Inside Zara Tindall's Royal Life: Not a Princess, but Not Exactly Normal

The champion equestrian, the daughter of Princess Anne and a first cousin of William and Harry, has enjoyed the advantages of being in the fold but further away from the throne

By Natalie Finn May 15, 2020 4:00 PMTags
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Mike and Zara Tindall have not been taking the COVID-19 lockdown sitting down.

Oh, they're following all the advisories and practicing social distancing, but the athletic couple are spending tons of time outdoors (living on a 730-acre estate helps) and after being nominated by Princess Eugenie, they completed the Run for Heroes challenge—run 5 kilometers and donate 5 pounds, then nominate five others to do the same—to raise money for National Health Service relief efforts.

Moreover, on what would have been the day of the London Marathon last month, Mike took the 2.6 challenge—2.6 hours of stationary cycling in his case, but any physical activity was welcome—to raise money for his three patronages, and he has taken the 26 ball tap challenge (where you bounce a ball 26 times using another ball, then nominate others) to benefit the lung cancer-fighting Ruth Strauss Foundation.

With more time on his hands than usual, he has even trotted into Zara's territory.

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"We need to get out of lockdown because I now know how to tack up a horse, and it is ridiculous," the retired rugby player joked on a video chat with their pals James Haskell and Chloe Madeley last month.

Mike Tindall / Instagram

Horses being, of course, his wife's area of Olympic-caliber expertise—and she teamed with fellow equestrians to raise £100,000 for NHS relief efforts in April. (She auctioned off a picture she painted of her horse Toytown for £5,700.)

But a jolly sense of humor (Mike tagged his location on Instagram as "self isolating") combined with efforts to give back and boost national morale are par for the course for the queen's granddaughter and her reliably outspoken husband—whom she first met in Australia while out having a beer with her cousin Prince Harry.

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The daughter of Princess Anne and her first husband, Mark Phillips, Zara—whose uncle Prince Charles suggested her name, meaning "bright as the dawn" in Greek—has generally been able to enjoy a well-heeled but less scrutinized life thanks to her relative remove from the game of thrones. She was sixth in line to the throne at birth, but currently rests easy at 18th.

Not that people didn't notice when life-of-the-party Zara got a tongue piercing when she was 18—though, as she told the Telegraph, her parents would have been "more upset if I got a tattoo."

Mike Tindall / Instagram

Removed as she may be, Zara's birthright still includes luxury—boarding school at Gordonstoun; she and Mike reside on her mother's Gloucestershire Estate, Gatcombe Park—and scandal (she had her driver's license suspended for six months in January after too many infractions; brother Peter Phillips is getting divorced, as their parents did in the 1990s), though to a lesser extent than some of her relatives.

And though not a working royal, she is still of the generation that has been tasked with making the entire monarchy more relatable and yet still properly elevated in an increasingly critical public's eye.

But now a grown-up mother of two, Zara, who's celebrating her 39th birthday on May 15, has remained a favorite among those who prefer their royals with as little pretension as possible. 

Which is what Princess Anne was aiming for when she opted not to give her kids royal titles at birth.

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"I think it was probably easier for them, and I think most people would argue that there are downsides to having royal titles," the Princess Royal told Vanity Fair in a rare interview earlier this year (given after Harry and Meghan Markle agreed to give up using their HRH titles as they stepped down as senior royals and pursued financial independence).

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As part of the extremely elite crowd that refers to the queen of England as "granny," Zara and Prince Harry always had a close friendship—so much so that Harry is godfather to Zara and Mike's younger daughter, Lena, whom Zara was pregnant with when she attended Harry and Meghan's wedding two years ago (and was "so uncomfortable" on those hard benches inside St. George's Chapel while Lena was "quite active through the service").

She and Mike are also parents to 6-year-old Mia Grace Tindall, the little charmer who stole the show when she held her great-granny's purse in a portrait the queen took with her great-grandchildren ahead of her 90th birthday in 2016.

