Kate Middleton: A model princess
Prince William's bride-to-be Kate Middleton appears to be a model princess -- a discreet and grounded girl with just the right amount of glamour.
The 29-year-old has not put a foot wrong in her move from middle-class girl to future queen, no doubt delighting a palace worn down by the scandal of Charles and Diana's divorce and the antics of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
Just three generations ago, her maternal great-grandfather was a miner in the coalfields of northeast England, but a line of formidable women helped the family rise through the social ranks.
Kate herself was privately educated, bringing her into the same social circles as the future king.
Her reserve has opened her up to criticism that she lacks substance, but the poise with which she has performed her first official duties at William's side -- under huge pressure -- has won her widespread praise.
Sporting a smile whatever the weather, she has gamely poured champagne over a lifeboat in Wales; worked the crowd on a trip to St Andrews, the Scottish university town where she met William; and flipped pancakes in Belfast.
Throughout, Kate has maintained her image as a normal girl, who just happened to have fallen in love with a prince.
She is pretty but not intimidatingly so, slim but sporty, and her style is high-street rather than haute couture -- the white dress she wore in one engagement photo cost just 159 pounds (180 euros, 260 dollars).
"Miss Middleton offers a refreshing combination of down-to-earth ordinariness and glamour," noted one newspaper commentator.
Such qualities have gone down well with the British public, who are struggling with the aftermath of a deep recession, and might have easily taken against a flashy royal bride.
Her parents, Carole and Michael Middleton, are self-made millionaires who met while she was an air hostess and he worked as ground crew.
They left their jobs to start a business selling party supplies which made their fortune.
They sent Kate -- the eldest of three children, born on January 9, 1982 -- to the elite Marlborough College, where she played tennis, hockey and netball for the school.
She spent some time in Florence and Chile before beginning her studies in history of art at St Andrews, where she met William.
Theirs was a very modern romance, far removed from the short courtship of William's parents which had a whiff of a union arranged by others.
William and Kate were friends before they became a couple, and they have lived together for several months before the wedding.
During their entire relationship, Kate's halo only slipped twice.
There was the now infamous university fashion show where she walked down the catwalk in a transparent dress, and then, during a brief split with William in 2007, when she was snapped in a nightclub wearing Playboy bunny ears.
But while her reserve may be music to the palace's ears after the emotional rollercoaster of Diana, Kate's behaviour has sparked accusations that she is little more than the pretty girl standing at William's side.
William's cousin, Zara Phillips, reportedly refers to her as "Little Miss Perfect".
The tabloids meanwhile, remarking on her low-key career, nicknamed her "Waity Katy", suggesting she has simply been waiting for William to propose.
After leaving university with a degree in history of art, Kate worked as an accessory buyer for a clothing chain before going to work for her parents.
"All we know about Kate Middleton revolves around clothes, nightclubs, weddings, toffish (posh) country pursuits and expensive holidays," wrote one critical commentator in The Times recently.
"Is there anything behind the expectant smile, other than empty life?"
More sympathetic commentators say she is simply well prepared for a life where the press will pounce on any mistake.
"There's a lot of professional advice going on behind the scenes and so far it's worked very well," said public relations consultant Max Clifford.
© 2011 AFP