Ebay is littered with vintage posters of one of the great teen idols of the late 1990s: Prince William.
One features a shot of William in a suit and tie, identified in Limited Too-adjacent blue font, with a Backstreet Boys pinup on the opposite side. Another has him grinning toothily in a beige sweater; that one pairs him with N*SYNC. But perhaps the most iconic was the work of Starmakers Rising out of Boca Raton, Florida, circa 1998, featuring the young prince in a bright blue shirt against a blue sky, chin tucked, mouth in a faintly bashful smile, his mother’s blue eyes shining out from under her iconic blonde hair. The effect is Jonathan Taylor Thomas by way of Brooks Brothers. The same photo appeared on the February 1998 cover of YM, which anointed him “prince of our hearts.”
William was a sure bet as a future teen idol at birth, so much so they might as well have added it to his other titles. As a future king and son of the media star of the 1990s—a literal, real-life prince, tracking age-wise with a generation of girls raised on a revived Disney myth—he was a shoo-in as long as he had even remotely passable looks. While she denied it, an old Marlborough roommate told the press that Kate had a poster of William on her wall during her boarding school days. Twenty years later, the blond locks are nearly gone, his younger brother has eclipsed him in the looks-and-swagger department, and Wills has settled into a somewhat staid middle age. And yet, despite it all, the narrative of William as hottie hasn’t died entirely, because it’s simply too powerful a story for the media and the monarchy alike. To be a prince is to be desirable and that desirability is part and parcel of the monarchy’s social power.
The Sun recently reported that researchers had found William the sexiest bald man alive; the future Prince of Wales also caused a stir when he bared his more-muscled-than-expected arm for his Covid vaccine. His publicity apparatus subtly feeds it, too: The Instagram account he shares with his wife is full of images of William as a trim and athletic sportsman, kicking around a soccer ball, climbing into a racecar. To echo Jane Austen, any adequate man with a sufficiently impressive title must, by the immutable logic of the fairy tale, be desirable.
From the time of his birth, William was two things: a future king and a future heartthrob. You can watch his steady progression through his appearances on the cover of People through the years, which was at its absolute zenith as a cultural force while William was growing up. “PRINCE OF HEARTS,” the magazine declared him upon his christening in 1982, when he was still a scrunched-up potato. For his 7th birthday, the publication assured its readers that he had “become a real Prince Charming,” saluting his father, taking tea with his grandmother, and telling his brother not to be “naughty.”
When he reached 14, William was duly elevated to his foreordained role. In 1996, People put him on the cover, declaring: “Look Who’s a Teen Idol!”The coverlines continued: “Suddenly smashing at 14, Britain’s newest heartthrob likes cool clothes, hot cars—and has plenty of ladies in waiting.” Just a few months prior, British teen magazine Smash Hits had one of its top-selling issues when it put William on the cover, with a pull-out poster inside; a follow-up containing “I Love Willy” stickers sold a quarter of a million issues, and other teen magazines quickly followed suit. American girls in particular were fascinated with William, a fascination that the American press was quick to stoke. He was on the cover of YM; he peeked out from the coverlines on Seventeen, next to Kirsten Dunst. In 1998, Teen People devoted an entire special issue to the “Prince of Hearts.”
People put him on the cover again in 2000 with an almost lascivious announcement: “Prince Charming turns 18,” billing him as “rich but unspoiled—and a magnet for girls!” “He comes across as intelligent and academic,” royals reporter Peter Archer told People for the accompanying story. “And he’s muscular, athletic and a bit of a hunk.” They also put William on their best-dressed list that same year, complete with commentary from Sisquo of the chart-topping “Thong Song” fame: “He’s giving you the ‘I am the prince’ thing here... And he’s rockin’ it!” In 2003, People released a list of the world’s 25 hottest bachelors and allowed their readers to vote for their favorites. They chose to pit two directly against each other by releasing two covers: William and Ashton Kutcher, then the star of MTV’s Punk’d. (Ashton won.)
