Kate Middleton (Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

It was a weekday in early June 2019 and Kate was feeling a little out of her comfort zone. The Duchess of Cambridge’s communications secretary at the time had convinced her to make a rare TV appearance on a popular British children’s show and, as she arrived at the Blue Peter shoot location to film an interview and outdoor activities with children, her nerves were slowly creeping in. Too late to change her mind, she sent a text message to husband Prince William, who called back within seconds with words of encouragement (and a gentle reminder to take a few deep breaths).

Though the duchess had long been used to the presence of cameras on official engagements, she regularly turned down cooperative TV offers during her years as a working royal, a Kensington Palace source told me at the time. “It was just not an area she felt confident in and, up until that point, other household staff hadn’t really pushed her,” the source said. “It took a little nudging, but Kate quickly realized that a show like Blue Peter was the perfect safe entry-point. She could film most of it with the children and the on-camera chat was about work she felt really passionate about.”

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As she wrapped the morning taping, William checked in again. “He spoke throughout the day with Catherine and [one of her aides] to make sure she was okay,” another source told BAZAAR.com. The duke’s encouragement, and the support of her Kensington Palace team, paid off. The segment revealed a duchess who had not only learned to feel more comfortable in front of the TV cameras but was also excited about the work she was doing — encouraging young kids, and their parents, to head outdoors as part of a healthier childhood development. “I’d call it a turning point,” a source close to the duchess later added. “Afterwards, she was like, ‘What else can I try?’”

Since that summer—which also saw Kate design a “Back to Nature” garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and months later record a TV special with The Great British Bake Off‘s Mary Berry—the Duchess of Cambridge has continued to venture into new areas she would have previously shied away from, such as a candid conversation about motherhood and raising three children on a podcast in February 2020. Rather than simply follow the roadmaps suggested to her by senior palace aides, Kate was taking the reigns of her own royal career as she continued to navigate a more senior role within the House of Windsor (one that will eventually see her as Queen consort to King William).

“Kate’s confidence has grown tenfold – there’s a lot she wants to achieve in the years ahead,” a Palace insider tells BAZAAR.com. “I also think that witnessing the way in which William, Meghan [the Duchess of Sussex] and [Prince] Harry spearheaded successful and unique projects of all different types served as major inspiration,” says a former senior palace aide. “She often played it safe in the past, perhaps almost too safe, but she’s more ambitious now.”

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Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

As someone who has covered the work and lives of the young royals for over a decade, I too have noticed a shift. Engagement notes from Kensington Palace emphasizing how “keen” Kate is to learn about an issue or charitable focus, have gradually turned into carrying out projects with tangible results that deliver more than just pretty photos. Example? The November 2020 “Big Change Starts Small” research report into early childhood development that the duchess founded has since evolved into an important arm of The Royal Foundation (the charity that supports the work of the Cambridges)—and a major cornerstone of her public life.

Since its launch in June last year, The Centre For Early Childhood—which is focused on research, finding solutions, and raising awareness about children’s formative years—has already been commended by child welfare professionals and charities across the U.K. After years of listening and learning, Kate rolled up her sleeves and led the creation of a structured plan for the center and its future. “The duchess has carried out her role with passion and compassion,” Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families chairman Michael Samuel says of the duchess, who has been their patron since 2016. Adds Kate, “My hope is that we can change the way we think about early childhood, and transform lives for generations to come.”

Kate—who works a smaller royal diary in order to juggle motherhood, including doing school runs with children George, Charlotte, and Louis—has continued to show new sides of herself over the past two years. When the coronavirus pandemic forced members of the royal family to shift their engagements to virtual appointments, it was Kate’s more relaxed appearances from her Anmer Hall home as she supported the work of others—including parents, students and frontline workers—that stood out.

We’ve also seen Kate learn to have more fun with her work. In her role as National portrait Gallery patron, the duchess turned to her love of photography in 2020 to launch the “Hold Still” project, which captured images of life during the pandemic for an exhibition and, last year, a bestselling coffee table book. And last September, the tennis fan hit the court with U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu for a match in front of the press.

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prince william and kate middleton
Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

More recently, in December, the duchess hosted a special televised Christmas carol concert at London’s Westminster Abbey, honoring the people and organizations who supported communities during the pandemic. It was there that Kate surprised the world with her own musical performance – playing the piano — alongside singer Tom Walker. “She was really nervous,” a source tells BAZAAR, “but she pushed herself and it paid off.”

As she celebrates her 40th birthday (“privately with family,” a source reveals) Kate now begins a new chapter that will rely on her new-found confidence for a decade that will likely see her become the Princess of Wales. “She’s an extremely safe pair of hands,” Katie Nicholl, author of the bestselling biography, Kate: The Future Queen, tells BAZAAR.

“Juggling being such a private person with an immensely public role, raising a young family in the spotlight, managing your marriage—making it happy and successful—with so many people watching. . . None of that is easy. But I think she’s really found her stride now. We are now seeing more of the real Kate than ever and it’s standing the royal family in great stead.”

This article first appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US