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Who can really imagine what knowing, from childhood, that one day you will be King of England would do to a person?
In Prince Charles’ case, it appears to have fostered, among other much more admirable characteristics, a man who is acutely aware of and sensitive to his own status.
All the signs are that he thoroughly enjoys not just the perks and privileges of his elevated position, but that he also rather likes being the epicenter of attention, as shown this week when he appeared, looking quite the royal hunk, on a Barbadian beach.
It was reputedly soon after their marriage that Charles, at a public engagement in North Wales, first became aware that the crowds were there for his wife and not him. His irritation at his own lack of popularity in comparison to Diana irked him throughout their marriage and beyond.
His friends and supporters argue that Charles is merely doing his duty and would, personally, like nothing better than to have lived a life of obscurity, and only felt slighted on behalf of the crown.
His second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, has decided not to test that theory, and wisely sticks to playing smiling and loyal-to-a-T adjunct.
There have also been persistent rumors that Charles feels threatened by the popularity of his children and their wives.
“Charles saw Kate and William as the new stars and feared he’d be in trouble,” Robert Higdon, the chief executive of Charles’ charity foundation in America, told biographer Tom Bower for a recent book, Rebel Prince, on Charles to mark his 70th birthday.
(William, incidentally, is said to have a jealous streak similar to his father, and Kate’s awareness of just how badly that worked out for his parents is sometimes given as the reason why she so often maintains a sphinx-like demeanor.)
Charles has been forced into an unnaturally low profile in recent years. He was more or less sentenced to silence for the best part of a year in 2017 by the ghost of Diana on the 20th anniversary of her death, as TV schedules and newspapers were filled with hagiographic accounts of her life, that either lingered on his well-documented marital cruelties or, even worse, failed to mention him completely.
Then 2018 was all about Harry and Meghan, and the arrival of a new prince or princess in the next few weeks looks set to see that trend continue well into 2019.
While it is of course entirely possible that Meghan will beat a hasty retreat from public view following the birth of her first child, few would bet on it. It seems more likely that after a few weeks off, Meghan will be back on her many fundraising and awareness-raising missions, perhaps, even, with a baby in a sling.
The reality is that there are now, excluding the Queen, three royal households, three royal press operations and five royal stars competing for the front page photo in the Daily Telegraph. The formal separation of William and Harry’s courts has merely made this fact official.
Interestingly, on Tuesday, there was a full-on three way Clash of the Titans. Harry and Meghan made a surprise appearance at New Zealand's High Commission in London to sign a book of condolence for victims of the Christchurch shooting, which, while entirely appropriate and correct, totally stole the thunder of a long planned event on the other side of town; Kate joining the Queen for their first ever appearance as a duo without any other royals present. Prince Charles, meanwhile, was meeting Lionel Richie during his tour of the Caribbean.
All were valid royal stories in their own right, but not even the most patriotic of British newspapers is going to run three royal stories at any length in one day.
It is in the context of this newly competitive atmosphere that the photographs of Prince Charles’ swim on Monday are best understood.
And as he threw down his towel on a sandy beach and plunged into the azure waters off Barbados, pecs glistening in the sunshine, Charles’ message could hardly have been clearer: “Underestimate me at your peril.”
The palace would argue that Monday’s dip in the ocean was, far from being a calculated photo-op, a private moment that was never intended or planned to be captured by the global media.
That may be so, but, then again, the idea that Charles is such a media ingénue that he didn’t realize swimming on an overlooked beach in a foreign country would result in his picture being taken is rather odd.
The palace didn’t proactively seek to stop U.K. papers publishing them (as they would if the pictures were really considered a gross violation of privacy).
News organizations which contacted the palace were asked to refrain from publishing the pictures. However, a source said, most outlets didn’t ask. The palace, it seems, was not sufficiently concerned to contact news and picture editors proactively.
And why would they? He looked amazing (few would complain if they ended up with that body at the age of 70); plus, the percentage of British citizens who even knew Charles was on a tour of the Caribbean before the pictures emerged was likely in the very low single figures. Now, everyone knows.
There is change in the air at all the royal palaces. Meghan has shown them that there is perhaps another way of doing things. The Queen has even hired a new communications secretary, Donal McCabe, a hard-as-nails former PR for betting firm Ladbrokes (maybe he chats to HM about the horses). Harry and Meghan’s new press chief, Sara Latham, will report in to him.
Charles may just have been having a little innocent downtime in the surf on Monday. Or he may have been letting his royal rivals know that he can make the media sing to his tune just as easily as they can.