Princess Charlene Was Never The Same After Marrying Prince Albert

Princess Charlene of Monaco boasted a résumé of impressive accomplishments before she married into a dynastic family. But from giving up her professional swimming career to enduring health issues that separated her from her own children, a lot has changed since she married Prince Albert of Monaco and began life as a royal.

The princess was born Charlene Lynette Wittstock on January 25, 1978, in Zimbabwe. She arrived two months premature and hospital staff referred to her as a "fighter," according to the biography "Charlene: In Search of a Princess" by Arlene Prinsloo. No one knew it at the time, but she'd grow from a tiny baby into a statuesque Olympic athlete.

As a child in the 1980s and 1990s, Charlene was surrounded by war and turmoil in her home countries of Zimbabwe and South Africa — a far cry from her privileged life in tiny Monaco. She's incorporated these early experiences into a lifetime of advocacy, even helping fundraise for AIDS relief through AMFAR, according to her foundation's website. But even as Charlene's profile rose stratospherically when she married into the Monégasque royal family, she became less and less outspoken. Today, public statements from Charlene are few and far between. It's clear a lot has changed since she married into the House of Grimaldi.

She had to give up her career as a professional swimmer

Athleticism runs in Princess Charlene's family. Her mother, Lynette Humberstone Wittstock, could have competed as an Olympic diver. But because of political sanctions in Zimbabwe, the country was banned from sending competitors to The Games during Wittstock's peak athletic years, according to "Charlene: In Search of a Princess." Charlene promised her mother that she'd make it to the Olympics someday in her place.

Charlene finally accomplished her goal by qualifying for the 4x100 swimming relay. She headed to the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000. Her fame in South Africa was such that Nelson Mandela encouraged her to keep competing instead of retiring early, according to Independent Online.

Even as her relationship with Prince Albert heated up, Charlene remained single-minded in her pursuit of athletic greatness. "In the early stages of my relationship, I had no intention of moving from South Africa. Swimming was my only goal," she told Tatler. In fact, she might never have met him if it weren't for swimming — he'd seen her at a swimming event and called her manager to arrange a date, according to The Times. But as her high-profile relationship progressed, injuries thwarted her athletic goals. She stopped training for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and settled in Monaco. "Giving up competitive swimming was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make," she told Tatler. "I was not emotionally prepared to retire or for the change of life that it entailed."

She received a royal makeover straight out of The Princess Diaries

Naturally poised, stunning, and tall, Princess Charlene had the raw ingredients of a fairy-tale princess. Still, she felt like an outsider in her adopted home. "The people I mixed with in Monaco didn't relate to my South African mentality or humor," she told Tatler. But she persevered and was helped along by an unofficial fashion-and-beauty boot camp of sorts as she left her swimming days behind and transformed into Monégasque royalty.

"I was literally a fish out of water," she told Vogue when reflecting on her official royal launch at the 2007 Gala de la Croix-Rouge. "I thought it was all fun, fun, fun, and didn't give my outfit any thought. I had been playing beach volleyball all day, painted my nails red, and threw on a green dress. I thought I looked great at the time, but looking back, I realize that my debut into Monaco society should have been better executed!"

Soon after, Charlene got a team to help style and guide her, according to Vogue. Charlene recalled feeling "insecure" and "terrified" of putting a foot wrong. But soon, the style world's heavy hitters swooped in. Michael Kors, Karl Lagerfeld, and Stella McCartney took her under their glamorous wings, and she became an international fashion icon — a far cry from the sporty athleisure looks to which she was accustomed as a young athlete.

Their engagement made headlines and the comparisons to Grace Kelly came pouring in

Princess Charlene and Prince Albert were engaged in 2010, five years after he took Monaco's throne. This made Charlene the first bride to marry a reigning sovereign of Monaco since Grace Kelly, per Reuters, the American movie star who captured international attention when she had her own Cinderella story in 1956.

Princess Grace was Albert's mother, and she met a tragic end in a car accident in 1982. She was already a fashion icon and budding cinema legend when, like Charlene, she left her career behind and joined the Monégasque royal family. When her son proposed to the similarly tall and blond Charlene, comparisons between the two women erupted. "They have really sculpted her image almost to be a younger Grace Kelly," Nancy Wilson of The Riviera Reporter said (via Herald-Tribune).

