political system. Never knowingly on message.