Why curtain is coming down on the 'Rent-a-Kents', writes RICHARD KAY

Cruel digs at Princess Diana, whispers of affairs, Russian cash and why the curtain is finally coming down on the couple Prince Charles once dubbed the ‘Rent-a-Kents’, writes RICHARD KAY

Just in case anyone had any doubts, the sound of popping champagne corks said it all this week — nothing much has changed in the extravagant lives of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.

Waiters expertly and silently weaved through a crowd of chattering guests to top up drinks here and offer trays of beautifully prepared canapes there.

And in the middle of the throng, close to the Indian Raj-style tent that is a stylish feature of this annual summer party, was the princess herself, Marie-Christine, or MC as many of the 150 friends and family who received the much–prized invitation call her.

Wearing a floaty kaftan dress, she was the epitome of a good hostess, graciously exchanging greetings and small-talk with nearly everyone. But this year’s gathering, held as usual in the walled garden at Kensington Palace which Princess Michael likes to call her open-air drawing room, was a special celebration.

For Monday night’s party fell on her husband’s 80th birthday. She had commissioned a portrait of the luxuriantly bearded Michael to mark the occasion, and it was proudly exhibited on an easel so that all their friends could gaze on his beaming face as they walked by.

Of course, it may just have been coincidence, but some among the royal and aristocratic guests — they included Michael’s elder brother, the Duke of Kent, Chantal Hanover, ex-wife of Prince Ernst August, and the Marquess of Northampton’s former wife, Rosie — wondered if this display had some other significance.

Last month it was reported that the Kents were to retire from public life. Apart from guffaws and social media mockery questioning what exactly they were retiring from, there has, so far, been official silence.

Prince Michael of Kent (right) and Princess Michael of Kent attend the official dinner and firework celebrations at the Opera Terraces after the religious ceremony for the Royal Wedding of Prince Albert II of Monaco and Princess Charlene of Monaco on July 2, 2011 in Monaco

There has been no announcement from the couple and nor has there been any change to the website Prince Michael, the Queen’s first cousin, operates. It lists his many charities and other organisations, as well as his military — he served 20 years in the Royal Hussars — and business interests.

Intriguingly, more than three months after severing his ties to Russia, which came under scrutiny following the invasion of Ukraine, the website also continues to register the prince as patron of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, a post from which he stood down in March.

Indeed, it was being suggested in palace circles that Michael and Marie-Christine, 77, might use the July 4 party to confirm their plans. Instead, they did no such thing.

The invitations to the gathering, which reminded guests to wear ‘shoes for lawns’, suggested that chez-Kent it was very much business as usual.

So what might be going on? And why, when there are other much older Royal Family members — including his brother and sister, Princess Alexandra — still doing their bit to represent the Queen, are Michael and his wife considering calling it a day?

Unlike his siblings, Michael, born in 1942 and whose godfather was the wartime U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, is classified as a ‘non-working’ royal, which means he receives no official money from the Queen or taxpayer for the 200-odd engagements he carries out each year for the not-for-profit-sector.

And yet there is scarcely anyone who looks and sounds more royal than Prince Michael, grandson of King George V and whose striking resemblance to his great uncle, the murdered Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, helped to open many lucrative doors there for him.

Those business links, for so long vital in keeping his imperious wife — dubbed Princess Pushy by her husband’s royal relatives — in the style to which she had become accustomed, have now, of course, taken something of a hit.

He is, however, understood to have remained an ambassador and shareholder of RemitRadar, a British registered money-transfer firm that helps people to send cash overseas, which is run by former KGB officer Sergei Markov.

Quite what happens to those and other commercial arrangements if he is no longer working is not clear. That blurred line between commerce and royalty has been both a blessing and a curse, at the heart of the prince and princess’s good fortune but also a source of considerable controversy.

In 1947, as a five-year-old, he was a page boy at the Queen’s wedding to Prince Philip. As a young man he was often seen at the monarch’s side at family events, alongside his brother and sister.

In a spectacular example of foot-in-mouth, Princess Michael (left) told an undercover reporter, posing as a potential buyer of her country house, that Princess Diana was ‘bitter’, ‘nasty’ and ‘strange’

Years later, Princess Michael complained her husband did not receive the attention he should because, she said, he did so much. In fact, the attention they received was in part because of what they did to enrich themselves.

