She beams radiantly as she stands among the lush greenery of the Clarence House gardens, her royal blue dress emphasising the twinkle in her eye.
You’ve got to hand it to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall – she was once reviled as the world’s most famous “other woman”. But within the space of 25 years – without even really seeming to try – she’s managed to win the British public over.
In fact, Prince Charles’ wife is now such an integral part of The Firm that she’s expected to release an annual official birthday portrait just like the queen and all the other senior royals.
The official portrait released to mark Camilla’s 73rd birthday is telling because it shows just how comfortable she feels in her role. Instead of getting dolled up to the nines, the duchess chose to wear a recycled blue shift dress by one of her favourite designers, Anna Valentine. She stood on the rolling lawns of her London residence just long enough to give photographer Chris Jackson the chance to snap a few shots.
Now in her seventies, she doesn’t have all that much left to prove, and she knows exactly where she stands with her blue-blooded in-laws.
In fact, it was the queen who led the way in wishing Camilla well on her birthday. The Royal Family Instagram page shared a sweet picture of Queen Elizabeth and Camilla during an outing in 2014.
The duchess’ stepson, Prince William, and his wife, Kate, also posted a photo on their Instagram page, showing them with Charles (71) and Camilla during a rare joint engagement earlier this year.
There weren’t any public expressions of affection from Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, seeing as they don’t have active social media accounts.
The response the royal posts drew from fans was enough to show just what an important and well-loved member of the family Camilla has become.
How did she do it? When Camilla married Prince Charles in a low-key ceremony in 2005, publicity experts warned the Brits would never warm to her. But now they’re singing a different tune.
“Her image has been transformed, a carefully managed makeover, and they’ve done a fantastic job rehabilitating her [reputation],” says British PR executive Roddi Vaughan-Thomas.
Camilla’s high-profile affair with Charles, which led to the collapse of his marriage to Princess Diana, made her public enemy No 1 in the ’90s. And then when the beloved princess died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, a year after her divorce, hostility towards Camilla was cemented.
Although by the time she and the prince tied the knot they had the full blessing of the queen and his sons, the public still disliked her. It was for this reason that instead of becoming Princess of Wales, Camilla was given the more modest title of Duchess of Cornwall.
But despite this concession, the first few years were tough, with the tabloids cooking up stories about her as the wicked stepmom. “They’d all made a lot of money out of the story that Camilla was this evil, horrible person who ruined Diana’s life and was ruining the children’s lives, and they wanted that story to continue,” says Colleen Harris, Charles’ former press secretary.
To counter this, Colleen says, staff tried their best to make her more human without making her more popular than Charles. The goal was to show she was a real person with real feelings and interests.
“She wasn’t shoved down the public’s throat,” says Melanie Bromley, chief news correspondent at E! Entertainment channel. “The palace took baby steps when it came to their public life together.”
But what definitely helped win people over was her work ethic. While Charles was the hardest-working royal last year, attending 521 functions, his wife did her fair share, carrying out 220 engagements – more than Meghan and Kate combined.
And whereas before she was often mocked for her fashion choices, these days she seldom sets a foot wrong. “The duchess has moved on from frumpy box coats and tweed to chic dresses and ballgowns and ontrend accessories,” says British fashion expert Zak Scott.
But the main reason people love her is they can see the remarkable effect she’s had on her husband. British royal biographer Penny Junor has credited Camilla with helping transform Charles from a “sullen” type who was always “in waiting” into a “confident” future king.
“I’ve seen a huge change in Charles over these past years,” Junor said in a recent interview with a British newspaper. “He used to be quite a morose character; he was very serious and didn’t laugh a lot. Camilla snapped him out of that.”
But it was no laughing matter a few months ago when it was announced Charles had caught Covid-19. Although Camilla showed no symptoms, she and the prince had to go into quarantine for 14 days at Birkhall, their estate in Scotland. In a BBC radio interview she admitted the past few months have been hard and that what she missed most was being able to hug her grandchildren.
Her son, Tom Parker Bowles (45), from her marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles, has two kids, Lola (12) and Freddy (10), while her daughter, Laura Lopes (42), has three kids, Eliza (12) and twins Gus and Louis (10).
Although Britain’s more relaxed lockdown laws mean she can see her grandkids now, Camilla says she found it strange not to be able to shower them with hugs and kisses.
“You’re so excited because you haven’t seen them for three-and-a-half months, and your first reaction is to run up and hug them, and you have to sort of put up your hands. It’s an odd feeling. I shall look forward to the day when I can give them a huge hug.”
Seems it isn’t in her nature to put on airs and graces. In her 2018 book, The Duchess, Junor revealed Camilla and her family are unfazed by Charles’ status as heir to the throne.
“They’re respectful, of course, but they aren’t overawed by who the Prince of Wales is, and they find the royal circus faintly ridiculous,” Junor writes.
And Charles appears to enjoy that they don’t behave like they’re walking on eggshells when he’s around.
“I think he feels cosy with us,” says a family member.
They say his face lights up when his wife walks into the room. “No doubt about it, they’re happy together. He thinks she’s absolutely wonderful.”
Yet as wonderful as she is, he has accepted she can never have the title he thinks she deserves.
With rumours flying about what her future royal status would be, Clarence House released a statement clarifying that she’ll be known as Princess Consort when Charles accedes the throne.
But for Camilla that’s enough. She doesn’t need a crown or a fancy title because she knows her husband will always treat her like a queen.