On September 3, Princess Charlene of Monaco collapsed and was taken to a hospital near Durban, South Africa. Though she was soon released, the incident was a clear sign that the illness keeping her away from her adopted home and her family might be more serious than early reports indicated.
This week, an anonymous source detailed to Page Six just how harrowing her experience has been. “She has not been able to eat solid food in over six months because of all the surgeries she has since gone through,” the source said. “She has only been able to take in liquids through a straw, so she lost nearly half her body weight.”
“She is exhausted by six months of surgeries and an inability to eat properly as a result of it,” the source said. “And she desperately missed her children and her husband while she was stuck in South Africa, because she couldn’t travel home.”
When Prince Albert spoke to newspaper Monaco-Matin about his wife’s admission to a treatment center earlier this month, he left the details of her illness vague, citing “tiredness” and a need for “rest and monitoring” as contributing factors. On November 19, he clarified to People that “she was clearly exhausted, physically and emotionally,” and that her illness had nothing to do with cancer or COVID-19.
Page Six’s source also complained about the way the palace has handled the situation. “It is unfair that she is being portrayed as having some kind of mental or emotional issue,” one source said. “We don’t know why the palace is downplaying that she almost died in South Africa.” When reached by Vanity Fair, Monaco’s Palais Princier declined to comment further on Charlene’s health.
Despite a rash of recent coverage, the timeline of Charlene’s illness is still hard to decipher. She was photographed in Monaco on January 27. She was then seen at the funeral services for Goodwill Zwelithini, king of the Zulu people, in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa on March 18. Though she continued to post pictures of her family on her Instagram account in the subsequent weeks, it’s unclear whether she remained in the country or returned to Monaco. On May 18, she posted a photo of an event she attended for her rhino conservation work.
The palace didn’t comment on her illness and extended stay in South Africa until May, when she skipped a planned outing at a Monaco Grand Prix event. “During a trip to the African continent as part of a wildlife conservation mission, Princess Charlene contracted an ENT infection that does not allow her to travel,” they said in their original statement, adding that she sent her “best wishes” to the Automobile Club of Monaco.
For the French press, Charlene’s absence fits into a narrative of a marriage perpetually on the rocks. Part of it has to do with timing. In 2020, a Brazilian woman living in Italy claimed that Albert is the father of her 16-year-old daughter, which has led to an ongoing legal battle. Albert has two older children, 29-year-old Jazmin Grace Grimaldi and 18-year-old Alexandre Grimaldi-Coste, who were born out of wedlock, but in a July report for Paris Match, journalist Stéphane Bern wrote that those in Charlene’s entourage speculated she had tired of the prince’s alleged infidelities.
Bern also offered one explanation why Charlene’s absence had fueled so much theorizing. He cited a January 2020 occasion when a palace statement about illness was used to explain her unexpected absence. “The palace has so many times had to invoke the image of a suffering princess that the Monegasques, today, find it hard to believe,” he wrote.
Still, it’s understandable that Charlene, Albert, and the palace’s limited disclosures have to do with her standing in the eyes of Monaco’s citizens and high society. The small principality, which occupies about half the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, is dense and heavily surveilled by police and closed-circuit TV, and when Charlene moved there to pursue her relationship she felt adrift. In 2010, she told Tatler that she struggled when she first retired from professional swimming in 2007, and had a difficult time feeling accepted in her new home.
“The people I mixed with in Monaco didn’t relate to my South African mentality or humor,” she said. “Although I have met some wonderful people since I’ve been living in Monaco, I regard them all as acquaintances. I only have two people I consider friends here.” That said, she also called her husband “charming” and discussed their mutual love for sports. (Both are Olympic athletes: Charlene swam for South Africa at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, while Albert competed in five different Winter Games on Monaco’s bobsled team.)
In 2011, before the wedding, The New York Times noted that “before-and-after style photos…have appeared on the Internet, with speculation about whether she has changed her teeth, breasts, eyes and nose.” In 2014, The Daily Beast cataloged the litany of rumors that had already sprung up around Charlene over her years as Albert’s consort, starting with the claim that Charlene had tried to escape before her wedding, which Albert, Charlene, and their lawyers have vigorously denied. (In 2011, Charlene appeared on NBC’s Today and said, “Why would we go to all this effort to have this fantastic couple of days, and have our most intimate, dearest friends come and join us, for us to be reluctant?”) According to the 2014 report, there was “speculation in Monaco society” that Charlene conceived her children via IVF, and that she “has faced an incessant barrage of criticism and hostility since she married Prince Albert.” One local told the outlet, “A lot of people are hoping she will just stop the plastic surgery now she is finally pregnant.”
Though a few details about Charlene’s illness are still difficult to decipher—the timing of her initial surgery and the infection that prevented travel, along with her prognosis for recovery—it seems hard to deny that a serious medical malady lies at the heart of the story making waves in the tabloids around the world.
On November 19, heartrending photographs were taken of the couple’s six-year-old twins, Princess Gabriella and Prince Jacques, holding signs that read “We Miss You, Mommy” and “We Love You, Mommy.” Prince Albert emphasized to People that Charlene’s extended absence “has nothing to do with our relationship,” but it still feels hard to shake the old superstition about the Monegasque royals being unlucky in love.
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