It was the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June that thrust the couple firmly back into the public eye once again.

The sight of the couple walking stiffly and slowly to their seats at St Paul’s Cathedral managed, momentarily, to do the impossible — draw the locked-in cameras away from the drama that is the Harry and Meghan saga.

Once one of the most glamorous of royal couples, Prince Michael and his wife supported one another as they made their unsteady way up the aisle.

If this was their swan-song, it will bring the curtain down on one of the most exquisite of royal side shows. If nothing else, Prince and Princess Michael have certainly added to the gaiety of nations.

These distractions have also been useful cover for other, more senior royals who have found themselves in an uncomfortable spotlight.

Whispers and rumours have followed the statuesque princess — born Marie-Christine von Reibnitz in Bohemia, what is now the Czech Republic — ever since she married the Queen’s shy cousin in Vienna in 1978.

Mostly, though, she has been her own gaffe-prone worst enemy. Alleged dalliances with other men; claims she was more royal than the Royal Family; feuds with her Kensington Palace neighbours and with friends, as well as accusations of racism, have all come and gone.

For all the burnishing of her pedigree as a descendant of both Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and mid-European accent, the princess was raised in the Australian suburbs.

Even so, the Queen once mischievously remarked to Lord Mountbatten, match-maker for Michael and divorcee Marie-Christine — her first husband was Old Etonian banker Tom Troubridge: ‘Goodness, she sounds a bit too grand for us.’

Others weighed in, too. Viscount Linley, the son of MC’s neighbour Princess Margaret, when asked what Christmas gift he would give his worst enemy, replied: ‘Dinner with Princess Michael of Kent.’

Margaret herself was said to have fallen off a chair laughing when the Earl of Dudley recited a satirical verse he had written about Princess Michael, something for which he later apologised. But by then the damage had been done.

Then there was her habit of giving interviews, which the royals rarely do. In one, she said her ambition was to ‘improve the quality of my life, intellectually, culturally and in the way I choose to live’. If this didn’t set royal teeth on edge, there was also her claim that although she was low down the palace pecking order, she was actually more royal. Of all those who had married into the family since Prince Philip, she claimed, she had more royal blood.

‘It is just a genealogical thing, a fact of life,’ she purred. It was Princess Anne and not the irreverent tabloid press who gave her the nickname Pushy; and Prince Charles who dubbed her and her husband the Rent-a-Kents for her remarks after she opened a branch of the Happy Eater roadside café chain on the A3 near Guildford.

‘I’d go anywhere for a hot meal,’ she quipped.

There was a message behind the joke: despite their privileged royal lives, the Kents were always short of cash.

And 37 years on from that infamous episode, their unconventional pursuit of money has continued to make headlines. There have been endless examples of their perilous balancing act between royal duty and the need to make a living.

The prince’s appearance on U.S. TV, promoting a mail-order business selling tacky souvenirs called House of Windsor, was said to have dismayed the Queen. Soon afterwards he severed his links with the company.

Just last year, Michael was accused of exploiting his royal status by trading on links to the morally bankrupt regime of Russia president Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where he was known as ‘Kentski’.

These links went back many years. In 2012, it emerged that the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky had given him a stipend of some £320,000, paid via 56 separate transactions from offshore accounts. The couple were accused of living up to their reputation as ‘royals for hire’. In a rare interview, the prince conceded: ‘Like everyone else, I must earn my living.’

Money, or rather a lack of it, has been at the root of all their problems. In 2006 they sold their handsome manor house, Nether Lypiatt, in Gloucestershire, for £5.75 million.

They needed not only to fund their sumptuous lifestyle, but also to meet the £120,000-a-year cost of the rent on their Kensington Palace apartment. There had been uproar in 2002 when it was claimed they were paying only £69 a week for ‘maintenance’ of this gracious accommodation — a row that subsided only when it was announced that the Queen would meet the full rent out of her private funds in recognition of the royal and charity work the couple undertook at their own expense.

