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What we know about the royal Photoshop controversy — and why people care so much

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The internet is on fire tonight with rumors about Princess Kate, more formally known as the Princess of Wales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Where is Kate, the Princess of Wales?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If you have been wondering why Kate Middleton's alleged disappearance has been all over the news...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY: People all around the world weighing in. Now, this all started when the palace issued a seemingly well-meaning family photo over the weekend. The photo was scrutinized by royal watchers and then ultimately retracted by international news agencies, which concluded it had been manipulated. That has left everyone asking, is the palace hiding something? NPR's Lauren Frayer is following all this from our bureau in London. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: OK, so the backstory - why are we all focused on this family photo?

FRAYER: So yesterday was Mother's Day in the U.K., and Kensington Palace issued this photo of Kate, the Princess of Wales, beaming, surrounded by her children. Now, Kate's been recovering from abdominal surgery. She hasn't done a public appearance since Christmas. And the Palace has said she won't be back on duty until Easter. So that's, like, another three weeks or so, a little bit less.

KELLY: OK.

FRAYER: So this photo was probably intended to, you know, show people that Kate's doing OK.

KELLY: Seems like it has done the exact opposite, at least so far.

FRAYER: Totally. So within hours of the photo going out, people pointed out all of these places where it looked photoshopped - Prince Louis' hand, his trousers, Princess Charlotte's blurred skirt, a missing sleeve, a misaligned zipper. The Princess ultimately then took to Twitter, now called X, herself and said, look. Like many amateur photographers, I did a little editing on this photo. And with that, the palace is hoping to put this matter to rest.

KELLY: Although here we are, talking about it. So is it clear the palace will be able to do that?

FRAYER: I seriously doubt it. People all over the world are dissecting this photo now. Some say it was AI-generated, that it lifted Kate's face off the cover of Vogue magazine, where she did a spread a couple of years ago, it was - that it was actually taken last year, that it was taken this year. They point out that Kate is not wearing her wedding ring in the photo. And that has raised all of these questions about her marriage to the heir to the throne...

KELLY: Yeah.

FRAYER: ...Prince William. So then, of course, there are all these funny memes, like people sharing their own photoshopped images of the royals. My favorite is Kate's face superimposed onto Bernie Sanders with those mittens he wore to President Biden's inauguration...

KELLY: (Laughter).

FRAYER: ...A couple of years ago.

KELLY: I'm sorry to laugh. Bernie's mittens - I had forgotten. OK, but the question - I mean, do we know that this was, in fact, Kate, that she was just in there touching up her own photo? Or do we think there's some huge palace cover-up in play and, if so, of what?

FRAYER: We know nothing. And that is the big question. This is ultimately about image and trust and the face of the monarchy. And it used to be easier for the royals to control every aspect of their image. That's harder in the social media era. Royals have photoshopped pictures before. There's an infamous photo from a couple of years ago about - of Prince Louis missing a finger. Like, he has four fingers on his hand. He does have five fingers. That was a photoshop of that image. But agencies have never had to retract photos like this before. The AP literally issued a kill advisory. And so the question is whether the royals are celebrities who get to airbrush their photos - no big deal - or whether they're public servants that are held to, you know, a standard of transparency.

KELLY: And is just everybody there in Britain riveted, talking about this?

FRAYER: I mean, I went out on the streets of London today, and I thought people would say they're feeling duped by the palace. And I actually heard much more sympathy for the princess, that she's held to such a high standard that she felt pressure to alter this image while she's recovering from surgery. And overall, people just say this is an exercise in how not to handle crisis management.

KELLY: And just briefly, Lauren, how damaging could this be for the royals?

FRAYER: People are asking if the monarchy can be trusted to tell the truth about bigger stuff, like King Charles' cancer diagnosis. This photo was the future of the monarchy - a beaming future queen surrounded by heirs. And now it's revealed to be a lie. People are asking, what else is the monarchy lying about?

KELLY: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.

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