Move Over, Kate Middleton, For Spain's 'Middle-Class Queen'

Jun 4, 2014
Originally published on June 18, 2014 3:07 pm

Europe's newest queen-to-be is a former CNN anchor and a divorcée who will be the first commoner ever to grace the Spanish throne.

All of this sent shudders through conservatives in this Catholic monarchy 10 years ago, when Letizia Ortiz married Spain's crown prince. But Princess Letizia has won them over since then, becoming the darling of Spanish glossy magazines and at times upstaging her royal sisters-in-law — one of whom is embroiled in a nasty corruption scandal.

On June 2, King Juan Carlos, 76, announced he would abdicate in favor of his son Felipe. So later this month, when her husband becomes King Felipe VI, Letizia will become the queen consort, with the title Queen of Spain.

The Spanish monarchy's approval rating has hit historic lows, with fewer than half of Spaniards now supporting it, in part because of a series of scandals. But Felipe and Letizia are more popular. They've sought to portray themselves as down to earth and accessible. They take their children to school each morning themselves.

Letizia's grandfather was a taxi driver; Spaniards call her their "middle-class queen"; and she's sometimes compared to Kate Middleton both for their fashion sensibilities and their modest backgrounds.

Here are some details about the future Spanish queen:

Modest Birth

Born on Sept. 15, 1972, in Oviedo, northern Spain, Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano grew up in a middle-class family and went to public school. Her father was a journalist and her mother a nurse. Letizia studied communications at a university in Madrid, and went on to obtain a masters in broadcast journalism.

Letizia will be the first Spanish-born queen since Maria de las Mercedes de Orleans y Borbón, the first wife of Felipe's great-grandfather Alfonso XIII, who died in 1904. The current Spanish queen, Sofia, is Greek.

More than 200 years ago, Spain had a queen consort who also was not a royal: Julie Clary. Her husband Joseph Bonaparte was Napoleon's brother, and ruled Spain briefly (1808-1813) when France occupied the country. Julie Clary was a French-born aristocrat who never actually lived in Spain. Both she and Letizia were not royal born. But Clary was an aristocrat, not a commoner. Her father was a wealthy silk merchant, and her sister was the queen of Norway and Sweden.

Career Woman

Letizia was a well-known news anchor in the 1990s, before becoming a royal. She got her start in Spanish newspapers, working briefly in Mexico, and moved on to television. She worked for Spain's state-run TVE, Bloomberg TV and CNN+, a Spanish-language CNN channel that no longer broadcasts.

Before giving up her career to marry, she won the Madrid Press Association's prestigious Larra Award, for the best Spanish journalist under the age of 30. She was embedded with troops during the Iraq War and reported live from ground zero in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

As a royal, Letizia has no job description at the moment. After they married, she and Felipe consulted a team of civil servants to help them carve out their professional roles. In the past 10 years, Letizia has attended 1,206 official events and had 355 audiences. She has taken 73 official trips to 38 countries.

Fashionista

Spanish fashion magazines rave about Letizia's style, and the princess often graces their covers. Among her favorite Spanish designers are Manuel Pertegaz, who designed Letizia's high-collared, long-sleeved wedding gown (similar to the one Kate Middleton wore seven years later) and Felipe Varela.

Letizia has also been spotted in low-cost fashions from the Spanish retailer Zara. There's even an English blog chronicling Letizia's wardrobe, and how many times she's recycled certain outfits. She once wore fire-engine red pumps with black leather leggings to a royal event — and pulled it off.

Royal Courtship

At a 2002 dinner party, Letizia was first introduced to Crown Prince Felipe de Borbón, a tanned former Olympic yachtsman five years her senior, who was then one of the most-eligible bachelors in Europe.

Months later, Letizia and Felipe ran into each other at the scene of the Prestige oil spill in northern Spain. She was there to cover the story as a journalist; he was there offering support in a disaster. They began dating, and got married a year and a half later on May 22, 2004, at Madrid's Almudena Cathedral. The couple now have two daughters: Leonor, 8, and Sofia, 7.

At an official event where the couple first announced their engagement, Felipe interrupted Letizia while she was talking to the media. "Let me finish!" she snapped at him. Felipe apologized and Letizia went on — and the Spanish media dubbed her "feisty."

