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Meghan Markle has always had a gift for connecting with people.
At her private Catholic school Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles, “she was popular with every single group,” her former classmate Tiffany Gooden tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story. “She never excluded anyone and had a knack for making anyone feel like a million bucks.”
That knack was on full display during her first royal “walkabout” in the English city of Nottingham on Dec. 1. Meeting everyone from 79-year-old Frank Shelton, who was joined by his pet barn owl (“Harry’s brought his bird, so I’ve brought mine,” he said) to 2-year-old Ezekiel Wong, who became too shy to speak, the royal bride-to-be effortlessly charmed the crowd.
“Walkabouts and meeting the mayor and speaking to schoolchildren are the bread and butter of royal events,” veteran royals photographer Mark Stewart, who has snapped everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Princess Diana to Kate Middleton during his 30 years in the field.
Stewart says that watching Meghan, 36, up close that day in Nottingham, “For many people that would be a hugely daunting experience, but she took to it like a duck to water.”
Those who knew Meghan — who was raised in Los Angeles by dad Tom, a former sound engineer on the ’80s sitcom Married . . . with Children, and Doria, a yoga instructor and social worker, sbefore she met Prince Harry say her star power was always matched by equal parts poise, confidence and focus.
For much more on Meghan Markle’s amazing road to royalty, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
“I distinctly remember how incredibly smart she was,” says Matt Weiss, who directed her in a 2006 TV movie. “She’s a smart, worldly, beautiful, passionate person, but I would never have expected her to cross paths with Prince Harry.”
Adds makeup artist Ruby Hammer, who has worked with Meghan, “She’s a very intelligent, lovely woman. She knows what she wants.”
• Reporting by Simon Perry, Christina Dugan and Monique Jessen