THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Plucking lice from schoolchildren’s hair may not seem an obvious way to win the heart of a nation, but it worked for the Argentine-born ex-investment banker who will be the next queen of the Netherlands.
As Kate Middleton settles into her new life, she need only look to Princess Maxima, wife of the heir to the Dutch throne, for an example of how to make the tricky transition from commoner to royal.
Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander’s engagement 10 years ago to a woman whose father was a minister in an Argentine dictatorship sounded like a gift to the Dutch republican movement seeking to end the nearly 200-year-old monarchy.
Instead, Princess Maxima — nee Maxima Zorreguieta — helped bring the distant House of Orange closer to the people.
She topped a recent poll as the most popular Dutch royal, beating current Queen Beatrix and her husband.
The popularity of Maxima, 39, and other princesses elsewhere in Europe has soared thanks to a carefully cultivated blend of the common touch — one was a journalist, another a real estate agent, yet another a single mother — and the glamor and grace demanded of royalty.
They are constantly on the covers of gossip magazines, yet try to live relatively normal and private family lives. In Maxima’s case, that could mean inspecting a guard of honour one day, and the next day taking her turn as “lice mother” at her three daughters’ school, inspecting children’s hair.
Maxima and her Australian-born Danish counterpart Crown Princess Mary got a head-start in the popularity stakes by mastering the tricky language of their new homeland.
“She won us over by speaking Dutch to start with,” said Marc van der Linden, chief editor at the Netherlands’ Royalty magazine.
Maxima started learning the language before her relationship with Willem-Alexander was public knowledge.
By the time she first spoke publicly following the announcement of their engagement she dazzled the nation with her nearly flawless Dutch.
Kate Middleton, who is now the duchess of Cambridge and will likely one day be called a princess, does not have a language barrier to overcome.
But she did win fans in Wales when she sang the Welsh national anthem after dedicating a new lifeboat.
Maxima is so popular in the Netherlands that an exhibition is opening this month at the former royal palace Het Loo in the central city of Apeldoorn to mark her first 10 years in the country.
The couple’s relationship blossomed after they met in 1999 at a festival in the Spanish city of Seville while Maxima was a New York banker. The Crown Prince, now 44, introduced himself simply as Alexander and did not exactly make a lasting impression.
By the time they had their first date three weeks later in New York, “I’d forgotten what he looked like,” Maxima once said.
Johan Ter Molen, curator of the Maxima exhibition, says Kate Middleton would do well to pay a visit to get a glimpse of how her life will be turned on its head.
“The biggest change for both of them is that they come from a relatively protected environment into the limelight and will never be able to leave it,” he said. “It is a sort of glass cage you step into and remain for the rest of your life.”
So far, Maxima has appeared to handle the intense scrutiny with ease. Even calling her future husband and the country’s next king “a bit dumb” during her first press conference 10 years ago worked in her favour.
“The fact that she said it in fluent Dutch with a sense of humour won a lot of people over,” said Van der Linden.
But like most every aspect of her life as a princess, even that seemingly throwaway line was stage managed by Royal House advisers, said Van der Linden.
“Originally the crown prince was supposed to say it himself, but for the effect they decided Maxima would do it,” he said.
The comment deftly defused a storm of protest that erupted when Willem-Alexander made remarks defending Maxima’s father, Jorge Zorreguieta, despite his position as a cabinet minister in Argentina’s military dictatorship during the country’s “dirty war” of the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the regime killed or kidnapped thousands of suspected dissidents.
While no one accused Zorreguieta of being party to the abuses, the Dutch government, with Maxima’s reluctant consent, sent an elder statesman to Argentina to inform him he would be unwelcome at the wedding.
Maxima shares her down-to-earth appeal with princesses in Denmark and Sweden, where those Scandinavian royal houses mirror their egalitarian societies.
Sweden’s Princess Victoria married her gym instructor last year and Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik wed Australian real estate agent Mary Donaldson four years after meeting her in a Sydney bar during the 2000 Olympic Games.
Norway’s future queen, the former Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, was a single mother when she wed Crown Prince Haakon.
The father of her son was once convicted of drug offences, and Princess Mette-Marit gave a tearful apology to the nation for her earlier freewheeling days.
Royal watchers believe it is the spontaneous, unchoreographed moments in Maxima’s life as a princess that have endeared her most to her adopted country of 16 million: Tears coursing down her face at her wedding, her wide-eyed horror as she watched from an open-topped bus when a crazed loner plowed his car into a crowd watching a royal parade, or jumping up and down and cheering as Dutch speedskaters compete at Winter Olympics.
Her popularity has even rubbed off a bit on her husband, who has struggled to win the affection of future subjects.
“Maxima has temperament. She dances, she sings, she gives the royal family a certain joie de vivre,” said Van der Linden. “Willem-Alexander was regarded as dull and stiff. With Maxima next to him he gets more colour.”