Previous Marriage

In 1998, Letizia married Alonso Guerrero Pérez, a former literature teacher. The marriage lasted less than a year. The couple was not married in a church, so Spain's Roman Catholic authorities did not require an annulment, and allowed Letizia to get married again.

Popularity

Some Spaniards are calling for the abolition of the monarchy altogether. So Felipe and Letizia may not have it easy — though both of their approval ratings are higher than those of King Juan Carlos and his daughters, Letizia's sisters-in-law, Cristina and Elena.

Recent polls show the monarchy overall has an approval rating of 37 percent. Letizia's popularity is at 44 percent, with her husband's at 66 percent. So while coverage of Letizia's fashion choices has made her a star in society circles, that hasn't yet translated into political popularity.

Family Betrayal

Last year, one of Letizia's cousins, David Rocasolano, published a tell-all book called Adiós Princesa, in which he alleges that Letizia had an abortion in 2002, before she met the prince.

Rocasolano claims that the royals requested that he help destroy Letizia's medical records weeks before her engagement to the prince was announced. He writes that Letizia lost trust in her own relatives after she married into the royal family, and became paranoid about her privacy.

The book alleges that she deliberately misinformed relatives of certain things — for example, the gender of her baby while she was pregnant — to determine who among them was leaking information to the media.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Spanish King Juan Carlos is abdicating after 39 years on the job. His son will take over this week. Crown Prince Felipe and has been preparing for this role his whole life, but his wife has not. She is a former CNN anchor from Madrid. Lauren Frayer sends us this profile of Spain's queen-in-waiting.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: If she hadn't married the man she did, Letizia Ortiz would probably be covering this story herself. She was a famous TV news anchor in Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN SPANISH CHANNEL)

LETIZIA ORTIZ: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: That's Letizia on CNN Spanish channel in 1999. She was also embedded with troops in Iraq during the war and reported from Ground Zero on September 11th before she gave it all up to marry her prince. Ortiz wed Crown Prince Felipe 10 years ago. They were first introduced at a dinner party. She had recently won an award as Spain's best journalist under the age of 30. The two ran into each other months later at an oil spill in northern Spain. She was covering it and he was, well, the prince offering support in a disaster. When the couple announced their engagement, the media caught a glimpse of what Princess Letizia might be like. She was explaining how she'd eventually leave journalism when Felipe tried to interrupt.

ORTIZ: (Spanish spoken).

KING OF SPAIN JUAN CARLOS: (Spanish spoken).

(Laughter).

FRAYER: Let me finish, she snapped at her startled husband-to-be. The crown prince doesn't get scolded often. Reporters erupted into laughter. That tiny exchange and other details of Letizia's life -she's not from Spain's monied aristocracy. Her grandfather was a taxi driver. She was previously married and divorced - gave pause to some conservative Catholics and to the upper class. And just when they were starting to warm to her, Letizia's cousin betrayed her.

DAVID ROCASOLANO: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: David Rocasolano says Letizia asked him to destroy medical records that showed she had an abortion before she met the prince. Rocasolano published the allegations in a book last year. The Royal Palace says he's lying but Letizia's popularity sank. She's still more popular than King Juan Carlos and his daughters - one of whom is being investigated for allegedly embezzling public money. But Letizia's less popular than her husband, Felipe. Pilar Eyre is a gossip columnist who's written several books about the Spanish royals.

PILAR EYRE: (Spanish spoken).

FRAYER: For Letizia, work was everything. She was an ambition person. And for that, some people don't like her, she says. They call her a social climber. But I think she's softened a bit in these past 10 years. Fashion magazines, on the other hand, have no doubt about Letizia. She's on their covers regularly. They compare her to Grace Kelly and another new royal up north.

HAMILTON STAPELL: Maybe Letizia can be described as the original Kate Middleton.

FRAYER: Hamilton Stapell is a Spain expert at the State University of New York.

STAPELL: She has the experience of having a professional career, of having a normal apartment in Madrid, of having a previous marriage. She's very much had those experiences and I think that allows many Spaniards to identify with her.

FRAYER: The very things that gave Spaniards pause about Letizia 10 years ago could actually be assets now as Spain's monarchy struggles to stay relevant in modern times. About half of Spaniards no longer support it. Over the past couple of weeks, Letizia's aunt has been posting anti-monarchy messages on Twitter. So the queen-to-be has a past and some relatives who don't agree with her. That's something Spaniards might just possibly relate to. For NPR News I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.