Kate Middleton’s 29th birthday on January 9 is a reminder that she will likely transition to royal life more smoothly than Princess Diana did.
The late princess was just 20 years old when her marriage to Prince Charles thrust her into the spotlight, instantly making her one of the world’s most photographed women. Can a 20-year old really know what she’s getting herself into when she marries a Windsor? The couple’s stiff and awkward engagement photograph captured a young woman who, even if in love, seemed uneasy about her regal future.
Contrast that with the joy of a 28-year old Kate in her engagement photos, shot by Mario Testino. Her carefree elegance may simply stem from the confidence that comes with experience and being a more fully-formed woman. But it also reflects the strong foundations of Kate’s relationship with William—one built on devotion and trust, not convenience. Diana and Charles’ rather speedy courtship began during the summer of 1980, when the two were guests at a weekend retreat in the countryside. With Prince Charles already aged 33 and under mounting pressure to settle on a wife, he proposed the following February.
This is a different story entirely. “It’s not like Charles and Diana, which was a pretty quick turnaround,” Catherine Ostler, the editor of high-society magazine Tatler, told TIME in a recent interview. “[Kate’s] been in the frame for [ten] years. Having known him so long and seen up close the life he leads and the interest that there will be in her, she’s as prepared as anyone could be.”
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Kate, William’s elder by six months, has already proven that she has the poise and maturity of an older woman. In April 2007, Wills dumped “Waity Katie” so he could pursue the life of a bachelor while serving in the military. Rather than sulking at home, she decided to let her perfectly coiffed hair down and was repeatedly photographed looking glamorous and seemingly unmoved by the snub from her wayward prince. Ostler believes Kate’s poise during that period ultimately boosted her popularity with the masses. “She came out of that breakup rather well,” says Ostler. “She went out, looked great, and eventually [William] went back with his tail between his legs. It made her look like the triumphant underdog.”
That’s a good look at any age.