Nor was this a pure media phenomenon. There are pictures in Getty of young women in Canada in absolute meltdown over William’s presence, along with his brother and father; when he visited an American friend in Tennessee in 2004, he caused a stir at a local Abercrombie & Fitch: “As Prince William was walking out, his friends said, ‘See, we can’t take you anywhere,’ because of the commotion of the girls at the register,” one of the clerks told People.
Again and again, William was presented as downright wholesome. “Charming, cute and the reluctant idol of thousands of British schoolgirls,” People said in 1996; in 2000, they described him as “both an athlete and a gentleman,” with a royal reporter stressing that he had “beautiful manners.” When he was 21, a family friend told the magazine: “As he is moving into adulthood, he is very sensible and well-balanced for his age,” adding, “He is a good lad.” Sometimes, this was accomplished by quite baldly comparing him with his brother; a 2004 cover labeled them as GOOD PRINCE VS. WILD PRINCE.
And, too, the coverage often seemed an implicit—or even explicit—rebuke of his awkward, philandering father who so catastrophically failed in his performance as Prince Charming. (“In her late teens, mum Diana had William’s shy gaze—but little of his ease and self-assurance... while Prince Charles at 18 ‘was backward and gauche with women,’ says a family friend,” one People caption explained.) When he was young, Charles got the same heartthrob treatment; in The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown refers to his “Action Man” days when the media tirelessly tracked his surfing, parachuting, and polo-playing, as well as his active dating life. But he was ill-suited to the role and the fairy-tale narrative was already misfiring at his first public appearance with Diana as a newly engaged couple, when he made the infamous “whatever ‘in love’ means” remark. For his entire life, William has represented a second crack at this powerful and appealing narrative for the media and the institution of monarchy both. A physically fit, attractive, and sufficiently romantic prince is the complementarian counterpart for the modest, childbearing, consensus-building princess.
There’s something funny about William as Tiger Beat-style pinup, competing with the trucker-hat-wearing star of That ’70s Show. The Windsors, with their golden carriages and their deliberately anachronistic ceremonies, style themselves as far above mere celebrity culture. William himself was reportedly uneasy with his teen idol status. Longtime, well-connected royal reporter Richard Kay told People in 1996 that William “cringes at things like the Smash Hits poster,” adding, “He doesn’t enjoy public life.”
But the Windsors are still waving from the balcony at Buckingham Palace because they and their advisors know how to use what’s useful. The climax of Prince William’s career as a heartthrob was, of course, his 2011 marriage to Kate Middleton—and the institution absolutely leaned into the spectacle of it all, throwing a giant televised party for the United Kingdom and the rest of the world, climaxing with the couple’s balcony kiss, a moment perfectly calibrated to spread the precise image—indeed, the literal photograph—of a healthy, stable institution that the monarchy wanted to project. Here was the post-Elizabeth future, happily married, playing their assigned gender roles to perfection, and waiting in the wings.
But in the wake of their marriage, as they settled into a respectable royal life and duly produced the necessary heirs, Kate and particularly Will started to look a little staid, an evolution accelerated by the advent of Harry and Meghan as international superstars with a distinctly Hollywood aura. “What happened to Prince William’s hair?” asked a 2018 USA Today slideshow that tracked the retreat of his hairline in almost forensic detail. Then came the infidelity rumors, which were never substantiated but made their way onto a 2019 In Touch cover in America, and—of course—the break between the brothers.
Nevertheless, William still has a touch of that former teen idol magic for many, many people. And his public image still draws on it. Scroll through the Cambridges’ Instagram and you’ll see a bit of Action Dad branding. There he is, sand-yacht racing his wife; suited up and turned loose on a dirt track in a prototype for a sustainable racecar; kicking around a football like any other grown-up, reformed lad; looking stern with his bicep out for the Covid vaccine; flirting with an elderly Scottish woman. He has taken elements of his mother’s work and glamour and his grandfather’s athleticism and positioned himself as a counterpoint to his father and his brother both—just like old times. The question is whether it sticks in the face of the multitude of challenges to the Windsors’ reputation.