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As with Diana and Meghan, palace missteps in Kate Middleton saga spark a royal crisis

Britain's Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex
Catherine, now Princess of Wales, left, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, in the Royal Box on Centre Court at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in 2019. (Ben Curtis / Associated Press)

Turns out not even the Oscars can bump Kate Middleton from the top of the pop-cultural conversation.

On Sunday, a photo of Catherine, Princess of Wales, surrounded by her children and reportedly taken by her husband Prince William, was posted, along with a note signed "C," in honor of the U.K.'s Mothering Sunday.

For a moment, it seemed the image would quell the increasingly wild speculation about the health, safety and whereabouts of Kate, who has not been seen publicly since Christmas. Despite rumors of everything including plastic surgery, divorce and even death, Kensington Palace has repeatedly said she is recovering well from the "planned abdominal surgery" she had in January, and this photo appeared designed to prove that.

Instead, it did the exact opposite. Early reports on social media that the photo had been doctored were followed by major news agencies issuing a "kill" order on the image because they believed it had indeed been manipulated. This was followed almost immediately by an apology signed by "C" explaining that "like other amateur photographers," she often touched up her photos, and she was sorry for the confusion.

On Monday, as millions offered their version of "I don't buy it" amid an ever growing number of "Kate Watch" timelines, yet another "proof of life" photo emerged — of the Waleses in a car headed from Windsor. But though William is clearly recognizable through the window, the figure beside him is wreathed in shadow and turned away.

Now, even those who believed Kate was indeed just recovering from a planned operation are beginning to get suspicious. Times senior writer Meredith Blake and culture critic Mary McNamara resume their previous conversation about the Mystery of the Missing Princess.

Read more: What the frenzy over Kate Middleton’s ‘disappearance’ says about the royals — and us

Mary McNamara: Meredith, I just wanted to have a normal Monday, enlivened by re-watches of Ryan Gosling's "I'm Just Ken" performance at the Oscars. Instead I find myself officially concerned. First and foremost about the state of the princess' health, but also, I confess, about the prospect of the British monarchy being undone by Photoshop.

As you know, I was firmly in the "let the poor woman enjoy the perks of royalty and have an actual convalescence" camp last time we discussed the web of conspiracy theories around Kate, but now I am worried. Either the Waleses are enjoying being the center of a PR crisis or something is rotten in the state of Marks and Sparks.

I didn't need the AP to explain that the photo looked manipulated — my daughter, who is not a photographer, amateur or otherwise, pointed out all the mistakes with the speed of a seasoned Instagram user. She also quickly answered the question of Kate's missing wedding/engagement ring: "It's tough to fix hands."

How desperate must Kensington Palace and/or Kate and William be to prove that the princess is fine that they would release, as proof that all is well, a photo so easily identified as fake? And how bizarre is it that "Kate" would so swiftly respond to the Photoshop concerns (instead of, say, William, who allegedly took the picture) and not just, you know, post a video or something to prove how ridiculous everyone is being?

It honestly feels like a rare moment when a member of royalty could prove the rumors wrong and tell the nation, and the world, to "pull yourself together, man."

Instead, they've forced a recounting of all the times the royal family and the palace press have covered up, often with outright lies, scandal, indiscretion and health scares. Whoever is running Kate's information campaign is making it far too easy for us to remember Princess Diana’s eating disorders, mental health issues and instances of self-harm, not to mention Meghan Markle's description of suicidal ideation.

None of which is in the best interest of the monarchy. The death of Elizabeth II has only increased calls for its dismantlement, and with King Charles III's cancer diagnosis, all eyes are, inevitably, on William. Who is now being accused of covering up something potentially terrible involving his wife.

Meredith, you've been following this more closely than I. What do you think is going on?

Read more: Doctored photo of Kate Middleton is credibility blow for royal family in crisis

Meredith Blake: Sorry, could you repeat that question? I can't quite hear you from the depths of this rabbit hole I have descended even farther into over the last few days.

Like you, Mary, I had hoped to spend most of today basking in the Oscars afterglow and reading detailed accounts about how the show's producers got Slash, my favorite top-hat-wearing rock guitarist, to make a surprise appearance. Instead, I find myself Googling things like "How does a colostomy bag work?" and "facelift + recovery time" while closely analyzing photos of outfits Kate wore last fall. Including my work Slack account, I am in four group chats dominated by chatter about the Case of the Disappearing Princess. Even my husband, who is hardly a royal obsessive and only knows what he's learned by watching "The Crown" with me, has gotten sucked into the morass.

And frankly I don't blame any of us for being obsessed because I have not seen such a riveting disaster since the Titan submersible last summer. If you had told me last week that the palace would release an obviously manipulated photo of Kate that would, instead of quelling the conspiracy theories, only send them into overdrive, I would have said: Come on, no one is this bad at publicity.

And I would have been wrong. Very, very wrong.

The whole thing has gone so spectacularly pear-shaped, as the Brits might say, that I am starting to wonder not only about Kate's mental and physical well-being — and what could be so terrible that she'd go to such ridiculous lengths to hide it — but also the future of the monarchy as an institution. I know we live in an era of rampant mistrust and social-media-fueled conspiracy theories, so perhaps some of this speculation about her health was inevitable, but the mess has been amplified by the truly catastrophic messaging. Some more transparency about Kate's condition would have squashed much of the skepticism.

