Princesses and their paparazzi

September 18, 2012

When the editor of the Irish Daily Star, Mike O’Kane, was asked about his decision to publish a few of the topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge, wife of Prince William – a future king of Great Britain, the crown perhaps descending from his grandmother’s snow-white head to his own prematurely balding pate – he replied: “Kate is not the future queen of Ireland, so really the only place where this is causing fury seems to be in the UK, and they are very, very tasteful pictures.”

Alfonso Signorini, editor of Chi (“Who”) magazine in Italy, answered the same question by saying, “first of all it is a journalistic scoop … surely it’s unusual to see a future Queen of England topless? I think it’s the first time in history, so it deserves an extraordinary edition.” (He has 200 pictures of the couple and plans to do more.) Chi is the top gossip magazine in Italy, and like Closer, the original publisher of the pictures, in France, is in the magazine division of Mondadori, owned by Silvio Berlusconi.

Signorini, a former classics professor, is also a TV host and did his boss great service last year when he interviewed, with almost paternal sympathy, Karima El Mahroug, otherwise known as Ruby Rubacuore (“Heartstealer”), an exotic dancer in a Milanese nightclub. Berlusconi is alleged to have paid her, while she was under 18, for sex at one of his “bunga-bunga” parties when he was still Italian prime minister. The charge, of encouraging underage prostitution, is now being heard in a court in Milan. Signorini’s interview, dwelling on her tough childhood and her gratitude to Berlusconi for his wholly platonic friendship and financial assistance – “He behaved like a father to me, I swear” – was itself a journalistic scoop: the first time a prime minister of Italy had been revealed as one who gave selfless succor to a penniless young exotic dancer.

This is steamy company for a Duchess of Cambridge who may ascend to the most magnificent monarchy still extant in the Western world, and unsurprisingly she and her husband want none of it. Much has been made of Prince William’s particular revulsion at the photographs (now widely available on the Web), since they are said to recall for him the hounding of his mother, Princess Diana, and the circumstances of her death – crashing in a Paris tunnel in 1996, pursued by paparazzi.

Diana was surely a victim, and the media did consume her. But she was a victim as Marilyn Monroe was, one of dazzling beauty who was able – from a more solid, better-protected base than Monroe – to set some of the terms of her engagement with the media, turn their avidity to her own ends and use the vast drafts of hot air generated by the media coverage to raise her to global supercelebrity status.

Kate isn’t like that (though it’s early days yet). Where Diana dressed in Armani, Kate buys dresses from stores like Reiss and Issa London, “stores where regular folks shop”, as the Boston Globe writer Beth Teitell put it. The image given is the stylish good-girl look. There’s no turbulence, it seems, no demons clamoring to go public.

But Kate and Diana meet in this: They exist(ed) in an age where media hunger for celebrity images and news remains colossal and where a British princess cannot avoid the market she creates by her mere existence. That market is mainly for images, spiced by whatever small verbal offerings she may make – usually carefully tutored banalities. The market for Diana was worth many millions: her presence on a front page or a magazine cover added tens of thousands to circulation. The long, slow scandal of the breakdown of her marriage put many millions more in the accounts of media owners and made royal correspondents the highest paid, highest status journalists in Britain. A large media hole had been left by Diana’s death 15 years ago last month. The law of media need meant that Kate had to be brought in to fill as much of it as she was able.

The topless pictures have greatly expanded that ability. She has been made, much against her and her husband’s will, an overtly sexual being, the image of whose largely naked body is now the subject for men’s envious or derisive conversations worldwide. (I recently overheard two during a train journey.) Many men play the erotic game of mentally stripping attractive women they see. This has now been done for them, and men’s gaze now will be, for Kate, much more freighted with carnal knowledge than it was before. For one who has not sought that, life from now on will be less pleasant.

No help for it. Even if a court case against the photographer is successful, the image is on the loose. A small mercy for the duchess is that the British tabloids, the main tormentor-allies of her husband’s mother, are in full patriotic cry in her defense. “Prince William’s wife Kate is entitled to feel fury and disgust at those lowlife rags printing pictures of her topless”, fumed the Sun on Sunday, with never a blush. Richard Desmond, who had a porn empire and publishes the raciest British tabloid, the Daily Star, was still more anxious to condemn – the more because the Irish Daily Star, early promoter of the topless pictures, is published in a joint venture between his Northern & Shell Co and Dublin-based Independent News & Media. Desmond says he will close the joint venture, which may mean the end of the newspaper. What more could a man do to show his horror?

The sound of stable doors being firmly bolted was heard all up and down the British Isles this past weekend. But the horse was cavorting elsewhere, across the Web and in editorial offices across the world, where editors see a rare opportunity to put on circulation in a dead time for sales. Kate’s discretion, nice smile and good-girl outfits all went for naught before the power of a long lens and a hungry market. The first future topless Queen of England has stepped into a different world.

PHOTO: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, arrives along with Britain’s Prince William, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang outside Kuala Lumpur September 13, 2012. The royal couple are on their second stop of a nine-day tour of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. REUTERS/Mohd Rasfan/Pool

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well articulated.

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