Even Charlene herself seems to have put a lot of thought into taking up the legacy of the mother-in-law she never met. "Grace Kelly forged a link between Monaco and the movie world, and I would like to create a strong bond between Monaco and the fashion community," she told Vogue.

Charlene spent the days before their engagement converting to Catholicism and assimilating into Monégasque culture

Another massive change for Princess Charlene came in the form of her religious affiliation. Prince Albert may have fathered two children out of wedlock before his engagement — a big no-no in Catholicism and in what The Times calls the "deeply traditional" country of Monaco — but his bride-to-be still had to observe the religious traditions of his country by converting to Catholicism, the state religion of Monaco, before they wed.

CBS News called Albert's single days a "colorful bachelorhood," noting that he'd allegedly dated Naomi Campbell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields, and others in the past. His two children, Alexandre Grimaldi-Coste and Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, were born from premarital relationships and kept secret until Albert's father died. His prolifically virile track record led CBS to speculate on whether Charlene was already pregnant at the time of their engagement, noting "it wouldn't be a surprise" if she were.

But she wasn't. And despite the rumors and innuendo around the extramarital activities of both Charlene and Albert, she made sure to cross her Ts and dot her Is when it came to becoming Catholic after a lifetime of Protestantism, according to People. "The values of this religion profoundly touch me and correspond perfectly to my spirit," Charlene said.

Cracks in the veneer of Charlene and Albert's relationship appeared in the lead-up to their wedding

Soon, some wondered if all of these changes might have become too much for Princess Charlene. Rumors erupted that Charlene was having second thoughts about the wedding, but palace officials insisted everything was fine, according to the BBC.

Things became more dire when French newspapers reported that Charlene had tried to "escape" her adopted country repeatedly before the wedding, according to CBS News, with some reports surfacing that Charlene's passport was taken by palace officials so that she couldn't return to South Africa. But Christiane Stahl, a palace adviser, told People there was nothing to the rumors. "Please believe me, none of this is true, and we think it comes from utter jealousy," she said (via CBS News). "Charlene never left to go to the airport, nothing like that ever happened. She was never upset and never wanted to stop the wedding."

Whatever the truth about her pre-wedding jitters, Charlene told Tatler before the big day that her new role could be daunting at times. "Of course I have bad days when I feel totally overwhelmed," she said, "but I never take anything for granted. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that this is my life and I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world with the man of my dreams."

Princess Charlene cried at the altar

The big day went ahead as planned on July 1, 2011 — and after weeks of rumors, obsessive royal watchers were glued to the event looking for any sign of discord. They may have found it when Princess Charlene appeared to shed some tears at the altar. Debate raged about whether Charlene was crying due to sadness, happiness, or something else.

Her past comments about life in Monaco didn't help. "I was trying too hard to please too many people and at times was at risk of losing my sense of myself," she told Vogue of her transition to royal life, just months before walking down the aisle. When she cried on her wedding day, observers couldn't help but wonder whether these feelings of being overwhelmed were resurfacing.

It took two years for Charlene to clear the air in an interview with The Times. She attributed her tears to stress caused by the rumors that had run rampant. "Everything was just so overwhelming and there were all the mixed emotions because of the rumors, and obviously all this tension built up and I burst into tears [immediately after the ceremony]," she said. "And then I burst into tears some more because I was thinking, 'Oh no, now the whole world has seen me cry.'"

She went through with the wedding — but was later called 'Her Miserable Highness'

Princess Charlene insisted to The Times that she looked back on her wedding without regrets. "It was such a wonderful three days," she said, adding later, "It was beautiful; it was sentimental, showing my most intimate moment to the world."

Still, this didn't quell the rumors and negativity. The couple honeymooned in South Africa, but accounts of her tears on the altar continued to dog them. They were soon compared unfavorably to fellow royal newlyweds Prince William and Catherine, then-Duchess of Cambridge, with ABC News dubbing Charlene "Her Miserable Highness." Still, three years later, they announced a pregnancy — even as Charlene navigated the bumpy transition to royal wife.

"Although I have met some wonderful people since I've been living in Monaco, I regard them all as acquaintances," she told Tatler. "I only have two people I consider friends here. Above all, my true friends are my family. My mother and two brothers are the only friends I need and the only people I trust. I'm very grateful to have them."

