In this pop cultural moment utterly owned by the sprawling Kardashian family, so compelling in its weirdly flat drama, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, actual royals—specifically, the House of Windsor and their endless drama—dominated the media.
In the period between Diana Spencer’s appearance on the scene as love interest to Prince Charles and the immense outpouring over her horrible 1997 death in Paris, the British royal family was a near-weekly staple. It wasn’t just in the tabs, either, though sharp-elbowed tabloid reporters in Britain were early to note that something had gone awry with the royal romance and would make scandalous hay out of every new development over the following years, with their American counterparts eventually enthusiastically piling on as well.
But newspapers and general interest publications also covered the story in loving detail—if fairly straight—as it morphed from romance to character-driven trainwreck of massive public interest. Women’s magazines like McCall’s and Women’s Day and Ladies’ Home Journal first bought into the fairy tale, before shifting to a stance of concern and consolation.
It’s easy to forget just how much they had to write about. As a foursome, Charles, Diana, Camilla, and the Queen were perfectly capable of spawning a storyline on par with Liz Taylor’s marriages or Jennifer Aniston’s supposed loneliness, something that could boost circulation for years.
Then there was Fergie and Andrew, too, adding that Khloé/Kourtney/Scott Disick tier, which in turn established the critical mass necessary to make anyone associated with Windsors worth at least a mention. Consider the intro to a 1994 People magazine piece on a scandalous tell-all about Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister: “With Princess Diana in semiretirement and the Duchess of York under wraps, the royal family has been without a Scandal Queen to amuse the masses. No longer, however.” For a while, the magazine ran a recurring feature called “Royal Watch,” which once published this entry about Prince Edward, currently best known as the one nobody ever remembers:
Ever since Prince Edward lost his job as a theater production assistant last month, senior courtiers at Buckingham Palace have been making discreet inquiries in hopes of finding meaningful employment for the queen’s youngest son. Now the Daily Telegraph speculates that Edward, 27, may join the British Broadcasting Corporation—but in what capacity, no one knows. A suitable post, offered the Telegraph, may be “a backstage job as an apprentice in the arts department.” Perhaps. But it’s clear that Edward, who last month played an English nobleman in the Aberdeen Theatre’s production of Macbeth, prefers center stage.
Scandal wasn’t new for the royal family, of course. There were the wild days of Victoria’s son Prince Edward and his Marlborough House Set; there was Margaret, who first tried to marry a divorced man then ended up with a photographer, whom she eventually divorced. And of course, it was a breathtaking scandal that landed Elizabeth’s father (and therefore eventually Elizabeth herself) on the throne in the first place, when Edward VIII dipped out to marry the shockingly unsuitable Wallis Simpson. The British media had closely tracked Prince Charles’s romantic life.
But like Joan Collins’s addition to the Dynasty cast in Season 2, it was Diana’s arrival at the precise right moment that took the show to the next level. Her and Charles’ “love story” was tailor-made for a backlash era obsessed with the doings of the rich. She was a soft-voiced beauty presented as sweet, impossibly young, impeccably virginal. She’d worked in the stereotypically feminine position of part-time kindergarten teacher but promptly gave it up. She quickly produced two very cute children. But then the obvious plotlines had been exhausted and the cracks in the foundation became apparent, and it became another sort of backlash narrative—one of marriage run off the rails. Which in turn provided the frame for any other scandalous doings. Fergie caught appearing to get her toes sucked? Well, that’s the Windsors for you.
Meanwhile, the media was developing into the modern infotainment business which would make the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial such an inflection point in American popular culture. (As well as foreshadowing the rise of the Kardashians.) And so you couldn’t so much as run out for Tide and a bag of potato chips without bumping into this messy family’s latest shenanigans.
Then Diana died. There was a very real feeling that the paparazzi and the media generally had somehow contributed to her death, thereby implicating everybody who’d ever bought a tabloid with the People’s Princess’s face on it. There was one final, enormous outpouring of grief, which frankly seemed to burn everybody out, other than macabre diehards. And what had been a perennial storyline trailed off. Fergie, God bless her, could only generate so much interest. The boys were too young. Charles and Camilla married and settled into a quiet middle age that made them seem less scandalous, more endearing. Queen Elizabeth II kept making public appearances where nothing much happened.
