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How Did Princess Charlene’s Illness Become an International Mystery?

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. 

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