Princess Michael of Kent has several jobs, including author and gallery representative. Helena Frith Powell meets her in Abu Dhabi to talk art, family and trial by tabloid. Princess Michael of Kent has an eye for art. "I studied art history," she says in an exclusive interview at the Emirates Palace hotel during Art Abu Dhabi, while wandering around the Galerie Gmurzynska looking at paintings by Picasso, Degas and Matisse, among others.
"The most important ingredient in being a collector or an art critic is curiosity. If you want to know, you learn, and with knowledge comes appreciation." She pauses. "As well as a passionate desire to steal one of these paintings, which is why Mathias stays so close to me." The Mathias she is referring to is Mathias Rastorfer, the gallery co-owner and director. He laughs as she says this. And, of course, the idea of a princess racing through the hotel with a Picasso stuffed under her rather elegant chiffon jacket is preposterous, but she and her husband, Prince Michael, cousin to Queen Elizabeth II, are famous for not being the richest of royals. The British tabloids dubbed them the "rent-a-Kents" for their reputed willingness to go anywhere in return for payment, conveniently forgetting that they receive no money at all from the UK civil list (annual money granted by parliament to the Queen and other members of the royal family). Three years ago, they sold their beloved country house, Nether Lypiatt Manor in Gloucestershire, for a rumoured £5.75 million (Dh34 million). At the end of November, Prince Michael, along with his siblings, auctioned family heirlooms at Christie's in London, raising £2.1 million (Dh12.5 million). As from 2010, they will need to find about £120,000 a year in rent for their "grace and favour" apartment at Kensington Palace instead of the rumoured peppercorn rent of just £65 a week they are paying now.
The princess has several jobs. She is an author, a lecturer, a gallery representative and an interior designer. "I don't just do it all for fun," she says. "We have to earn our own living." But she doesn't seem like the kind of person who would just sit about and polish her tiara, even if she could. Before she married into the British royal family, she worked as an interior designer, but was advised that "it was not really appropriate for a princess to be in trade". She asked her mother, who skied in the 1936 Olympics, what she should do instead. "She suggested I write," says Princess Michael.
The princess is now working on her fourth book, which is a historical novel set in France in the first half of the 15th century. Her previous books have all been non-fiction and about the royal families of Europe. Has this been a very different experience? "I still write non-fiction," she laughs. "I just add emotions. In fact it was Philippa Gregory [author of bestsellers such as The Other Boleyn Girl] who first suggested I write a novel, using facts as I have done with my non-fiction books and giving it my angle."
The princess, now known by her husband's name, was born Baroness Marie Christine Agnes Hedwig Ida von Reibnitz on January 15, 1945, to a central European aristocratic family in Bohemia, the only daughter of Baron Gunther Hubertus von Reibnitz and Countess Maria Anna Szapary von Muraszombath. The Queen of England famously called her "too grand" for the British royal family. "This is one of those quotes like 'Let them eat cake' that has been taken out of context. Basically, Lord Mountbatten [uncle of the Queen's husband, the Duke of Edinburgh] was trying to sell me to the Queen as a potential wife to Prince Michael. I am Catholic and foreign so it was not an easy sell. He laid it on a bit thick and she came out with the line 'she sounds a bit too grand for us'. He thought it was terribly funny."
She does have some rather impressive ancestors, such as Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers (King Henry II of France's wife and mistress respectively). She says that Lord Mountbatten "played Cyrano de Bergerac with us. He told the prince I was madly in love with him and told me the prince was madly in love with me. The prince started to send me white flowers, which I love, and take me to the kinds of theatre and opera I loved and give me the sorts of books I love to read, all on the advice of Lord Mountbatten. Of course, I started to look at him in a totally different light."
They were married in 1978 and have two children: Lord Frederick Windsor and Lady Gabriella Windsor. "What happens when you marry into the royal family is your privacy is suddenly gone and you don't value your privacy until it is no longer there," she says. "We're not so interesting now we're older but I had to send my daughter to America to study so she could be in peace. She is very beautiful and the papers followed her everywhere."
Like several members of the British royal family, the princess has a tricky relationship with the press, which has dubbed her "Princess Pushy". The nickname apparently came from Princess Anne, but has been adopted by the British media and public because Princess Michael has a reputation for being rather attention-grabbing. For example, at her son's wedding, when she wore an extremely low-cut dress, the press accused her of trying to steal the limelight from his bride. Does she think the label is fair?
"Life was never meant to be fair," she says. "You have to deal with the cards you have as best you can. And I am very fortunate to have a wonderful husband who loves me, my children and my health." The Princess is a very tall and elegant lady with a wonderfully smooth voice. She speaks such perfect English that she can only be foreign. She puts this down to her musical ear. Princess Michael is over 60 but looks much younger and moves like a woman less than half her age.
Although she has in the past confessed to using Botox, she seems to have avoided the dreadful 'Siamese in a breeze' look so many women of her age have. Her skin is flawless, her eyes sparkle and there are no telltale signs of plastic surgery. "Looking young is all about genetics and luck," she smiles. "If you've got good bones they act like coat-hangers for your skin. In addition, I have always had a personal trainer and since the age of 23 I have treated myself to a facial every month." She says she still feels young and was horrified recently when she met a "charming young man" and was told that he remembered meeting her when he was six years old.
She is famous for being the only member of the royal family who is mad about cats; the remainder being very much dog people. She turned Battersea Dogs Home (of which her husband Prince Michael is the patron) into Battersea Dogs and Cats home. "Every time I wanted another child, I got another cat. I had my children when I was 34 and 36 and in those days there were no scans. My mother had my half brother when she was 40 and he was born with a hole in his heart. I didn't want to risk it."
At one stage she had six cats but is now down to three; all from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. "One of them is clearly a pedigree," she says proudly. "Obviously we don't have it, but it's obvious." This visit is one of several to the region, which she first came to in 1972. "I went to Oman before there was a road," she says. "The first time I went to Dubai you had to take a rowing boat to get across the creek. It was very beautiful. I'm not saying it's not beautiful now, it's just different. It is fascinating to have seen the development. The UAE is a modern miracle of science; to be in the middle of the desert and yet to have green everywhere, it is wonderful."
Our interview is interrupted by the arrival of an old friend and his staff. She leaps from her chair to greet him like a long-lost brother. It is Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan. They embrace and laugh. "This is Helena," she says, pulling me towards him, "she has been asking me very personal questions." Sheikh al Nahyan laughs and shakes my hand. Once she has installed him in front of a Picasso she turns back to me.
"Did you get everything you need?" I smile and nod. I leave her looking longingly at the Picasso with the Sheikh by her side.