If she weren't, you know, one of the more recognizable faces on the planet, Kate Middleton could easily be mistaken for just another harried mom at Prince George and Princess Charlotte's school drop-off.
Because unlike every one of her carefully thought-out work appearances, before the Duchess of Cambridge makes the four-mile trip from their Kensington Palace spread to Thomas's Battersea in south London, she doesn't bother with her signature blowout or consult with longtime stylist Natasha Archer.
"There are no blow-dries—it's always hair up in a ponytail," a longtime friend noted to People of the "very chilled" royal's low-maintenance routine. "She's either in her gym clothes, or a dress and sneakers, very little makeup, apologizing as she's late for the school run before dashing off."
Pretty standard fare, really, not all too different from the other mums and dads in lineup, the friend insisted: "It's the life of a working mom with three young children—just a different sort of day job to most."
One that comes with quite the hefty promotion.
Viewed for years in certain circles as Prince William's soft-spoken, mild-mannered college sweetheart who set her sights on the young royal long before they crossed paths in their freshman dorm, she's long since done away with that tired narrative.
More than a decade after officially accepting her post, she's more than proved her worth as a senior royal, deftly filling the void left by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's swift departure and carving out her space in the areas of early education, child development and mental health awareness, proving she's ready to embrace the role that awaits.
Describing the duchess, who will mark her 40th birthday Jan. 9, a source told People, "If she needs to step up to the plate, she does it—and she always has."
If that means juggling an increased workload—responsibilities of representing the royals' future now largely resting on her slim shoulders—while homeschooling George, 8, and Charlotte, 6, and chasing around after 3-year-old Prince Louis, consider it handled.
"She is an adoring mother, and she is contributing publicly in the way we would want her to," a royal household source told People. "You see it more and more. The young student has turned into our future Queen."
Good thing she's a quick study.
Because before the titles, the 20-some-odd patronages, the increased focus on helping young children and those struggling with mental health and the crash course in security protocols, Kate was an accessories buyer that Queen Elizabeth II fretted wasn't up for such a blue-blooded existence.
The chatter, royal reporter Phil Dampier told UK paper The Express, was that the Queen felt William's then-girlfriend wasn't accomplishing enough following their 2005 graduation from the University of St Andrews. "There was a phase where she appeared to be doing very little really," Dampier told the newspaper, adding, "The Queen once remarked Kate doesn't do very much."
At the time it was actually William pressing Kate into a background role, not wanting to fully indoctrinate her into The Firm until he slid Princess Diana's sapphire onto her left hand. But a decade after a newly engaged Kate pledged her willingness "to learn quickly and work hard," she's done just that, committing herself to fostering real change in the nation and the world at large and mastering the art of the walkabout.
All the while, she's injected a much-needed dose of relatability into the oft-stodgy royals, whether she's recycling another Zara find, stocking up on enchilada fixings while grocery shopping near their Norfolk home or admitting during an appearance to discuss her nationwide childhood study that she, too, would love some tips on handling "toddler tantrums."
As a pair, they're quite formidable, Kate and William's former private secretary Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton recently told People: "He has the experience of knowing where the institution sits and seeing it evolve. The Duchess brings this pragmatic awareness of what it's like to be from a decent, down-to-earth family."
No wonder a source told Vanity Fair that "The Queen is a fan. Kate is unflappable. Her mantra is very like the Queen's keep calm and carry on approach in life, and she has the added benefit of making the royal family seem almost normal and in touch."
Because beneath her trusty pantyhose, sensible L.K. Bennett heels and the occasional tiara or two, friends say Kate remains largely the same girl who grew up in the village of Bucklebury, playing field hockey and running cross-country.
"Even if she were married to a banker, I don't think she would be much different," a source told People of the royal, who enjoys outings with her kids to paint pottery and watching beauty tutorials on YouTube. "She would have wanted to be a country mom and be in town occasionally. I don't think she would have been living a very different life."
You know, minus the hordes of fans who wait for hours to catch a glimpse of her latest OOTD or hear her riff on the importance of supporting new parents.
"At the end of the day, she's in training to be a future Queen, but honestly you would never know it," a source close to Kate told the mag. "If you go round to her house, you get a cup of tea, and it's often William who makes it! It's a lovely, welcoming house, not a fancy, stuffy palace in any way."
The 10-bedroom Georgian manor in Norfolk—where they spent a bulk of their time throughout quarantine—is apt to be strewn with a tent or two or showing traces of the latest mess the kids got up to in the kitchen, their baking sessions generally ending in "an explosion of flour and chocolate everywhere," as William put it during a June 2020 bakery visit.
Continued the friend, "It's a normal, busy family home with kids running around and knocking things over. There's no airs and graces."
Same with Kate, who showed nary a trace of the oft-mentioned stiff upper lip when she sat down with Happy Mum, Happy Baby host Giovanna Fletcher in February 2020. In her first major interview since she admitted to feeling nervous after her 2010 engagement to William because "I don't know the ropes," it was clear she'd long since gotten the hang of things.