Some wondered if a curse on Prince Albert's bloodline was to blame

Tales of a curse on Prince Albert's family only served to deepen the drama around Albert and Princess Charlene's nuptials. The curse allegedly arose when one of Albert's ancestors proved to be a particularly "bloodthirsty" ruler, according to ABC News. "The monks placed a curse on the family ever since saying they will never have a happy marriage; they will always have trouble producing legitimate heirs," historian Robert Lacey told the outlet. "And there'll be other tragedies. And look what's happened."

Indeed, Albert's mother Grace Kelly died an untimely death in a car crash, and that's just one of the disasters attributed to an alleged curse on the Grimaldi family. Now people couldn't help but wonder whether Charlene and Albert's relationship was already falling prey to these legendary dark forces. Even Albert himself seemed to allude to the curse in a statement to his subjects before his wedding. "I want this day to mark a new starting point," he said, according to The Times.

And it might have worked — for a while. An anonymous friend insisted to The Times that Charlene was a devoted wife two years after their wedding. "When they are together they're very much the typical couple — drinking with friends, watching a sports game, and arguing about the result. Charlene is crazy about Albert," they said. "There's nothing more she wants than to make him happy. She wants to be a good wife and make him proud."

Ten years later, she missed their wedding anniversary due to reported health issues

It seemed to be smooth sailing for Princess Charlene and Prince Albert as they settled into married life and welcomed twins Jacques and Gabriella in December 2014. This added to the momentous changes in Charlene's life. But for once, rumors of marital discord waned, and the couple enjoyed several years of calm.

But in 2021, Charlene missed the couple's 10-year wedding anniversary. She'd traveled to South Africa as part of wildlife conservation efforts, then developed an ear, nose, and throat infection due to complications from a previous surgery. She decided to stay in her home country to convalesce, missing the milestone with her husband and kids. Charlene released a statement confirming she'd miss the big day: "Albert and I had no choice but to follow the instructions of the medical team, even if it was extremely difficult. He has been the most incredible support to me" (via Tatler).

Separation rumors went into overdrive. One month later, People recounted reports from French tabloids that Charlene had no plans to return to her family, although a source told the magazine she'd "never leave her kids." Eyebrows were raised again when Charlene debuted an edgy new haircut. She defended the atypical look, telling Point de Vue, "What counts is that Jacques and Gabriella adore seeing their mother with her new style. And that after the initial surprise wore off, the prince understood and likes it now too" (via People).

The couple batted away rumors of turmoil for most of 2021

While Princess Charlene battled her ear, nose, and throat condition, rumors swirled that she was avoiding Monaco because of issues within the royal marriage. Charlene later said it was hard to miss their anniversary. After the June 2021 operation that kept her from celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary with her husband, she remained in South Africa for several more months, occasionally sharing photos of the family together on Instagram. Just when things were looking up, she was hospitalized again in September of that year.

Still, Prince Albert told People the rumors "appalled" him. He insisted Charlene was desperate to return home but unable because of her condition. 

She finally went back to Monaco in November 2021 and then traveled to Switzerland for further recovery. On December 21, 2021, Charlene posted a family Christmas illustration to her Instagram account. "Wishing everyone a beautiful and safe festive season," the caption read. While Charlene still hadn't returned to royal duties and the details around her health status remained mysterious, the couple seemed to be putting on a united front.

A subdued Charlene has resumed public appearances after years of questions

Princess Charlene returned to public life with a bleached pixie cut in April 2022. She opened up about how happy she was to be back in Monaco with her family, but that she was taking it slow. "My state of health is still fragile and I don't want to go too fast. The road has been long, difficult, and so painful," she told Vanity Fair.

But a comment from Jenny Crwys Williams sheds some light on the pressure Charlene has faced as she transitioned from commoner to princess. Williams interviewed Charlene for a South African radio station in 2011. "I thought she was one of the most anxious people I have ever met," she said. "She was absolutely terrified of saying the wrong thing. There was a fascinating moment when I asked her to tell me about an amazing blue room in the palace, and she said, 'I don't know if I can talk about it.' I wanted to put my arms 'round her and tell her it would be all right" (via The Times).

While Charlene has been open about the pressures she's faced over the years, especially compared to royals like Princess Catherine, it's clear she hasn't been able to fully open up as she would have in her previous life. Her path from high-achieving athlete to relatively silent princess has eerie parallels to the late mother-in-law she never met, Princess Grace.