"I'm not very maternal," Zara told the Sunday Times Magazine in 2018, recalling no cases of baby fever in her past. "If someone had a new baby and said, 'Do you want to hold my baby?', I'd go, 'No thanks,' but I really enjoyed all of it when I had Mia. I shocked myself. There's quite a big gap between Mia and Lena: Mia is about to start school; with Lena, who is a month old, I'm going back and doing it all again."

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"Lena and obviously Louis are similar ages and Mia's sort of in between Charlotte and George, and then you've got Peter's children, Savannah and Isla, who are just a little bit older," Mike ticked off the members of the next generation to the Telegraph last year after Harry's son Archie was born. "James [Prince Edward's son] is, well not exactly the ring leader, but he's the oldest. So, yeah, it's going to be a good little group."

The reliably loquacious member of the family added, "And Harry, he's busy, but he loves playing with them all and he'll be a good dad."

Of course, Mike has an especially good reason to think the world of Harry.

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It was during the 2003 Rugby World Cup (which England won) in Sydney, Australia, where Zara—who held onto her maiden name Phillips until just a few years ago—met Mike, a beefy 6'1 center for Bath Rugby who was nicknamed "The Fridge." She was at the Manly Wharf Hotel when Harry (a major rugby enthusiast who used to play until "numerous injuries" relegated him to the sidelines) spied his pal and called him over.

Zara, a University of Exeter graduate and accomplished athlete who had just secured her first big sponsorship for her competitive equestrian career, competing with her beloved horse Toytown, had recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend of five years, jockey Richard Johnson.

"It kind of went from there," she told 60 Minutes

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They started texting and "we became mates, really," Mike recalled to the Mail on Sunday. "Eventually it was one of those things where you realize that you're spending all your time with someone, and it went to the next level." He pinpointed April 27, 2004, as the date when they became a couple.

Already a celebrity himself as the captain of England's national team, Mike never gave off that he was fazed by Zara's royal status. He said he would love her just as much "if she worked behind a check-out at Tesco," the supermarket chain. His social worker mother, Linda Tindall, called Zara, who didn't put on airs and would conduct interviews in her riding gear, a "nice and ordinary" girl. 

However, Linda told the Daily Telegraph, she would "never call [Princess Anne] by her first name, you have to address her as ma'am."

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"I'd been in the England team for a fair while, and Harry and William always used to come into the changing room, so Mum knew I'd met them before," Mike said. "I think she was still a little bit shocked [about him dating a member of the royal family], but they were both fine with it. My grandma was a bit more nervous, because for her generation the Royal Family is massive. She was worried whether it was the right thing for me. Unfortunately, she's not with us any more. But my parents have come to events to watch Zara, and they get on well with her dad, Mark."

Zara was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2006 after winning the world eventing champion title (Anne was given the honor in 1971) and was honored with the MBE for services to equestrianism in 2007. In 2010 she collaborated the classic sportswear brand Musto on a line of riding gear, which she duly modeled herself.

Asked about her status as a sex symbol, Zara told the Telegraph in 2010, "I wouldn't agree but it's very flattering." Of her triple-threat athlete-model-princess status, she said, "Athlete's good. The others can get dropped...I'm not a princess anyway so I find that quite weird to be labeled as one."

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Spurred on by his own brother's engagement and Prince William also popping the question to Kate Middleton after more than seven years together, Mike proposed to Zara in 2010, surprising her with a diamond solitaire set on a pavé band while she was watching TV at the home they shared in Cheltenham (living together was fine, but Zara predicted her parents would "disown" her should she get pregnant out of wedlock).

Their dogs MistyStorm (after Halle Berry in X-Men) and Sway (Angelina Jolie's character in Gone in 60 Seconds) witnessed the romantic moment.

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"Saturday night, on the sofa with the dogs, watching X-Men. That's pretty much what our life is like. Rock 'n' roll, baby," Mike joked afterward to the Mail on Sunday.

