Saturday, March 24, 2012
Princess Charlene Interview By the Sun Herald
When a bus drops a swarm of children at the front steps of the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, they are quietly sent around to the back entrance. Their chatter drops to a hush, and one little lad in outsize green-framed specs looks back nervously … perhaps as Lot’s wife did just before she turned into a pillar of salt. Standing in front of the main doors is a ferrety man with wrap-around sunglasses, a cheerless slit of a mouth and Terminator posture. He reeks of one thing: “Don’t even think about it.” Waiting off to the side are swimmer Sophie Edington and former Olympian Craig Jackson, a squad of diplomats, and a nuggety fellow named Lotfi Maktouf.
We’re all waiting for Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco to arrive, but the mood isn’t entirely serene. I’m on the other side of the entrance, under strict instructions to keep my distance, hold my tongue and otherwise act “humbly”. I will get my interview with Her Serene Highness later in the day. For the moment though, I’m not to even say, “Hello, how are you doing?” because it hasn’t been scheduled. Maktouf, a businessman and royal confidant, begs me, “Don’t give me a hard time today … Earn your afternoon interview.” In his eagerness for everything to go smoothly, he is generating a weird kind of anxiety.
Meanwhile, I look at the security guard’s stone features and wonder if the princess herself might be similarly forbidding. Since her marriage to Prince Albert of Monaco in July last year, she’s been routinely dubbed “the runaway bride” because of reports that she got cold feet in the lead-up to the wedding, and was stopped by police at the airport while attempting to “flee the country” and return to her family in South Africa.
Maktouf has told me he was having lunch with Charlene “on the prince’s instructions” on the very day she was said to be hot-footing it elsewhere, but it’s a banned topic for discussion with the princess. And yet it seems to have clung to her public image. It’s a story from which she can make no easy escape, in part because she can come across as aloof and even charmless in television interviews, suggesting she’s very much on the defensive. In one interview, following a charity swim, she looks off to the side as she talks, doesn’t smile and her tone remains flat. In another, in a palace-like living room, she holds herself in a mild hunch as if physically hurt. She verges on a smile, but it could as easily be the ambivalent expression one presents to an intrusive stranger on a train.
Last December, however, a more ebullient and emotional princess was revealed when Charlene was the recipient of the Golden Heart award at the Ein Herz fur Kinder (A Heart for Children) ceremony in Berlin. The award was in recognition of her long commitment to teaching disadvantaged South African children to swim. Even so, in smiling footage and photographs from the ceremony, her eyes look startled, even pained. And so one question hangs over the princess, in a media-ruled world where princesses are eaten alive: “What’s she really like?”
This is what I’m thinking when a luxury Holden appears and there is Her Serene Highness on the back seat. She emerges with the beautiful and vulnerable gait of a giraffe, almost casual in a pale-pink pants suit (or is it that fashionable but tricky colour, “nude”?), with a blonde ponytail and the face of an excited schoolgirl who must remind herself to be a little solemn, as if she is in fact one of those children elected to present flowers to princesses.
She’s clearly excited to see Craig Jackson, a childhood hero and coach, and Sophie Edington, a competitor from her days on the international swimming circuit and, more importantly, a friend. Edington attended the wedding in Monaco and seems to be the most relaxed person present. There is, however, a moment of formality, when various members of the party bob their heads while shaking Charlene’s hand. I’ve been told that when I meet theprincess, I need to give a little bow. This has been stressing me out; I’ve never bowed to anyone before. I’d been hoping to get some instruction, but this head bobbing seems insufficiently deferential.
The party then wanders through the doors and into the pool area. A group of children are standing in two lines, shyly agog. Later, when I ask Charlene if little girls treat her like a rock star, she says: “I don’t know. Do they treat me like a rock star? For me …I don’t know myself any differently. I’ve always been surrounded by children during my swimming career. Giving them advice. I don’t feel any different among children.” Her Serene Highness was an Olympic swimmer, a Commonwealth Games medallist, and her visit to the aquatic centre is a nostalgic one: she took out a gold medal for backstroke in the 2002 World Cup here. In South Africa, as in Australia, sporting champions are a kind of royalty, anyway. Kids have always looked up to her.
When the children dive into the pool and perform a series of drills, Her Serene Highness stands close to the edge – not noticing or caring that the bottoms of her trousers are getting damp – her hands behind her back, chatting and at ease with her friends, but her eyes are often fixed on what the swimmers are doing. When they start kicking off the side and doing tumble turns over the lane rope, she cranes forward and seems to be making mental notes. Later she tells me, “I was learning something. I’m always looking at form and technique [for coaching] and I hadn’t seen that before. I think I’ll copy it.”
After the demonstration, and a brisk walking tour, the princess heads to the centre’s modest café, settles onto one of the plastic chairs and sips at a cappuccino while swapping stories with Jackson and Edington. When others are speaking, Charlene tends to rub at the cuticles of her thumbs with her fingertips – or at least she does when there’s a giant journalist sitting nearby noting down her every gesture. I have long thought how rotten it would be to have people constantly noting your every move and gesture, but here I am doing it. Is it any wonder if she freezes in the relentless glare of media curiosity? But here, in this cafe where little kids are running around with half-eaten sausage rolls in their hands, when Charlene speaks to her mates, she forgets who is watching and her hands paint wild pictures in the air.
Because she has such long, elegant arms, she takes up a lot of space with this gesticulation. Her face is equally expressive. Her eyes almost pop when she’s telling a yarn; her mouth draws wide with amazement at what she’s recounting. She is, in short, a live wire.
