Long vilified as the ‘other woman,’ Camilla eases into British affection

Britain’s Camilla, Queen Consort and Britain’s Catherine, Princess of Wales arrive for a service for the reception of Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin at Westminster Hall, in the Palace of Westminster in London on September 14, 2022, where the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, will Lie in State.

LONDON – As King Charles III signed the visitors book at the 18th Century Hillsborough Castle in Belfast on Tuesday, his fountain pen started leaking.

“Oh God, I hate this,” he said, clearly peeved. “I can’t bear this bloody thing . . . every stinking time!”

Before noticing the ink on his fingers, Charles had passed the pen to Camilla, who then calmly wiped her hands, picked up a new pen, signed her name and completed the task.

Camilla’s 50-year relationship with Charles has been messy, but after years of being vilified as the “other woman,” she appears to be easing into the affection of British public. Many see her as the no-fuss royal, with neither a temper nor elitist airs, the steady calm at Charles’s side.

A new YouGov poll shows that 53 percent of Britons approve of Camilla and say she will do a good job as queen consort, compared to 33 percent five years ago. Her highest ratings come from women and those over 50.

“It’s a wonderful transformation,” said William Shawcross, a royal biographer who has known Camilla since they were children and who attended her wedding to Charles.

“She’s found it much easier than one might have expected to adapt to the pressures and strains of royal life,” he said. “She is absolutely indispensable to him.”

Justine Roberts, founder and chief executive of Mumsnet, the U.K.’s largest online forum for parents, said there had been a “sea change” in perceptions of Camilla.

“She suffered at first from being the ‘other woman,’ but it’s pretty obvious that they are quite committed to each other and it’s a genuine romance,” Roberts said.

Roberts said Camilla’s work on many causes, including violence against women and girls, has helped lift her image. “It does feel like she’s a genuinely caring person,” she said.

In the nonstop media coverage since Queen Elizabeth II died last week, Camilla has been almost constantly in the public eye. She seems to have little interest in being the center of attention herself, preferring to stand just to the side.

Camilla and Charles have lived in the intertwined world of the British upper crust for their entire lives. They met at a polo match in 1970 and began dating. When Charles left to serve in the Navy in 1972 without asking her for any commitment from Camilla, she didn’t wait.

The next year, she married Andrew Parker Bowles, an aristocrat seven years her senior, who had been a page at Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation and played polo with Charles when they were young.

Charles remained friendly with the couple, who had two children together, Tom and Laura. Charles became Tom’s godfather (and now is also his stepfather).

Charles married Diana in 1981, with Camilla and her husband in attendance as guests. As both marriages began falling apart, Charles and Camilla began an affair.

Queen Elizabeth II was not happy. Sally Bedell Smith, in a biography of the Queen, reported that after several martinis, she referred to Camilla as “that wicked woman.”

Princess Diana went on TV in 1995 – a year before her divorce from Charles – and complained about “three of us” in her marriage. The British media reported that Camilla was even pelted with bread rolls at a supermarket.

“She had a horrible time,” Shawcross said. “It was ghastly.”

Of course, not all British people are fans of the monarchy, and even some who like the royals are still not fans of Camilla.

“If Diana were alive, she’d be the queen of England today. It’s hard not to think about that. Does that mean I like Charles and Camilla less? Maybe yes,” said William Snyder, 60, a London grocery store cashier.

For a quarter century, there has been a concerted effort to improve Camilla’s image. After Diana died in a car accident in 1997, Camilla largely disappeared from public view.

Two years later, Charles consulted with a public relations expert, Mark Bolland, who devised a media campaign to help Britons see Charles and Camilla as a couple.

In what he called “Operation Ritz,” Bolland made sure every media outlet in the country knew that Charles and Camilla would be making their first public appearance together at her sister’s 50th birthday party at London’s Ritz Hotel. The photos taken that night dominated newspapers, magazines and TV broadcasts.

It would take time to win over the queen, but the two women shared a love of horses and often went to the races together.

Shawcross said Camilla also “got on very well with Prince Philip. Many people were scared or in awe of him. Not her.” She held her own with Charles’s father.

Camilla began being described as a partner not a mistress. She moved in with Charles in 2003 and finally, 35 years after they met, they married in 2005.

At the time, opinion polls showed that just 7 percent of Britons thought she should ever become queen.

Five months later, Prince Harry rose to Camilla’s defense on his 21st birthday, telling the British press that she was “not the wicked stepmother.”

“Everyone has to understand that it’s very hard for her,” he said. “Look at the position she’s coming into. Don’t always feel sorry for me and William, feel sorry for her. . . . We are very grateful for her. She’s made our father very happy.”

Camilla’s mischievousness sense of humor went viral in 2019, during a visit to London by then-president Donald Trump.

After Charles and Camilla stood with Donald and Melania Trump for a photo op in Clarence House, Charles began leading the Americans into another room for tea. Camilla turned in the opposite direction and winked toward members of the press.

It was a sly gesture widely interpreted, in a country where Trump was as popular as an empty pint glass, as the sharp-witted Duchess saying, “Can you believe this?”

Now, as they assume their new roles – King Charles III, 73, and Camilla, Queen Consort, 75 – the public finds them as familiar as the furniture.

Many people also find their complicated family relatable. They are the first king and queen consort to have been previously divorced, and they are the first to have stepchildren.

Camilla’s children are far more low-key than Charles’s global celebrity sons, Princes William and Harry. Tom Parker Bowles is a food critic and Laura Lopes is an art curator.

In a recent interview in the UK edition of Vogue to mark her 75th birthday in July, Camilla said she avoids wearing clothes in a color she describes as “menopausal mauve.” She said she plays Wordle every day on her iPad and comparing scores with her granddaughter.

The public has also gotten to know her and her gravelly laugh through her social media presence, including videos on Instagram showing her applauding covid first-responders or nuzzling with rescue dogs to the syrupy 1972 hit “Puppy Love” by Donny Osmond.

This week, she has been celebrated in TikTok videos for going from Charles’s “side chick” to his Queen Consort.

“I quite like her,” said Jodie Barrett, 22, receptionist at a hair salon in the Chelsea neighborhood of London. Asked why, she said Camilla was not as memorable as Diana, but she found nothing to dislike.

Roberts said there has been much discussion of Camilla on the Mumsnet’s online forum, most of it favorable.

“She’s definitely won over what was initially a very skeptical crowd,” she said. “People think she’d be quite fun to go have a drink with – unlike him.”