The evolution of Camilla: From ‘wicked stepmother’ to winning the hearts of a nation

Before her 75th birthday this weekend, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, was invited to celebrate the milestone at the Oldie Lunch at the National Liberal Club in London.

Warmly embraced by the city’s literacy circle and actress Joanna Lumley, the Duchess, wearing a smart-casual teal shirt dress and practical shoes, chatted among the crowd, laughed and sliced through a two-tier cake to mark the occasion.

She attends events alone more often these days – yet another sign that she has consolidated her place in the British monarchy alongside the future king of England.

Her birthday celebration coincided this week with her guest editing of the July issue of Country Life magazine and a request that her step-daughter-in-law – and keen amateur photographer – Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, come on board and shoot the cover.

On July 13, ITV broadcast an intimate and revealing one-off documentary, Camilla’s Country Life, which paints a portrait of a very down-to-earth future Queen Consort as she embarked on her magazine editing duties.

Director Michael Waldman described the Duchess as someone who didn’t “stand on ceremony”.

“You could tell all the people she engaged with felt they were being listened to … watching her, that comes naturally,” he said.

It hasn’t always been like this

As the magazine hit shelves and the documentary was released, some commentators felt it was time people stopped seeing Camilla as the “wicked stepmother”.

The history books tell us that, as the late Diana, Princess of Wales’ marriage to Prince Charles was on a knife’s edge in the early 1990s, he embarked on an affair with then-Camilla Parker Bowles, who he first met at a polo match in 1970.

It wasn’t long before the British tabloids splashed every detail of their daily lives.

Prince Charles chats to Camilla Parker-Bowles at a polo match, circa 1972. Photo: Getty

In 1995, Diana famously gave an interview to the BBC’s Panorama program in which she said Charles’s affair with Camilla had made her feel worthless.

She was asked whether Camilla was a factor in the breakdown of their marriage.

“Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” the princess famously replied.

Charles and Diana divorced in 1996.

In 1997, soon after Charles hosted a 50th birthday party for Camilla at his country home, Highgrove, Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris.

Britain and the world mourned the death of the “people’s princess”.

It would be another eight years before Charles and Camilla married on April 8 in a civil ceremony, with his eldest son Prince William as best man.

“The Queen does not attend the wedding, but does go to the reception afterward. In order to have Diana remain as the only Princess of Wales, Camilla gains the title Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cornwall,” Town and Country magazine reported in a timeline of the couple’s relationship.

The Duchess told the Mail on Sunday in 2017 about how she coped once their affair had become public all those years ago.

“I couldn’t really go anywhere,” she said.

“It was horrid.

“It was a deeply unpleasant time and I wouldn’t want to put my worst enemy through it. I couldn’t have survived it without my family.”

As the couple celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary earlier this year, and the Queen her platinum jubilee, the monarch announced that it was her “sincere wish” that Camilla should be known as Queen Consort when Charles becomes king.

The couple later appeared alongside the Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony during the final event of the jubilee celebrations in June.

Has Camilla finally won the hearts of a nation?

So, let’s fast forward to now.

Royal commentator and writer Julie Bindel told Good Morning Britain that “all those people who have met her, worked with her in this field say that she’s genuine, that she is an extremely approachable person, that she really cares”.

“Camilla is someone who takes her charitable work really seriously … she advocates for stigmatised issues such as rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse,” Bindel said.

“We can really stop thinking of her as the wicked stepmother in the fairytale where Diana was the princess.”

Look no further than her latest gesture to her step-daughter-in-law.

Country Life magazine editor Mark Hedges told ITV that Kate was Camilla’s first choice when it was discussed who would take her picture for the magazine cover.

“She immediately said ‘Catherine’ and none of us could think who she meant,” he said.

“Then some lightbulbs started going on,” he added, as they realised she was referring to her stepson William’s wife.

Camilla said Kate “did really good pictures and you know she does it very naturally … we had a lot of fun doing it”.

The Duchess of Cambridge came with her own camera and kept it very casual, Camilla added.

“There wasn’t much hair and makeup,” Camilla said, laughing.

Her future

The Duchess tells ITV there is “always something exciting round the next corner” as the program interviews her friends and family.

Comedian Paul O’Grady, with whom Camilla shares a love of dogs, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and Camilla’s younger sister, Annabel Elliot, were all interviewed.

Prince Charles guest-edited Country Life twice before and the magazine put out its biggest-selling edition when he was in charge.

But ITV says “Camilla is secretly hoping her edition will outsell her husband’s”.

Meanwhile, the duchess continues to support more than 90 charities as either patron or president, including Barnardo’s, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, The Royal School of Needlework and The Royal Society of Literature.

She’s passionate about health, literacy, supporting those in need, the elderly, victims of rape and sexual abuse and domestic violence, empowering women, food, animals, dance and heritage and the arts.

Admitting she still gets nervous before big events, Camilla said in the documentary: “I take a deep breath and get on with it.”

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