With Thanksgiving on the horizon, I wanted to share a more personal blog this week. I have warmly embraced Thanksgiving since moving to the US; after all when else is a blackened turkey considered a thing of beauty? But this week in particular also offers a nationwide opportunity to reflect on all that we have to be grateful for. Like most people, I am immeasurably thankful for my family and friends, but as I look back on the UK’s last three triumphant years – from the royal wedding and Diamond Jubilee, to the Olympics and worldwide excitement over the birth of Prince George – I am also enormously appreciative that my job has afforded me a front row seat to history in the making. Little did I know as I was growing up that the foundations for a career I didn’t know I aspired to were being laid.
A Smoked Greenberg Turkey
What usually happens in my house…
From the age of twelve I was a boarder at a full-time ballet school in England, and if a parent showed up mid-week, it meant bad news was imminent. The date was September 25, 1990, and my class was preparing to head into London to see the West End musical, Cats. Minutes before piling onto the coach, I was summoned to the Headmaster’s office, where I found my father waiting. My stomach dropped. Nobody ever wanted to be summoned to the Headmaster’s office, but I knew I hadn’t been caught smoking behind the chapel, so why was my father at school? While he assured me that everything was okay, I mentally ran through a list of potential catastrophes. Who had died? What had I done? And infinitely more pressing: was I going to miss seeing Cats? Devoid of answers, I was told to change out of my school uniform and into my Sunday best. I was apparently going out for lunch to celebrate my Dad’s fiftieth birthday.
Anxiety intensified when I found my stepmother and grandmother waiting in the car, poker faces set firmly in place. Little was said until we pulled up to the police barricade at Kensington Palace. We had yet to move into the old stable block on the Palace grounds, so this was novel. “Er…will someone please tell me what’s going on?” Nothing. But I was beginning to suspect that whatever was about to happen was going to be well worth missing Cats for.
Once through the gates, we parked and crossed the inner courtyard to a large, glossy-black front door marked number one. Dad rang the bell. I don’t know who I was expecting to answer, but…oh my God, I can’t breathe, I’m going be sick! It was Diana. I was immediately struck by how beautiful she was, but all I could think as I gazed at her loveliness was: I’m dressed like a man.
I was sixteen, and far from hip. It may have been 1990, but my outfit was screaming 80s: ankle-length burgundy culottes made all the worse by my white, over-sized man’s shirt and too-long navy blazer complete with shoulder pads. Think Working Girl without make-up. I still cringe thinking about it, but if Diana was appalled, she certainly didn’t show it. She couldn’t have been more gracious or welcoming.
She ushered us across the threshold and into her house. I shook her hand while executing my best curtsy (ballet school perk number one), and we ascended the stairs to the drawing room to join the gathered guests consisting of my father’s work colleagues. With drinks in hand, everyone seemed exceedingly happy to be celebrating Dad’s special day, but perhaps it was more due to the fact that they were quaffing Champers in the middle of what should have been a standard workday. The doors to the dining room opened. It was time for lunch.
Four tables of five had been set, and tied to each of the chairs was a helium-filled balloon emblazoned with Nifty Fifty. For anyone in doubt, Dad had graduated from the Naughty Forties, much to Diana’s amusement. My table was made up of the Princess herself along with my family members, who had been rendered articulately handicapped by her presence. I spent most of the meal trying desperately not to miss my mouth while answering questions about school. Diana had visited my ballet school the year before I was accepted, but I was amazed by how much she had remembered of her visit, and quite how fascinated she was. It’s no secret that she had hoped to be a ballet dancer one day.
As lunch drew to an end the piece de resistance was ushered in with great ceremony – a bright blue birthday cake baked by her personal chef in the shape of my Dad’s gargantuan Gordon Gekko-esque mobile phone, and neatly iced amid the myriad candles: You’re never alone when Dickie’s got his phone.
Even now, I am struck by all that Diana did to make my father’s birthday so memorable. From her attention to personal details, to choosing to sit at a table made up purely of my family members, she gave us a profound gift that day.
It’s hard to believe that nearly a quarter of a century has since passed. The Duchess of Cambridge is now the likely future Princess of Wales. She and William share an apartment at Kensington Palace with their son, and her engagement ring serves as a constant reminder of the woman who walked the same path so many years ago.
I have a deep respect for the Duchess. She possesses royal qualities in spades: compassion, empathy, good humor, and she looks good in tweed and tartan. But more importantly, like Diana, she has the ability to connect with people from all walks of life. A long and complex journey lies ahead for Kate, but times have changed, and she is already proving to be an asset to crown, country, and the great British High Street.
People often tell me I have the best job in the world, and as I look ahead to the future of the monarchy, I’m inclined to agree. I might have missed out on seeing Cats at a time when I dreamed of a career in dance, but I have no doubt that my date with Diana laid the foundation for the job I was meant to do…and for that, I will always be thankful.
And so, to my adopted nation, I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!
Diana Visiting Elmhurst Ballet School