WHO would have thought that a student fashion show could be such a pivotal moment in British history?
But when Kate Middleton sashayed down the catwalk at the University of St Andrews in a sheer black dress, causing Prince William to say: “Wow, Kate’s hot!” everything changed between the pair. By the end of the night, a close friendship had turned to romance, and Kate and Wills had taken their first steps towards becoming our future king and queen.
Yet Kate’s appearance at the charity fashion show could have been so different – student designer Charlotte Todd wanted her to wear the diaphanous skirt with a jumper, but Kate ditched the sweater, preferring to hitch it up and wear it as a dress. William, who had paid £200 for a VIP seat on the FROW, was mesmerised.
Fast-forward two decades and the couple are widely deemed to be the future of the monarchy – more so than ever since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle controversially moved to America last year.
William and Kate, who celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in April, have been a constant source of comfort to the public – along with their three children, George, eight, Charlotte, six, and three-year-old Louis – throughout the pandemic. It’s easy to feel like Kate has always been at William’s side but how did a middle-class girl from the Home Counties land Britain’s most eligible bachelor?
The fashion show was pivotal in changing the dynamic of their relationship. The pair met 20 years ago next month when they walked through the doors of Scotland’s oldest university. From the start it was inevitable that their paths would cross – not only were they both studying art history, but they also lived in the same halls of residence, St Salvator’s Hall. Even so, they got off to an inauspicious start.
“I turned bright red and sort of scuttled off,” Kate, 39, later revealed. But gradually their friendship blossomed over shared interests. They had both been brought up in rural surroundings – Kate in the Berkshire village of Bucklebury and William on his father’s Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire – and shared a love of the countryside (a prerequisite for fitting into the royal family, where hunting, shooting, fishing, watching polo and going to the races are the norm).
They had both been pupils at exclusive schools in the Home Counties – Kate went to St Andrew’s prep school in Pangbourne, Berkshire, and later Marlborough College, Wiltshire, while William was at Ludgrove in Berkshire, then Eton – and shared a passion for sport. In fact, Kate first clapped eyes on William when they were nine years old and playing opposite each other in a hockey match.
As students at St Andrews they often swam together in the university pool or went for early-morning jogs before lectures. Kate, the diligent student, would help William when he missed classes by letting him copy her notes.
At first their relationship was purely platonic as both were dating other people – William met Carly Massy-Birch at an audition for a college play, while Kate’s boyfriend was fourth-year law student Rupert Finch, who is now married to her close friend Lady Natasha Rufus-Isaacs, founder of ethical fashion label Beulah.
But those relationships eventually fizzled out and Kate became William’s confidante – she was the one who persuaded him to stay at university when he was thinking of dropping out and suggested he switch to geography instead, which he did.
She was constantly there to listen and support – even rescuing him from unwanted attention. At one party, he was trying politely to shake off an admirer, when Kate came to his aid by putting her arms around him and giving the impression she was his girlfriend. As the girl disappeared, William mouthed at her: “Thanks so much.”
“Kate was the only girl in the room who could have done that and who William would have allowed to do it,” noted an observer.
However, it was only after the night of the fashion show, on April 7, 2002, that romance blossomed – and even then they went to great lengths to keep it a secret. William especially was keen not to rush into a serious relationship, remembering the advice his mother Princess Diana had given him shortly before her death, in 1997, that he should take his time in settling down.
“Whatever you do,” she told 15-year-old William, “Make sure the person you marry is your best friend first.”
By the end of their first year, Kate had been invited to share a flat with William and two other friends – Etonian Fergus Boyd, who is now godfather to Prince George, and army officer’s daughter Olivia Bleasdale. The four moved into 13a Hope Street in the heart of town, where they threw regular supper parties.
Property developer Michael Choong, who played rugby with William, said: “They never showed any affection in public. Kate was good for him. She was loyal and didn’t gossip. Will was naturally gregarious, but Kate was less so and hated having her picture taken. Will used to take some of his mates shooting.
