Let us all now, for just a moment, remember The Hair. Those glorious, luxuriant blonde locks which Prince William sported from his teenage years into his 20s. It’s hard to identify at exactly what point the follicular tide started to turn (and trust me reader, I’ve spent far too long staring at shots of him already today) but by the time he said “I do” in 2011, his fast-thinning pate was on full, unfortunate display.
That window of William as a bona fide heart-throb, when he was a dishy male replica of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, was all too brief.
Prince William has shown a different side recently. Photo / BBC
But now? Well, the hair might not have miraculously grown back (even future kings can’t defy the vagaries of genetics) but the man he is becoming is one who even more so resembles his mother.
On Friday, the social media accounts of William and wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge shared a seven-minute video of him in conversation with two frontline workers in the UK, the same day he launched a mental health support package for staff and volunteers with the UK’s emergency response service 999.
Charming, genuinely warm and totally natural, there is nothing forced about his chat with paramedic workers Chloe Taylor, 24, and Will Parish, 27.
Watching the video, which you can on the Cambridges’ YouTube channel (What? You don’t start every day rewatching videos of your favourite Will’n’Kate tours?) something came into focus for me: The 39-year-old is really having a moment and we are seeing him emerge not only as a surprisingly dynamic future leader but as an eminently likeable person.
Over the past two months, he has held his inaugural EarthShot Prize ceremony, the kick-off event for a decade-long, $92 million commitment to finding solutions to the climate crisis; presented an eponymous six-episode TV series; spoken at the COP26 climate conference; and somehow found the time to front up to the Bond premiere – along with maintaining his usual roster of Royal Foundation work.
Sure, there was always going to be some sort of campaign to sell him to the masses, which luckily is not that hard of a job. Given the listless reception his father Prince Charles will likely receive when he finally takes the throne, whoever comes after him is nearly guaranteed to seem like an improvement. William was always going to come off looking like an appealing regal option in contrast to his signet-ring twiddling, plant-muttering father.
Which is to say, he doesn’t really have to try that hard to look like he is doing a reasonable job at the king-in-waiting game. (His choice of widely adored and photogenic, former commoner wife Kate Middleton and their speedy production of three photogenic children has only further endeared him to the public.)
What is unexpected, if not downright surprising, is the far more ambitious, straying-from-the-royal-path strategy that he has chosen. It’s a path that is positively Diana-esque.
Prince Harry looked set to follow in Diana's footsteps. Photo / Halo Trust, AFP
The Princess of Wales, a woman who intimately understood suffering and feeling like an outcast, carried that with every hand she shook and hospital patient she hugged. When she listened to small children or those suffering from horrible diseases, it wasn’t with a forced grimace; it wasn’t an act of contrivance. Rather, she pioneered a sort of royal work that led with deep-seated empathy and heart.
And it is exactly that quality and that legacy which we are seeing William pick up and energetically run with now.
Speaking to those paramedic workers, he was forthright about the personal toll of his two-year stint as an air ambulance officer.
“Any job I went to with children, that really affected me, much more than if I hadn’t had children … I found that very difficult. There were a number of times I had to take myself away because I was just getting too involved in it and feeling it and going to talk to someone after the event really helps but it continues, it doesn’t leave you there, you just manage it better,” he said.
Rise, William The Vulnerable.
While William The Public Figure has been dutifully giving speeches for about 20 years now, the emergence in the public sphere of the real man comes as an unexpected but delightful surprise.
Moreover, William might be the first British sovereign in history who the unwashed masses have a sense of and are allowed to know as an actual person rather than simply as a stiff figurehead peering out at them from ₤5 notes.
It didn’t always look like this was going to be the case.
Not so long ago, William’s public persona was characterised by a certain rigidity and taciturn quality. It was his younger brother Prince Harry and his ever-present cheeky grin who seemed like their mother’s natural heir apparent, cuddling babies, enchanting crowds and making the camera fall in love with him again and again and again.
It was the younger prince who broke royal ground speaking to journalist Bryony Gordon in 2017 about his experience of mental health issues and it was he who had put out a highly unusual and personal press release the year before in 2016 when it emerged he was dating Suits star Meghan Markle.
He was the ever amiable-jokester to William’s straight man who for many years looked like the sort of person whose idea of a rollicking Saturday night was reordering his sock drawer. (That video of his egregious dad dancing shot in a nightclub in Verbier in 2017 hardly improved his cred, did it?)
However, what William has done recently, and seems intends to continue doing, is humanising himself and opening himself up to the people.
Unlike his grandmother, who has unwaveringly projected regal inscrutability, when William takes the throne, Britain won’t just be getting a leader but a man who they have some semblance of as a person.
Last year, he was a guest on footballer Peter Crouch’s podcast, describing himself as a”fat knacker running around at the back, panting” when he tries to play the game. He also revealed that he had once foolishly bought Kate binoculars as a gift and joked about not being able to do his kids’ maths homework. (William, Crouch and the co-hosts recorded the episode from Kensington Palace where William ordered takeaway Indian food which they washed down with lager.)
In April this year, he and Kate released a sleekly produced home movie to celebrate their 10-year wedding anniversary, providing a surprisingly intimate but stage-managed look at their family life.
Then in May, when Lord Dyson’s report about the handling of Diana’s Panorama interview was released, William put out an unprecedented and emotional video statement.
The same month, he and Kate launched their own YouTube channel with a cheeky video that I am all too tempted to also call “unprecedented”.
“You’ve got to be careful about what you say now, because these guys are filming everything,” he jokes to Kate as she giggles.
This William – one willing to make himself far more accessible and real – is a total and utter departure from every king or queen who has come before him. Is this reorientation part of a canny plan to keep the monarchy relevant and to keep the 1000-year-old-plus institution alive?
Most likely. But that does not change how successful a tack it is.
And, this public role he is busy shaping and building for himself, one where the real person wearing the crown is allowed to shine through, looks an awful lot like what we might have seen if his mother had ever become Queen Consort.
It might be the Windsor genes which are making themselves known as he prepares to turn 40 next year but his spirit and unorthodox approach to being a future monarch is all Diana.
• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.