Prince William and Kate had already been on their official tour of Asia for three days, and the itinerary called for one day of official engagements (a visit to Malaysia’s Assyakirin Mosque followed by tea at a garden party with Jimmy Choo) before the couple would jet off for an adventure in the rain forest of Borneo. But on Sept. 14, while staying at the British High Commissioner’s residence in Kuala Lumpur, the couple woke up to a shocker. Photos of a topless princess, taken with a long-lens camera as she sunbathed with her husband at his cousin’s private estate in the South of France on Sept. 5, were being published in the French magazine Closer. Aides showed the couple the pixilated cover image online just before they headed to the mosque and showed them the magazine’s full-frontal photographs when they returned later. “They were absolutely united in how they felt about it,” a source says of the couple, who struggled to hide their emotions in public. “A red line had been crossed.”
And an era of relative innocence, it seemed, had come to a sudden, jarring end for Britain’s golden couple. For the perfect princess, who hadn’t put a foot wrong since saying her I dos in Westminster Abbey, it was a baptism by fire into the complete lack of privacy that is royal life. For Prince William, who had assiduously shielded his beloved from the kind of media attention that ruined the life of his mother, Princess Diana, it was an infuriating reminder of the limits of his control. And for the Palace, fresh from Prince Harry‘s nude photo scandal in Las Vegas, it was one more headache they didn’t need.
Official response was swift: As an angry Prince William and a solemn-looking Kate took off in a plane that afternoon, the Palace released a statement declaring that Closer had “invaded their privacy in…a grotesque and totally unjustifiable manner,” adding, “This incident is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi during the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, and all the more upsetting to the duke and duchess for being so.”
Four days later, lawyers for the couple won an injunction forcing the magazine to cease publication of the photos. (Noting that the pool terrace at Chateau d’Autet, where the couple were staying, was visible from a public road half a mile away, Closer editor Laurence Pieau defended publishing the images, calling the reaction “disproportionate.”) It was a victory, but the damage had largely been done. The risque shots had already been on sale for days in France, been reprinted in other foreign tabloids and gone viral online. The couple filed a criminal complaint against the as-yet-unidentified photographer for invasion of privacy; at press time, a criminal investigation had been launched.
As Will and Kate, both 30, continued their Asian tour, they could rest assured that the “anger and disbelief,” as a source described it, felt by their relatives-especially the Queen-was not directed at them. “The rest of the royal family are most definitely supporting them in everything that they are doing,” says a Palace source. Adds Ken Wharfe, former bodyguard to Princess Diana: “If this were Fergie, [the Queen] would be livid. But this is top-drawer royalty: a favorite grandson and his beautiful wife. They live in another world.”
They do indeed. Given that fact, some believe they should have known better. “They appear to have not learned the lessons of history,” says Dai Davies, former head of royal protections at Scotland Yard. Followed by paparazzi for years with no major incident, Kate “seems to have been lulled into a false sense of security,” says royal expert Ingrid Seward. “It might take something like this for the enormity of her situation and lack of privacy to dawn on her.”
For William, that lack of privacy has long been a source of anguish. “On William’s first day of school, Diana said to him, ‘When we get there, there will be about 150 photographers,'” her former bodyguard recalls. “And he said, ‘I hate ‘tographers. I hate them!’ From that early age, right through his adolescence, he thought that.” When his mother was chased to her death at age 36 by the paparazzi, that anger intensified. Throughout his romance with Kate, the idea of exposing her to the pressures his mother faced weighed heavily on his mind. Now, says his former press officer Colleen Harris, “William will be absolutely fuming. This is what he hates about the paparazzi.”
For Kate, who has carefully established herself as beyond reproach, the scandal comes as a crushing blow. During her eight-year romance with Will, she never got drunk (friends told PEOPLE she would only nurse a single cocktail), wore respectable outfits (often at budget prices) and charmed Prince Charles and the prickly Queen herself. In her official role as the Duchess of Cambridge, “she has done a brilliant job,” says a source from her hometown of Bucklebury. “She has this lovely, demure image. It’s been very good for the royal family,” says Harris. “But it has been damaged a bit.” Adds another hometown friend: “I would imagine she is absolutely gutted.”
Taking off her bikini top during a private vacation-in the nudity-friendly South of France, no less-is certainly not being seen as the crime of the century. “She’s got to have a life; they both have,” says another hometown friend. “When they are on holiday, they should be left alone.” By the pool on Sept. 5, the intention was just that. “They were in a private place, they felt secluded,” says Harris. “If she thought for a second anyone would see, she wouldn’t have done it.”
Security experts blame their protection officers for failing to secure the estate’s perimeter. “Every plan must look at what-if scenarios,” says Davies, who suggests that if a photographer could see her from the road, so could a sniper. But others insist the royal couple are to blame. Says fashion commentator Hilary Alexander: “Sunbathing topless is one of those things you might just have to give up as a future Queen.”
For now, Kate has been doing her best to stay strong. In Tavanipupu Sept. 17, the couple enjoyed some alone time, snorkeling and sipping pina coladas at an island resort. The next day, in Tuvalu, their last stop, she appeared upbeat as she danced in a traditional grass skirt with locals. When they return to the U.K., William will go back to his military duties and the pair will continue their royal engagements as scheduled. “People love them because we see them as ordinary people with fairy dust,” says Harris. “And this is what a real girl does. When things go wrong, you put on a brave face. She’s tougher than people give her credit for.”