Queen Camilla's complicated love story with King Charles and changing public perception

 Queen Consort Camilla will cement her legacy within the British royal family when she is coronated alongside her husband King Charles III on Saturday.

The 75-year-old has been married to Charles since 2005. But their love story isn't exactly a royal fairytale like those romanticized over the centuries. Instead, it's been characterized by a complex history that began well before Camilla exchanged wedding vows with her prince. 

"The king and queen have one of British history's most complicated and harrowing love stories — full of scandal, betrayal, and all manner of plot twists that ultimately shook the monarchy to its very foundations," Christopher Andersen, author of "The King: The Life of Charles III," told USA TODAY.

Camilla's relationship with King Charles — as the storied reason for his divorce from Princess Diana — rocked the royal boat and she long struggled with public acceptance. However over time, she's begun to earn the people's approval.

As the queen consort navigates her next era, we take a look back at her personal history and her evolving role in the royal family.

ritain's Prince Charles and his bride Camilla Duchess of Cornwall leave St George's Chapel in Windsor, England following the church blessing of their civil wedding ceremony on April 9, 2005.

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Camilla grew up in close, aristocratic family

Queen Consort Camilla was born Camilla Rosemary Shand on July 17, 1947.

"Camilla was born to the purple — she is the granddaughter of a baron and a true aristocrat who has always moved comfortably in royal circles," Andersen said.

Andersen said that as a little girl, Camilla used to brag to her classmates about her great-grandmother, AliceKeppel, known for being King Edward VII's mistress. Her childhood was spent in Sussex, with her family, who was close and loving, according to the BBC. Her father, Bruce Shand, was a former Army officer and her mother, Rosalind Shand, took care of the children. Camilla grew up with her sister Annabel Elliott, who is 74, and brother Mark Shand, who died in 2014.

She attended finishing school in Sweden, per the BBC, where she was prepared to enter society in London as a debutante.

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Camilla and King Charles' complicated relationship history

Camilla and Charles married on April 9, 2005 in a private ceremony. But their relationship began decades earlier.

Before she encountered the now-King, Camilla began a relationship with Andrew Parker Bowles in the 1960s, per the BBC.

She met then-Prince Charles at the beginning of the next decade. "After college, Camilla's friends asked why she hadn't married a lord or a duke," Andersen said. "'I'm holding out for a king,' she told them. Camilla actually first spoke to Charles in 1970 at a polo match, when she walked right up to him rather brazenly and complimented his horse."

She met him formally at a cocktail party and brought up that her great-grandmother and his great-great-grandfather were lovers, Andersen said. "She always knew what she wanted and wasn't exactly shy about letting Charles know."

Let them eat cake? Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall cut a cake to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Duchy originals products at Clarence House on September 11, 2013 in London, England.

Unfortunately for the young pair, timing — as it so often can do — made the relationship hard to foster, among other factors like the royal family's opinion of the young Camilla Shand.

Charles left on deployment while serving in the Royal Navy. While he was away, Andrew Parker Bowles proposed to Camilla and she accepted his hand in marriage. She tied the knot with Parker Bowles in 1973. During their marriage, the pair had two children: Laura Lopes and Tom Parker Bowles. Now, the queen consort also has five grandchildren.

Charles wed Diana Spencer, who became the beloved Princess Diana, on July 29, 1981. Thereafter began the most well-known love triangles of modern history.

Britain's Prince Charles kisses his bride, Princess Diana, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London, after their wedding on July 29, 1981.

"If you were alive and breathing in the 1980s and 1990s, you couldn't escape it and you really didn't want to," Andersen said. "It was a riveting, deliciously captivating drama being played out at the highest levels in real time. It was shocking and often cringe-making, but history in the making nonetheless."

The Camilla, Charles and Diana love triangle

In one of the world's most famous interviews, Princess Diana's 1995 tell-all "Panorama" special, she said "there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

Andersen said that Diana found out that "Charles always loved Camilla" on the eve of their wedding — and noted that Camilla actually was involved in initiating the coupling of Charles and Diana in the first place (another tidbit: Charles also dated Diana's elder sister).