“He would go down to Norfolk at weekends and they would bring back game, which Kate would cook for dinner parties.”
It was during their third year, when they had moved into a farmhouse on the 400-acre Strathtyrum estate on the outskirts of St Andrews, that William and Kate were finally outed. Skiing in the Swiss resort of Klosters, the couple were snapped on a ski lift together and ended up on the front pages.
A year later, in 2005, they were back in Klosters when William, enjoying the après-ski in a nightclub, revealed his true intentions – a week before his father’s wedding to the Duchess of Cornwall, he was asked by a journalist whether there was going to be a second royal wedding. “I am too young,” he replied. “I don’t want to get married until I’m at least 28 or maybe 30.”
Six years later – and two months shy of his 29th birthday – in 2011 the pair finally tied the knot. During that time Kate endured relentless attention and earned the nickname “Waity Katie”. There was also a very public break-up in April 2007 when William, feeling under pressure to get engaged, chose instead to end the relationship during a tense phone call.
However, despite dancing on the table at Mahiki nightclub yelling “I’m free” shortly after the split, he soon regretted his decision.
Royal expert Katie Nicholl said: “They secretly met up at a pub near Highgrove, where William told her he wanted to get back together. Kate didn’t want to rush anything. She had been badly hurt and told William she needed some time.”
On June 9, 10 weeks after they had broken up, army officer William invited Kate to a raucous “Freakin’ Naughty” mess party in his barracks in Dorset to celebrate the end of his gruelling course as a troop leader. By the time of the Concert For Diana, which commemorated the 10th anniversary of his mother’s death, in July 2007, they were back together – and William had promised that they would eventually get married.
Reflecting on their break-up during an ITV interview to mark their engagement in November 2010, William said: “We were both very young, we were both finding ourselves and being different characters – but it worked out for the better.”
Three years later, he proposed to Kate on holiday in Kenya, having slipped Princess Diana’s iconic engagement ring into his backpack.
“I had done a bit of planning to show my romantic side,” he said in the interview. “I had been carrying it around with me for about three weeks before that and I literally would not let it go. Everywhere I went, I was keeping hold of it, because I knew if it disappeared, I would be in a lot of trouble! It’s my mother’s engagement ring, so I thought it was quite nice because obviously she’s not going to be around to share any of the fun and excitement. This was my way of keeping her close to it all.”
“It was very romantic,” added his bride-to-be, laughing: “There’s a true romantic in there.”
A decade on from their wedding, the Cambridges are closer than ever. Like any married couple, they have faced their tests – including long spells apart when William was working as an RAF Search and Rescue helicopter pilot.
Plus it took Kate a while to find her feet within the royal family. And, of course, it’s not easy bringing up three children – especially during the past year, and William joked about how much even they struggled with homeschooling.
Recently they went through their biggest upheaval yet dealing with the fallout of Prince Harry and Meghan’s exit from the family, as well as their explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey. But throughout it all, Kate has been William’s rock, guiding him after the brothers’ relationship deteriorated.
The Cambridges know the future of the monarchy rests firmly on their shoulders and so the pressure is on the couple to turn around opinion of the royals both at home and abroad. Despite their struggles they have never put a foot wrong and their partnership only seems to get stronger and more united.
And in a poignant celebration of their 20 years of friendship, earlier this year they returned to where it all began – St Andrews. They last visited the university in February 2011, in the lead-up to their wedding.
As well as meeting with current students, they had a race against each other in wind-powered buggies on West Sands beach. It got quite heated, with Kate teasingly shouting: “Come on, grandad!” at her husband, who was trailing behind. But it was William who ended up triumphing.
Joe Horsnell, a 22-year-old student at the uni, said William and Kate “were asking about what the university had done for us, for our wellbeing. They were here as alumni. You could tell it felt like coming home for them.”