There was another burst of curiosity as William and Harry grew to handsome-for-a-royal maturity, the heir duly providing the world with a beautiful bride and a pair of adorable children, the spare occasionally embarrassing himself and his family but flashing a sufficiently charming smile to make everyone mostly forget. Tabloids, higher-end magazines, and TV news all clearly saw William’s tastefully elaborate wedding as a chance to reboot this once-fruitful media franchise, but there’s just not much plot to work with. (Compare their post-nuptial fall-off to Kim’s rocketing to the stratosphere as Mrs. West.)
The current generation of royals is—I’m sorry—boring. My God they are so boring. They are charming on their trips abroad, but in the most boring way possible. Will and Kate have retreated to family life in the country; Harry behaves; Fergie and Andrew’s kids, Beatrice and Eugenie, wore goofy hats to the royal wedding but otherwise fly below the radar, keeping to the society pages, which might as well be the classifieds as this point in history.
Just look at how excited People magazine got over Pippa Middleton’s engagement. They ran headline after headline, but who cares? Compare “Super-Fit Pippa Middleton Takes Her Giant Ring Out for a Jog (Of Course She Does!)” to “Fantastic Fergie: Ebullient, Redheaded Sarah Ferguson Upstages Her Close Friend Diana as Andy Forsakes His ‘Randy’ Title for Love.”
They’re now trying to make the Swedish royals A Thing—they even posted about the Norwegians recently, for God’s sake—but an entire category of classic People content is essentially dead.
Frankly, as a purely human matter, this is a wonderful development. Not only did William and Harry and Beatrice and Eugenie have to watch their parents’ marriages disintegrate, but every detail was also humiliatingly public. And William and Harry’s mother died in a car crash while being hotly pursued by relentless paparazzi. The Windsors are in the public eye by virtue of their (admittedly privileged) position, but they don’t want FAME as it currently exists in Western society, and FAME hasn’t done them any favors.
Nevertheless it means that an entire category of the tabloid business and the media business more broadly is, essentially, dead in the water. The Windsors are out of the game. In their place rose a new royal family. They are shameless and therefore they are teflon. Any embarrassment they will simply play for ratings. A family of Fergies, but much more adept at the game. (They are, after all, from Los Angeles.)
Into the breach have deliberately stepped the Kardashians, a sprawling family of characters managed by an iron-fisted matriarch. I’ll say this for Kris Jenner: She wouldn’t suit as a ceremonial head of state, but she’s been vastly more effective than Queen Elizabeth at keeping her family in line. When a new cast member—excuse me, in-law—doesn’t work out, they’re phased out as quickly as possible, before they can do any longterm damage to the Kardashian brand.
The royals’ lackluster presence in the modern, TMZ/US Weekly-driven gossip universe left a power vacuum. A huge chunk of entertainment territory was up for grabs. And Kris Jenner seized it for her brood with all the determination of a medieval queen regent. She strolled onto an empty piece of stage like some witch warlord and said, “Hello, America—meet my beautiful family.”
The differences between Kim Kardashian and Princess Diana are so numerous and so obvious I won’t insult you by rattling them off. But Kim occupies the same position in her canon, so to speak, as Diana did. Diana occasionally managed to play the spotlight like a master, but she never seemed to want it, and it’s always been difficult to shake the sense that the spotlight destroyed her life. Kim wants it—Kim has embraced it—and so it’s a lot easier to participate in the Kardashian media circus without feeling like a ghoulish rubbernecker. (Also, Kanye might actually be the Diana in this rubric.)
The Kardashians as a group are also a much better fit for a world where, thanks to ubiquitous social media and cheap recording technology, we are all—in a sense—under the spotlight. Public attention did enormous damage to Diana’s life; Kim welcomes it all, and there’s no twist too shameful to parlay into a brand-building opportunity. Diana’s our worst-case scenario; maybe it’s comforting to think that if our most intimate moments spilled out into the public, we could manipulate it as effectively as Kim and Kompany. People got pissed at Cosmo for calling them “America’s First Family,” but “America’s Royal Family” would’ve been more accurate than the Windsors would ever want to admit.
Of course, if there’s one truth about fame it’s that it’s unpredictable. Who knows what the next decade will bring for Mama Jenner’s grasp on the public consciousness? Magazine archives are littered with breathless coverage of ubiquitous media personalities now utterly forgotten. And the odds of either William or Harry having a spectacular midlife crisis seem pretty good.