As for marriage, in a family not known for conjugal success, theirs has been a beacon of endurance. In the mid-1980s two events, either one of which could have derailed the union, most certainly tested it.

It emerged that the princess had formed a close friendship with a wealthy and portly Texan oil tycoon, Ward Hunt, and it led to speculation that she nearly left Prince Michael.

Not long afterwards her father, who had abandoned her mother at the end of the war, was revealed to have been an SS officer.

The strain was said to have contributed to her losing 3 st in weight. This, potentially, was a serious setback for a princess who had plunged herself into royal life with enthusiasm and a lack of restraint.

Prince Michael, meanwhile, fuelled the rumour mill with his ambiguous claim that spending a great deal of time apart from his wife had made their marriage ‘richer’.

In the 1990s, he was photographed escorting former Royal Ballet principal dancer Bryony Brind, 18 years his junior. At the time, friends were quoted doubting that the prince ‘could ever be unfaithful to MC’.

Princess Michael of Kent with Russian millionaire Mikhail Kravchenko, 40, in Venice where the Princess, wife of Prince Michael of Kent, spent four days with Kravchenko, sharing a suite at the Cipriani, one of Venice’s most glamorous hotels

A few years later, the princess was photographed holding hands and stroking the cheek of handsome Russian furniture magnate Mikhail Kravchenko — 20 years her junior — on a trip to Venice, which included a ride on a gondola, so beloved of enamoured couples. Both denied there was anything untoward in their behaviour. Nevertheless, Princess Michael could not stop uttering her blunt views. She defended Prince Harry over his notorious Nazi swastika fancy-dress attire (‘if he had worn a hammer and sickle, nobody would have got excited’) and complained: ‘The English distrust foreigners. They think the [a racial slur] begin at Calais.’

And in a spectacular example of foot-in-mouth, she told an undercover reporter, posing as a potential buyer of her country house, that Princess Diana was ‘bitter’, ‘nasty’ and ‘strange’; that Prince Charles had deeply resented his former wife’s popularity; and that the Queen was still not reconciled to Charles’s marriage to Camilla.

She bridled, though, at any criticism of her — notoriously over an interview conducted by her then friend, writer Jilly Cooper. Not long after the article appeared, a package arrived at Miss Cooper’s home containing 30 silver coins — a reference to the Biblical story of Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus.

Jilly’s husband, Leo, placed the money on a horse which romped home and posted the winnings to Princess Michael with the message: ‘I read that you were short of cash, so thought this might help.’

Perhaps nothing damaged her more than the infamous — and disputed — incident in New York’s Da Silvano restaurant when a group of black diners at a nearby table insist they heard the princess say ‘go back to the Colonies’.

Even now, 18 years later, it seems scarcely credible that the Czech-born princess who grew up in a working-class district of Sydney being referred to as a ‘reffo’ — a refugee — could use such words as she allegedly rounded on the diners for being too noisy.

Her version of the event is that she asked to be moved to a quieter table. When told the only one available was ‘in Siberia’, in other words a socially distant part of the restaurant, she responded: ‘Siberia? At this point, I would be ready to go back to the colonies.’

Inevitably, the brouhaha leaked and the U.S. media branded the princess a ‘bigot’.

Mindful of that episode, it was all the more astonishing that in 2017, Princess Michael arrived at the Queen’s Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace — where guests included Prince Harry’s mixed heritage fiancée, Meghan Markle — wearing a Blackamoor brooch.

She apologised, but matters were not helped when, not long afterwards, an ex-boyfriend of her daughter wrote in an article for Vanity Fair that ‘royals and Nazis go together like blini and caviar’.

Aatish Taseer, who dated Lady Gabriella for three years, revealed how the princess used to own two black sheep at her Gloucestershire home, where he often stayed, which she named Venus and Serena after the African-American Williams tennis sisters.

‘Most everyone thought she was ‘perfectly ghastly’, but I saw a nice side of Princess Michael,’ Taseer wrote, damning the princess with the faintest of praise.

Will this most controversial of princesses and her prince now go quietly into retirement, or might there be yet another blaze of autumn sunshine?

Judging by Monday night’s lavish birthday party, don’t bet against it.

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