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Unpopular Princess Letizia faces hurdles in becoming Spain’s queen

- - Tuesday, June 17, 2014

MADRID — As Spain's first commoner princess, Letizia will need to win over subjects disenchanted with the monarchy and with her — a tall order for the royal consort who will be queen come Thursday.

When Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia are crowned, they will inherit not only dynastic rights but also a country in the throes of a grave financial crisis and skyrocketing unemployment. Over the past two decades, the popularity of the monarchy has plummeted from a record high of 75 percent to a historic low of 38 percent, according to the Center for Sociological Studies in Madrid.

The public's dislike of the monarchy was a major factor in King Juan Carlos' abdication at the beginning of the month after nearly 40 years of rule. In addition to his ailing health, Juan Carlos, 76, has been coping with the fallout of an investigation into his daughter's business dealings and a scandal stemming from a lavish elephant hunting trip in Africa in 2012 as Spain's economy was reeling.

Although monarchists are hoping the new king and queen can reverse the damage, many say Letizia's unpopularity can be only a liability.

"We don't like Letizia because she is stuck up," said Isabel Pardo, who grew up on Mallorca. The princess does not care for the Spanish island where the royals often vacation.

In 2003, Felipe announced out of the blue that he was engaged to Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, an attractive journalist without aristocratic connections.

Her father is a journalist. Her mother is a nurse who is active in a labor union. Her grandfather was a taxi driver. But Letizia is far from working-class. Until her relationship with Felipe was made public, she was the anchor of the most-watched news show on Spanish public television. Her work included coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq War.

Her romantic past also raised eyebrows among Spain's conservative royalists: She was briefly married to her high school English teacher before they divorced in 1999.

Since Letizia married Felipe, 46, her family has created headaches for the royal family. In 2007, her publicity-shy youngest sister committed suicide. Last year, her cousin and former lawyer published a tell-all book that revealed the future queen had an abortion before arriving in the palace.

Analysts and citizens stress, however, that Letizia's past isn't why she is unpopular. Rather, her image as an ambitious, career-ladder-climbing perfectionist — including her numerous well-publicized plastic surgeries — does not correspond with Spaniards' expectations of how a princess should comport herself.

At their first public appearance after their engagement, Letizia interrupted her prince and told him — in front of the media — to let her finish a sentence, a faux pas that hasn't been forgotten.

"She's an extrovert and has a strong character, which is a good thing, but she can't control her outbursts," said Jaime Penafiel, a journalist and author who specializes in Spain's monarchy. "This has put the prince in some very uncomfortable situations. On several occasions, she has told the prince 'let's leave' when she was bored or tired at a public event or ceremony."

Jose Apezarena, author of a biography of Felipe, said the press often treats Letizia unfairly. She often comes across badly because she is not accustomed to the formal expectations of her.

"Letizia is more herself in low-profile events, such as when she visits a hospital, than in ceremonies where she has a role as a princess," Mr. Apezarena said. "She has set the standard very high for herself as a princess, which conveys tension and lack of ease in public appearances. This is also due to the scrutiny to which she is submitted by the press. It takes away her casualness."

Letizia, 41, has tried to preserve her independent lifestyle in spite of the strictures of her royal marriage. She has been spotted regularly at independent film screenings, theater performances and concerts. Her affinity for alternative American rock bands such as the Eels and the Killers has led the Spanish paparazzi to dub her the "hipster queen."

"Letizia only wants to be a princess during office hours," said Mr. Penafiel. "Queen Sofia has been a queen 24/7. She gets up as the queen, and when she goes to bed, she is still the queen."

Luis Menendez, 39, said Letizia's problems stem from the claustrophobic and anachronistic nature of the royal household. He and many others want a referendum to decide whether Spain should become a republic instead of a constitutional monarchy.

"Society's perception of Letizia is that of someone who had a big break in life, just like many Spanish politicians or members of financial institutions that have enriched themselves in recent years," he said.

Even members of Letizia's family are calling for abolition of the monarchy. The future queen's aunt recently joined the pro-republic side of the debate on her Twitter account.

But the Spanish Constitution is not likely to change in the near future. Eighty-five percent of parliamentary lawmakers favor the status quo.

In a bid to improve its public image, the Spanish royal household is trying to adapt.

The palace recently opened a Twitter account. Felipe's coronation is likely to be modest, reflecting the severe austerity measures the government has imposed on the public. The presence of the couple's daughters — Leonor, 8, and Sofia, 7 — could add warmth to Letizia's image.

Felipe's biographer, Mr. Apezarena, said Letizia will have a chance to prove herself once she is queen, and he predicted she will ably fill the role.

"Once she becomes the queen, she is going to relax," he said. "Up until now, she has tried to prove herself because she was only the candidate. Once she becomes the queen, Letizia won't have to please everybody."