He recalled Zara calling her mum to give her the news and Anne asking, in reference to his rugby-embattled visage, "'Is he going to have his nose straightened for the photographs?'"

He told her it would be a waste of time until his playing days were over. (He had surgery in 2018, about a month before Harry's wedding, to repair sinus damage from the frequent breakage—after the initial damage was done when he was just a child and the seatbelt in a bumper car ride didn't provide enough protection.)

Their engagement was announced on Dec. 21, 2010, and the queen gave her official permission the following May. (Aside from being schooled in how to act while meeting the queen, Mike said that no one made too much fuss about his behavior.)

Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall/ via Getty Images

Zara and Mike Tindall were married on July 30, 2011, at the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh, the first royal wedding in Scotland since Princess Anne married her second husband, Zara's stepfather Sir Timothy Laurence. The bride wore an ivory silk and duchess satin gown with a full skirt and fitted bodice (and cap sleeves, très risqué) by royal couturier Stewart Parvin. She accented the look with Jimmy Choo shoes and her mother's diamond Greek Key tiara atop her cathedral-length veil.

(Their framed wedding photo was prominently placed behind Anne when she remotely opened the Louisa Jordan Hospital in Glasgow from Gascombe Park in April, official royal engagements continuing on these days by video.)

Newlyweds Will and Kate were among the guests, as were Harry, Charles and Duchess Camilla, the queen and Prince Philip, Prince Andrew, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, Prince Edward and Countess Sophie, and a bit of sporting royalty, national rugby team coach Martin Johnson and former coach Sir Clive Woodward. But TV coverage—however extensive—only included the arrivals and the couple's exit from the church, before the reception at Holyroodhouse. No news cameras captured the I-dos or the party, where a vodka fountain dispensed shots, guests danced into the wee hours and Prince William reportedly sang "Livin' on a Prayer" (which is apparently his go-to karaoke song).

Mike revealed that he and his brother primarily keep in touch via a What's App group that also includes his wife and "then a few of Zara's side like her brother Pete and the cousins." All of whom are royalty.

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Back in 2011, about to marry into the royal family, Tindall told Readers Digest, "They're good, fun people, all of them. They're just a normal family."

He told the Daily Mail, "I'm on the edge of that world. You might call it bizarre, but you see the extreme side of it at something like William's wedding. If you spend time with them in a social setting, they're the nicest people around. You meet Prince Harry or Prince William in their own environment, where they feel secure, and they're normal people; they'll sit and talk to you normally, about everything that goes on." 

After their own wedding, Zara resumed training for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, especially intent on making the team after injuries to her horse kept her out of the 2004 and 2008 Games. Talking about her intense preparation to be ready to compete, she told the Telegraph, "I get up and usually try to swim before I get to the yard at maybe 8 a.m., 8.30 a.m. Then I spend the day exercising the horses. Or I'll be competing, which can mean staying in the horse lorry for three days at a time."

She even obtained a truck-driving license so she could ferry the horses around herself.

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"I don't let anyone else drive my truck," Zara said. "I can say that I work all day riding the horses but unless they followed me around with a camera they probably won't believe it. The way to prove it is by results and going out there and getting on with it."

"Our life isn't as grand as people think," Mike, whose rugby nickname had evolved into "The Lord" because of his fairer half, noted to the Daily Mail. "We both work hard at what we do."

Tindall, however, put a fork in the honeymoon phase later in 2011 when he was fined and suspended from England's Elite Player Squad for allegedly making what were described as "inappropriate" comments to a female hotel worker in New Zealand along with some teammates (who were also punished), during the Rugby World Cup that November.

"While we acknowledge [Tindall's] previous good character, it needs to be made clear that what he did will not be tolerated," Rugby Football Union operations director Rob Andrew said at the time. In detailing the reason to boot him, he continued, "We do not believe the players had any intention to sexually harass or intimidate [the woman]. However, the incident is precisely the kind of dangerous, compromising situation the players were warned about prior to departure for New Zealand and that they were specifically told to avoid in the EPS code of conduct."