"Basically, Prince William had come in as he was briefing her and he said, 'Just talk. Don't worry about saying anything you shouldn't or exposing too much. We can change it in the edit. Just talk,'" Fletcher revealed later during an appearance on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here... "So she was going to answer everything."
Just "two mums nattering away," as Fletcher put it, Kate spoke candidly on topics ranging from her hypnobirthing experience ("I'm not going to say that William was standing there, sort of, chanting sweet nothings at me") to the constant mom guilt that even she is unable to avoid.
"Yes, absolutely—and anyone who doesn't as a mother is actually lying!" Kate responded when asked if she's experienced that familiar pang. "Yep—all the time. You know, even this morning, coming to the nursery visit here, George and Charlotte were like, 'Mummy, how could you possibly not be dropping us off at school this morning?'"
A January 2020 visit to a Welsh daycare center, meanwhile, saw her get candid about how tough it was for her after George's arrival as a new mom, separated from friends and family on an island off the country's northwest shore.
"I had a tiny, tiny baby in the middle of Anglesey," she recalled while visiting the Cardiff spot. "It was so isolated, so cut off. I didn't have any family around. William was still working with search and rescue doing night shifts. If only I'd had a center like this."
Prior to 2020, the duchess has done scant few interviews, so to suddenly see her switch course and speak rather openly about her feelings is shocking to be sure. But it's all in service of her pet cause—her groundbreaking "5 Big Questions on the Under Fives" survey, meant to help further direct her efforts in providing assistance to young children, their parents and caregivers.
"As a parent, I know how much we cherish the future health and happiness of our children," she said at the daycare center. "I want to hear the key issues affecting families and communities so I can focus my work on where it is needed most. My ambition is to provide lasting change for generations to come."
So if that requires her to truss out tales from homeschooling on television as Londoners watch from their breakfast table, so be it.
"She has really been enjoying the early years work and has found her stride and purpose," an insider told Vanity Fair. "She sees this work as a life-long commitment and she has worked really hard on this campaign."
The roots of her work extend back to the very first months of her and William's marriage. "I said: 'Right, what next? You have the philanthropic world at your feet. There are so many directions you can go in terms of causes you can get involved in,'" then-private secretary Rebecca Priestley recently recalled to the Daily Mail. "Catherine wanted to get under the skin of this new role and the challenges she was about to take on. She wanted to learn. There were a lot of under-the-radar visits and she saw people privately to help her understand the issues she wanted to put her name to."
All that prep work led to the creation of Heads Together, the joint mental health campaign with William and Harry that was reportedly her brainchild, and the newly launched Royal Foundation Center for Early Childhood.
"It's been wonderful to see Catherine achieve what she wanted to and it's all the more powerful because it is so genuine," said Priestly. "Mental health, the Early Years and addiction are all being talked about more openly because of her interventions."
Royal watchers expect to see her bring that same energy as queen, supporting her husband as he takes on the momentous challenge he's been simultaneously training for and dreading his entire life.
"How do I make the royal family relevant in the next 20 years' time—you know, it could be 40 years' time, it could be 60 years' time—I have no idea when that's going to be and I certainly don't lie awake waiting or hoping for it because it sadly means my family have moved on and I don't want that," William explained of his thought process in a 2016 BBC special.
Fortunately, when that time comes, he will have a standup partner in Kate. "Thank God they've got each other and the training that they've had," Lowther-Pinkerton told People. "They have a solid bond through these last 10 years. If you had scoured the realm you couldn't have got a better pair, frankly."
Kate has certainly proven herself to be a good ambassador for the family, whether she's chatting on the phone one-on-one with a grateful caregiver or joining William for a sweeping train tour of the country. In late 2020, the two traveled to pay tribute to those on the frontlines of Britain's coronavirus crisis, making good on their vows to "see as many places in the U.K. we may not have been to very much," and as William said, "to try and understand some of the more complex challenges, some of the slightly more tucked away challenges, that people find hard to talk about."
Certainly, Kate couldn't have found a better time to truly cement her footing. When Harry and Meghan decamped for California, they took with them some of the excitement and new life the American-raised former actress had breathed into the staid monarchy. And while Queen Elizabeth remains a formidable woman, at 95 she's hardly the person to make the royals seem hip no matter how many James Bond cameos she films.
"What has been reinforced throughout all of this is just how important the Cambridges are," royal historian Sarah Gristwood told Vanity Fair in May 2020. "There is a repositioning going on within the royal family and we are clearly seeing this. I think this is one of the most important stages in Kate's life as a royal. As a young mother Kate was allowed to raise her children away from the media spotlight but now we are seeing a shift. She's working harder, being more visible and we are also seeing more of the Cambridge children. Kate has been given a platform to take on a more prominent role. She's not just accompanying William to engagements, she is doing things independently and voicing new ideas."
With Harry and Meghan leaving the fold, "I think the royal family were at risk of looking out of touch and dowdy without them," Gristwood continued. "With Charles and Camilla over 70, and Anne about to get there, and the Queen scaling back, there is a serious vacuum when it comes to star appeal at the heart of the royal family. This is Kate's moment to shine."
(A version of this story originally published on Jan. 9, 2021 at 12 a.m. PT)