An hour later I talk to John Kelly by phone. John is Prince Albert’s cousin, and Grace Kelly’s nephew. Like Charlene, John Kelly was in Australia for the opening of the fabulous Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery. He told me about Grace at the annual Kelly family gatherings at their beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey. “I’d be hanging around as the youngster, and Grace would be sitting at the table playing cards and gossiping and laughing and telling stories. Just having a good time with her family.”
The more he talked, the more I thought about Charlene unselfconsciously hamming it up with her mates. I’d been asked by Lotfi Maktouf not to “push Charlene into a corner with comparisons between her and Princess Grace”, but I couldn’t help but think of the old notion that men end up marrying their mothers. The story goes that Grace was the family’s light and soul. When John visited his cousin in Monaco, he recalled the family playing exuberantly “in the rec room” as happy families do. After Princess Grace died in 1982, the rec room was closed down. Prince Albert told his cousin that Prince Rainier could no longer bear to go in there. The light had gone out. So perhaps there’s something restorative at play in Albert’s marriage to Charlene. For as John Kelly says: “She is just too lovely and a lot of fun. A really good gal. I just know that she and Albert have a great time together. They are fun to hang out with. She makes him laugh and have fun.”
He also mentions that Charlene, like Grace, is a person of great thoughtfulness and compassion. During the lead up to Charlene’s wedding, John’s sister Maura died. He says Charlene took the time to call and let him know she had commissioned a special rose for the palace garden in Maura’s name. “It was a wonderful gesture, very touching … that in the midst of getting ready for the wedding, she took the time to think of that and think of Albert’s cousin and include us in her thoughts. I just find her to be a pretty special person.”
I’d meant to go home and change into a good suit for the exclusive interview with Her Serene Highness. But the day had passed talking to Charlene’s friends and family and I realised I had run out of time and would have to attend the interview in a sports coat, chinos, a blue shirt and riding boots. I looked like an old farmer who’d come to town for the royal show. As I walked up the hill to the Grand Hyatt hotel, my shirt soaked through with sweat. I’d been told so many things not to ask the Princess - even about her love of South African ethnic poetry and contemporary art – that I was freaking out. Maktouf said he’d be sitting in on the conversation “and would be interrupting, making corrections … I will stop you from asking the wrong thing.” He said one thing that was crucial for me to understand was that Charlene was under permanent scrutiny, and that every word she says is “carefully weighed”. Meanwhile, I’d tried out various ways of bowing in front of a mirror – and looked like a goose.
As I walked into Charlene’s suite, she turned and threw out a warm and enchanting hand. For some reason, I clicked my heels together like a German count, dropped my head in salute, and in a voice better suited to a late-night telephone call said, “Your Serene Highness, hello.” She laughed easily at the fool that I was, and continued to laugh throughout the interview. And what did we talk about in those 15 minutes? Somehow it all came back to swimming.
She told stories of “stalking” the South African Olympic swimming team when she was 12, keen to watch their every move, lying on the bottom of the pool and looking up as they trained above. When on holidays, she says, people came up and asked if she’d teach their kids to swim. While not everybody can be a champion, she believes that “when you teach a child to swim, to help them further themselves, they then have the self-esteem to go even further”.
These days she loves ocean swimming. I suggested this must be more meditative than training for races. “Yes, I just love to get in and swim … When I retired [in 2007] it was a bit difficult because I was always contemplating whether I should come back or not. But watching all the times now, it’s like, ‘Whoa, I’m definitely not coming back.’ So now I can just swim for fun.”
I asked if the discipline of swim training had helped her adjust to a public life as an ambassadorial princess where there is always the demand to be on. “We do have a demanding schedule. When we do have to time to relax with friends, that’s great … but really, I’ve never known anything different. That’s just the way it is.”
The following day, Charlene and party drove to Bendigo, where she was opening the Grace Kelly exhibition. The word of her visit was kept so quiet that, outside the official party that included the Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and his wife, and dozens of schoolchildren waving flags, there was only a small scrum of regular folk who gathered over the hour beforehand to see what was happening. It was an almost nostalgically country setting, and a weirdly magical one in which Charlene appeared out of nowhere after the drumming pageant of Chinese dragons was done parading back and forth.
She emerged with her hair down and behind her ears. Her dress (she insisted on a local designer, in this case Johanna Johnson) featured jewel-like borders along the neckline, shoulders and waist. She paid no heed to the media gathering but stopped to pose for children with their digital cameras and phones, accepting flowers and cards and asking, “What’s your name?”
Her speech was a modest affair, paying tribute to Grace Kelly as an artist and style icon, and to Princess Grace as a mother. She started out with a sweet “g’day” and then struggled with nerves momentarily. I couldn’t help thinking of my question to her, as she relaxed in her hotel room the night before: did you dress up as a princess when you were a little girl?
“No. Never. I liked to dress up as Zorro.”
Facts about Charlene:
Born in Zimbabwe in 1978, Charlene Lynette Wittstock is the first of three children. Her swimming-coach mum sparked her interest in the sport at a young age.
Charlene and her family relocated to South Africa when she was 11.
By 15, she was a South African junior swimming champion.
At 22, Charlene was a member of the women’s 4 x 100m medley South African team, which finished fifth at the 2000 Olympics.
After fracturing her ankle, Charlene retired from competitive swimming aged 29.
At 33, Princess Charlene married Prince Albert II of Monaco. While the ceremony itself was small, more than 5000 Monégasques followed the proceedings from the palace square.