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So it was early on in her married life that Zara had her first chance to not comment on some embarrassing news.

Happily, all that training paid off and she earned a silver medal in jumping at the London Olympics, presented to her by her own mother, Princess Anne.

All the result of good old-fashioned dedication and hard work, according to her pragmatic mum.

"Zara was always a natural and it was really a question of whether she felt that was something she really wanted to do," Anne told Vanity Fair, "and she did and she was very thorough and applied herself to it. So she was quite rightly very successful."

A year later, Zara and Mike announced that they were expecting their first child—"I agree with you all that hopefully he/she won't have my nose," the expectant dad tweeted—and Mia was born on Jan. 14, 2014, at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital.

Hello! paid a reported £150,000 for the first photos of the proud parents with their 5-week-old daughter.

James Whatling / MEGA TheMegaAgency.com

Mike retired from professional rugby that July but just months later was back to competing on the grassroots circuit. He has also been a brand ambassador for numerous companies over the years; is heavily involved with Right to Play UK, which helps get underprivileged kids involved in sports; and has dabbled in reality TV. He was airlifted to the hospital after a falling tree branch hit him on the head in the Costa Rican jungle during Bear GryllsMission Survive (he returned after getting stitched up) and competed for charity on the show And They're Off! 

And, naturally, he golfs. (These days, it's virtual golf on his phone, so surely he's raring to get back out there.)

Asked how she was balancing riding, philanthropy and family since becoming a mother, Zara told China Daily, "Yeah, obviously there is a lot going on and you know, number one, family. And then you've got to fit the horses 'round in training and then everything else sort of after that…I think before I had a baby I think I must have had so much time to do everything, and now [the question] is fitting it all in at the same time—but it all seems to work. I'm very lucky."

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Despite insisting that, thanks to her parents, she was "pretty normal" on a day-to-day basis, she admitted that the amount of attention she receives purely due to her famous family isn't exactly ordinary.

"Everyone's gonna try and catch you out 'cause that's just the way they are," Zara told Seven Sharp's Toni Street in New Zealand in 2015, when she was in town as patron of CatWalk Trust, which seeks to advance treatment for spinal cord injuries. "I don't think you ever get used to it. You've just got to try and learn to deal with it.

"You get to a point where you want to build your own boundaries, and try and keep what you can to yourself. Obviously when you're out in the public it's kind of fair game, I guess, but to a certain extent you try and do things and be in places where they can't follow you so much."

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She and Mike suffered a crushing, unfortunately public, blow in December 2016, however, when Zara miscarried about a month after they had announced their second child was on the way. She had another miscarriage in early 2017, which she did not say anything about until after their daughter Lena Elizabeth was born on June 8, 2018.

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"You need to go through a period where you don't talk about it because it's too raw but, as with everything, time's a great healer," Zara told the Sunday Times Magazine that summer

"One thing you do learn is how many other people have to go through the same thing," Mike told London's Sunday Times in May 2017. Ultimately "the saving grace for us has been Mia. However down we feel, she will come running up in our faces."

Zara told BBC Breakfast that her family, including her brother, Peter, was tremendously supportive. 

"Actually I had so many letters saying 'I'm so sorry, we've been through the same thing', which was incredible—and thank you to all those people. But it just showed how often it does happen and I have a very supportive family, Mike's incredible—and it's hard for the guys, too.

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"It's very different for us because we're carrying the child, but for guys I guess it's kind of that helpless feeling, which must be incredibly high and horrible for them. At the end of the day they've still lost a child too."

Zara's other passion, horseback riding, was also there for her. Just weeks after the first miscarriage, she and Mike traveled to Queensland, Australia (aside from being where they met, Zara spent her gap year Down Under and just loves it) and she competed at the Gold Coast's Magic Millions Polo day.  

She even fell off her horse at one point and got right back on, her husband at the loudspeaker telling the crowd, "That's her will to win. She's tough, she bounces!"

(Originally published May 15, 2018, at 3 a.m. PT)