If Harry and Meghan didn’t chat with Oprah three years ago, would we care where Kate is?

Keeping tabs on the comings and goings of the British Royals isn’t high on the list of popular American pastimes. What we are is a nation of true crime hounds addicted to missing white woman anxiety, especially if the gone girl is wealthy and slightly famous. If she’s also connected to a messy family, go ahead and sign us up for the full subscription.

All of that still only partly explains why Kate Middleton’s months-long absence from public view has captivated America’s social media conspiracists, photo manipulation gumshoes and all purpose rubberneckers. It’s an odd preoccupation until you remember that we’re a nation who went from zero to #FreeBritney in the running time of a documentary. Kate may be Catherine, Princess of Wales, but she’s also a mother and wife devoted to whatever royals do when they’re not attending ribbon cutting ceremonies. 

Hence, everyone has something to say about that innocuous looking snapshot that circulated on March 10, Mother’s Day in Britain. It was the first official photo released by Kensington Palace since the Princess of Wales underwent abdominal surgery in January.

The last time Kate was officially seen in public was Christmas 2023, making the picture newsworthy, I guess. It shows Kate surrounded by her adorable iss-yew Princes George and Louis and Princess Charlotte, all “nothing to see here!” smiles.

Immediately sleuths uncovered inconsistencies in the image – a patch of hair hanging unnaturally, a partly erased sweater cuff, weirdly situated floor tiles. By Sunday afternoon AP had circulated a kill notification: “At closer inspection, it appears that the source manipulated has manipulated the image,” it explained. Reuters and Agence France-Presse followed suit.

By Monday people were treating the thing like the Zapruder film. A TikTok user shared a complex breakdown matching the cut of the turtleneck Kate’s wearing to older fashion blog posts. Others speculate a years-old cover shot from British Vogue was into the frame.

As for that apology issued via the official X account of The Prince and Princess of Wales, do you believe that she wrote it?

“Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing,” it reads. “I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused. I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother’s Day. C”

“Blink twice if you are being held against your Will,” replied X user @Joey_Blogs.

Quite a to-do over the whereabouts of an extremely rich woman, don’t you think? But then this isn’t any old footballer’s wife but, the potential future Queen Consort of England. Also, depending on which side you’ve taken in the long-running international drama pitting Kate and William, Prince of Wales, against Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Kate is either the Marquise of Mean Girls or another royal wife trapped in a loveless marriage, with a husband allegedly carrying on an extramarital entanglement with a “rural rival.”

The latter take is more thrilling to invest in and not necessarily mutually exclusive of the stories about Kate bullying Meghan. (Allegations of Will’s supposed philandering have circulated since 2019 and have never been substantiated.) 

Regardless, if the Sussexes hadn’t sat down with Oprah Winfrey three years ago almost to the day – yes, darlings, it’s the third anniversary of the “what?!” heard ’round the world! – markedly fewer of us would care as much as so many appear to.

The Oprah interview was the first stateside explainer of how the business of telling stories about the Windsors, a notoriously private and tight-lipped family, outweighs protecting individual family members’ image and reputations.

The truth about Kate is probably a lot less exciting than people imagine it to be.

The Sussexes have since settled into the United States entertainment industry complex, producing podcasts, running their charities, making goodwill visits to victims of violence and generally living their best lives. You either care about them or don’t; you may be happy for them insofar as one has good wishes for decent people.

How they’re living is less important than the education they provided to American audiences about The Firm, the Windsors’ corporate apparatus that works to maintain their relevance by feeding toxic narratives to the press.

This wasn’t a revelation to British audiences, but the average U.S. viewer either didn’t know such apparatus existed or wasn’t aware of the extent to which it rules the family’s lives.

Between that, “Harry & Meghan” on Netflix and the Diana Spencer seasons on “The Crown” we have a better grasp of the way the royals’ PR arm works to elevate some family members over others.

Add that to the long-established chapters of Diana’s story in which she spilled the tea about her loveless marriage and Charles’ longstanding infatuation with Camilla and we’re already conditioned to suspect those royal smiles aren’t merely false but hiding something.

Diana’s death by paparazzi chase redirected our anger toward the predatory media. Even then, the royal PR team crafted its spin as Harry explained in detail in “Harry & Meghan” and his various tours for his tell-all “Spare.

Now that Harry and Meghan are living in the media equivalent of a glass house, the royal tradition of privacy and quiet dignity is coming back to bite the first in line to the throne and his lady wife.

Allegations about William’s infidelity and Kate’s distress have circulated for years, each shot down by Kensington Palace – which, like Kate’s day-after Photoshop apology, devoted skeptics refuse to believe.

When no pictures emerged of the princess leaving the hospital, people began to speculate she was being or had already been disappeared. Around the same time, King Charles was treated for an “issue of concern” that led to doctors discovering he has cancer.

He was photographed leaving the hospital because, of course he was – he’s a monarch with zero political power in a parliamentary democracy. Having his photo taken is half the job.

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Kate, meanwhile, has become high society’s Shelly Miscavige, only better, because nobody has to explain who she is. Miscavige, the wife of Scientology leader David Miscavige, hasn’t been seen in public since 2007.

The back of Kate’s head – or did it belong to her double? — was spotted (and conveniently photographed) on Monday as she sat beside Prince William in the backseat of a chauffeured vehicle. He was heading to Westminster Abbey to attend the annual Commonwealth Day service.

Kate has become high society’s Shelly Miscavige, only better, because nobody has to explain who she is.

The official report said she had a private appointment to attend; no word on whether that appointment is located in the clandestine cannabis grow room beneath the Duke of Halstead’s dairy farm. You know, to ease the pain of her subterranean imprisonment in Tower of London’s sub-basement.

Joking! The truth about Kate is probably a lot less exciting than people imagine it to be. She’s probably enjoying an extended hurkle-durkle; it’s not as if she’s holding together a major corporation or even a small town government. Maybe she really is recovering her health. That could take longer than expected after major surgery. She could also be unhappy like Diana and Meghan were before her and doing some version of quiet quitting.

Whatever the reason turns out to be, once Kate resumes public life this chapter might be regarded as proof that the royals are stupendously awful at branding and image burnishing in the Instagram age.

By the way, in case that earlier reference went over your head, The Duke of Halstead isn’t real either. He’s Theo James’ character in “The Gentlemen,” which is worth mentioning because that Netflix series makes the coddled aristocracy look suave and more action-ready than most of them are.

If Guy Ritchie is looking for a second-season storyline this mass contrivance might inspire a hilarious subplot, along with giving Will and Kate something to binge from the velvety interior of their gilded cage. Until then, the whole concern continues to be emotional . . . and silly.

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