One sister is pure and on the cusp of motherhood to the third in line to the throne. Therefore, the other must be bad. One is benevolent and graceful, so the other must be greedy and narcissistic.
The powerful double act of siblings and the “embedded cultural constructs” about them are part of what’s fuelling the strikingly divergent narratives for the Duchess of Cambridge and her younger sister, Pippa Middleton. And if their archetypal opposite scripts were always at play – Pippa (and her derrière) stole the wedding as the sexy handmaiden to the virginal-looking bride – that has ratcheted up recently, reportedly leading to renewed advice from the palace for her to adopt a lower profile. That the Duchess of Cambridge is now untouchable only heightens the appeal of Pippa – or “P-Middy” – as fair game, a convenient target to express a range of uncharitable judgment about assumed sisterly rivalry, female ambition and her entrepreneurial family, which no one dares express overtly – not any more, that is.
The Pippa Problem is that she may have come into her fame as a cipher, but she doesn’t appear content to remain one. And while her royal-by-association status elevates her, it restricts her, too. Since her debut on the red carpet of Westminster Abbey, she has actively turned around in the spotlight in an effort to show all sides of herself – not just the rear view. Last November, she published a hostess book, Celebrate. And this month saw the start of her new column in Vanity Fair, in which she described her love of playing tennis as a young girl and the social whirl of Wimbledon. But if she has a brand to sell, she has had to toe the royal line of not giving interviews. On the U.S. leg of her book tour, she turned down both Oprah and Anderson Cooper. “It’s been a crazy couple of years,” is about the longest sentence she has uttered into a journalist’s tape recorder. Yet, despite this ladylike marketing foray, her literary efforts have largely backfired, panned by the press, who characterize her as frivolous and cringe-worthy. “A cultural tea bag for the American market,” is how one newspaper described her book.
Her story now seems to have Fergie potential, the very thing that makes the press salivate. She could become one of those embarrassing royal-ish hangers-on, like Sarah Ferguson, whose relationship to Prince Andrew makes us still pay attention, albeit with a morbid and prurient curiosity.
Last week, The Daily Mail, the popular U.K. tabloid, rolled out their passive-aggressive weapon of choice: Nasty judgment about her style, a cowardly schoolyard tactic, to be sure, but one that passes as socially acceptable in today’s culture of appearance. It was reported that Pippa’s style consists of “clothes like potato sacks, over-made-up panda eyes,” according to fashion columnist Liz Jones. “Her look has no coherence whatsoever as she vacillates from Sloane Ranger circa 1982 to East End barmaid.”
The fact that the story came out around the same time as the press was giving the Duchess a send-off into confinement with gushing commentary about her perfect maternity clothing, only made the contrast more marked – and interesting.
“We always compare and contrast sisters,” comments Terri Apter, a psychology professor at University of Cambridge and author of the book, The Sister Knot. “We see them as belonging to one another, as being foils to one another. And with sisters, there’s often this idea that one is fair, more beautiful and good, and the other is not. … It’s the Madonna and whore construct,” she says, citing the Cinderella story of the ugly stepsisters.
Of course, in the context of a sibling who is royalty, we’re automatically interested in the one who is not constrained by that duty and can play out a freer (and naughtier) version of the other’s life. Princess Margaret was that counter-narrative to the Queen. Similarly, Prince Harry’s appeal is largely because he can do (and has done) what Prince William will not. And Pippa is the Middleton that Kate might have been if she hadn’t married Prince William.
“William, Kate, Harry, Pippa. There’s a perfect symmetry to [these figures],” notes Alison Eastwood, editor of Hello! magazine in Canada, discussing the “devil-may-care” attitude of younger siblings of future kings and queens. The fleeting suggestion that Prince Harry was romantically interested in Pippa, a.k.a. Her Royal Hotness, at the time of the royal wedding was evidence of the fascination with the second string, she adds. In the voracious cultural imagination, they could have served as the perfect (genetically similar) foil couple to the duty-bound Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
But the attention and commentary Pippa attracts is notably different in quantity and tone. Princess Diana’s sisters never got such scrutiny, for example. And that may be because of age-old class-conscious biases about people who seem to be trying too hard to rise above their station or capitalizing on their connection to the royal family. When the Middleton sisters were at their posh boarding schools and universities and then on the London social scene, they were dubbed the “Wisteria sisters,” meaning “highly decorative, terribly fragrant and with a ferocious ability to climb.” It was reported that the snootier denizens of British high society would mutter “doors to manual” whenever either sister entered a room – a reference to the fact that their mother, Carole, worked as an air hostess for British Airways before starting the family’s online party business.
“There has always been a lingering sense, among the posher Brits, that it wasn’t really right that William didn’t marry an aristocrat. They had to get over that. He is the future King, and his word rules. … But the British press can get some of those feelings out of their system with Pippa,” acknowledges Tom Sykes, editor of The Royalist column for the online newspaper, The Daily Beast.
The uncomfortable irony for Pippa, of course, is that she may go to all the best parties and consort with the titled, but she is not an aristocrat with a trust fund. Which is also why her love life is of such interest. Known for dating highly eligible, rich men – including Jonathan “JJ” Jardine Paterson, an heir to a Hong Kong fortune; Scottish aristocrat Billy More Nisbett; diamond heir Simon Youngman; nightclub entrepreneur Charlie Gilkes; and stockbroker Nico Jackson, her current beau – Pippa, now 29, has an uncertain narrative compared to her sister, who has bagged her prince and ensured her future.
“We know the story of Kate, whereas Pippa’s, we don’t know, so there’s something to follow,” Apter comments. “We know it’s not going to match her sister’s, so is it going to be not so interesting or tragic or is it going to be a story of comeuppance?”
Adding to the Pippa Problem is that in her entrepreneurial zeal, she seems alarmingly unaware of the rich potential for ridicule. She pushed ahead with her book even though the palace “didn’t want her to write it,” according to Sykes. When it was criticized, she wrote a defence of it for The Daily Telegraph, which made her seem both thin-skinned and strident. A proper public-relations response might have been to remain in dignified silence. She may be “speaking” through her writing under the delusion that if she controls the script, she will not embarrass anyone, including her sister or herself, but she is in a no-win situation.
Maybe, to stop feeding the hungry media beast, she should turn away from all the attention and, for a little while at least, go back to being the woman best seen from behind.