Now it seems the palace has thrown poor Kate under the (double decker) bus by releasing a sad, self-deprecating statement in which she took blame for the incident and said — I'm paraphrasing here — "I'm just a sick, frazzled mum who's bad with technology. Sorry I made an already bad situation worse and further eroded the public's trust in the monarchy. Ack!"

The statement raised more questions than it answered: If William took the picture, as claimed, then why was Kate editing it? Isn't she supposed to be focusing on her recovery right now, not fussing around with Photoshop? What, exactly, was she trying to alter in the picture — and why? Couldn't someone on the palace payroll have doctored the picture? Or, better yet, couldn't the Waleses have hired a glam squad and photographer to stage a flattering yet discreet portrait of Kate and her children, one carefully composed to avoid unflattering or revealing angles — assuming, of course, that her face and limbs remain intact?

Most of all, it broke my heart to see Kate taking the fall for the whole debacle when it seems unlikely it was (entirely) her doing. A small part of me died when I read the wish at the end of her message: "I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother’s Day." Clearly, she hadn't.

The situation is quickly spinning out of control, and the only precedent I can think of is the period after Princess Diana's death in 1997, when Queen Elizabeth II misread the mood of the public. She obviously recovered from that mess, but only after going on TV to reassure the country she was, in fact, sad about the whole thing. I wonder how William, Kate and the rest of the Windsor gang can rehab their image after this PR equivalent of the Hindenburg. Not that I like seeing anyone out of work, but I would suggest they start by firing literally every person involved in their press, and completely overhauling the archaic and maddeningly opaque methods of dealing with the media (explained brilliantly in this piece).

Mary, what do you think?

Read more: 'The Crown' has come to an end. Here's a guide to the series and its major moments

McNamara: Where is Tony Blair when we need him? Or even Michael Sheen (who played him so winningly in "The Queen")? When you have the very Team-Wills-and-Kate People magazine running a headline that says "Photo Controversy is 'Pretty Damning," things have definitely gone from pear-shaped to balls-up.

Obviously, someone needs to address the situation directly, and if the princess can't, or won't, then it should be William. But right now the fact that Kate is well enough to ride in a car (if the photos of her with her mother and with William are to be believed) but not well enough to step out of it and offer a wave to her worried-to-the-point-of-spinning-out people is alarming. In a "she is either very sick or super pissed off" way.

Last time we discussed this, I said she wasn't required to go public before Easter, which is when the palace said she would return to duty. But with this unfortunate series of events, I have changed my mind.

As the future queen of England, she needs to at least put the "Kate is dead/deathly ill/in a coma" rumors to rest if she can.

If, God forbid, she can't, then the palace needs to put on its big-boy regalia and address that by providing some detail of her operation and her recovery beyond "She is doing well." If she were really doing well, we and a hundred other non-royal-watch journalists wouldn't be writing about this mess.

I have to wonder why Prince Harry, who self-identifies as the familial truth-teller, hasn't weighed in somehow. I mean, if Kate's essentially fine and it's just the palace being complete dunderheads, you'd think he'd want to comment. Woven into the larger story is, of course, speculation that pro-Meghan forces started many of the rumors, which gives him even more reason to shed some light on things. If he really wants to mend fences with William, any help he could offer in terms of containing this wildfire would no doubt go a long way. Or maybe he's enjoying it. God knows he and Meghan had to endure more than their share of rumor and conspiracy theories.

But someone has to do something, preferably with witnesses and a respected media source so no one can cry, "Fake."

Read more: AP retracts Kate Middleton photo 'because it appeared to be manipulated'

Blake: Mary, I get what you're saying about Harry and his opportunity to speak out on the issue. But I don't think the wayward "spare" would help anyone — least of all his estranged sister-in-law — by inserting himself into this sordid saga. The British press has a way of finding fault with literally everything Harry and Meghan do, including things they'd also rip them for not doing, like attending the queen's funeral. So I don't see how Harry leaping to her defense, or telling us all what the heck is really going on, would help matters, at a time when she seems desperate to preserve her privacy.

However, at the risk of sounding unbearably corny and deeply American, I do think this could be an opportunity for the brothers to put that whole dog bowl incident behind them and let the healing begin. They've both seen how "The Firm" has failed their wives during moments of intense vulnerability. Maybe they can put their heads together and figure out a better way to navigate their family's public roles going forward? A Wales-Sussex truce may seem unlikely, but it would also make a lot of sense during a moment of crisis. With Charles receiving treatment for cancer, Kate out of commission for her mystery diagnosis and William seemingly overwhelmed, it’s clear the royal family could use a few extra hands right now (and not the kind generated with AI).

It's funny you should mention Michael Sheen because I cannot stop thinking about how Peter Morgan would dramatize this latest turn of events, in the exceedingly slim chance "The Crown" gets a reboot. We know he loves a good contrast, and in this case the episode practically writes itself: While Kate is cooped up somewhere in England trying to recover from surgery — or whatever — she caves to public pressure for information about her condition and posts a badly edited photo on social media, thereby turning a fringe internet obsession into an international incident. Meanwhile, in Texas, Kate's sister-in-law Meghan makes an appearance at SXSW, on International Women's Day, about online bullying and cultural depictions of motherhood.

Honestly, it's a little on the nose. But so is life.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.