"Camilla and another of Charles's longtime mistresses, the late Lady Dale 'Kanga' Tryon, actually drew up a list of potential brides for Charles, and Diana came out on top," Andersen claimed. "So Camilla picked Diana to be Charles's bride and the mother of his children — all while she stayed married to Andrew Parker Bowles."

The affair between Charles and Camilla drove Diana into depression, Andersen said, adding that the two women had "nicknames" for each other: Diana called Camilla "The Rottweiler" and Camilla called Diana "Barbie."

"Of course, comparisons between the two rivals were odious. Diana was stunningly beautiful, charismatic, and glamorous," Andersen said.

And Diana appealed to the public, touching and relating to people in a way other royals hadn't with her charitable ventures and openness about her own struggles. "She was larger than life, a genuine force of nature," Andersen said. "By contrast, Camilla was drab, middle-aged, and frumpy."

"No one, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, understood how Charles could possibly choose Camilla over the world's most admired and desired woman," Anderson added. "But he did."

Camilla and her husband divorced in 1995, shortly after Charles gave an explosive television interview admitting the affair. Charles and Diana divorced the following year. In 1997, Diana died in a car crash in Paris.

Camilla's evolution from 'villainess' to respected queen

The coronation marks a milestone in Camilla's efforts to gain favor in the court of public opinion after decades of existence as a figure shrouded in public resentment.

"When Diana died at the age of 36 leaving two young sons behind, Camilla became the most reviled woman on the planet," Andersen said, noting she was cast as a homewrecker who not only destroyed the marriage between the beloved Diana and Charles but also set in motion the events that led to Diana's death.

She was blasted by the tabloids for years and received so many threats that she was scared to leave home, Andersen said.

The monarchy put work in to change public perception of Camilla.

"Charles and Camilla brought in a media expert who launched 'Operation PB' (for Parker Bowles)," Andersen said, claiming this included a total makeover for Camilla consisting of new hair, new teeth, new wardrobe, some cosmetic surgery and weight loss.

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Today, there are signs of a changed perception of Camilla.

The late Queen Elizabeth II endorsed Camilla as queen consort in February 2022. And last month, Buckingham Palace’s coronation invitation noted Camilla simply as “Queen Camilla” for the first time, with "consort" removed from her title.

Queen Consort Camilla poses before attending the State Banquet (the first of the new reign of King Charles III) for South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa at Buckingham Palace on Nov. 22, 2022. She wore a lace gown by Bruce Oldfield and the late Queen Elizabeth II's Belgian Sapphire Tiara of sapphires and diamonds.

Camilla also earned respect by putting her head down and steadily getting on with her duties, Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine, told the Associated Press. She's won over much of the British public with her down-to-earth personality and her charitable work, notably against domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse.

“Without really trying too hard, but just by giving it time and going gently, gently, she has managed to show people the real person that she is — that she’s not this villainess, and that she’s there to do the hard work,” Seward said.

How will the public with recieve Camilla at coronation?

Not everyone agrees that perception of Camilla is fully changed.

“I would actually argue that she still is the other woman, and probably will remain the other woman," Arianne Chernock, a professor specializing in modern British history at Boston University, told the Associated Press. “Diana will very much be a presence in the room in Westminster Abbey in May 6 — I think it’s hard not to see her when you look at Charles and Camilla."

Andersen isn't convinced that everyone is so ready to have Camilla as their queen, either. "There are those who see Camilla as warm and non-threatening, but just as many if not more who still view her as the scheming 'Other Woman.'"

Camilla spoke to British Vogue last year, and said she had to find a way to live with the scrutiny. “Nobody likes to be looked at all the time and, you know, criticized,” she said. “But I think in the end, I sort of rise above it and get on with it."

Despite divided public perception, the new king and queen seem to be meant to be.

"Charles and Camilla are true soulmates — even Diana eventually came to the conclusion that they were made for each other," Andersen said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

More on King Charles III’s coronation

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  • How to watch: When does coronation start and more to know about watching on TV
  • Coronation concert details: Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, more to perform
  • Will Harry, William attend King Charles' coronation? Royal children's roles, unpacked
  • William and Kate’s kids: What role will King Charles III's grandchildren play in coronation?
  • Queen Consort Camilla: Why is Camilla being crowned queen? King Charles' wife's role at the coronation, explained
  • King Charles III: 10 things to know about UK's new monarch

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