This weekend, the members of Great Britain’s sprawling royal family will don their daytime finery and fascinators in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II‘s grandson Prince Harry and his bride, Meghan Markle.
Among the guests strolling into Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Chapel for the wedding of the year will be Zara Tindall, who happened to have been having a beer with Harry in Australia when she met her own husband, rugby player Mike Tindall, in 2003.
As the queen’s eldest granddaughter, Zara was among the first of this generation of young royals who have basically been tasked with making the entire monarchy more relatable, less scandalous and yet still properly enviable to an increasingly critical public. Mission accomplished on her end, as Zara has been able to enjoy a luxurious yet relatively less scrutinized existence that hasn’t been afforded to the sons of future king of England Prince Charlesand the late, ever enigmatic Princess Diana.
Not that people didn’t notice when life-of-the-party Zara got a tongue piercing when she was 18—but as she told the Telegraph, her parents would have been “more upset if I got a tattoo.”
The daughter of Princess Anne and her first husband, Mark Phillips (divorce was very big in the royal family in the 20th century), Zara—whose uncle Prince Charles suggested her name, meaning “bright as the dawn” in Greek—is 17th in line to the throne, meaning she can make more normal, albeit extremely well-heeled, plans for the future.
The established equestrienne is celebrating her birthday today, among other things—she and Mike are also expecting their second child together this summer, a blessed turn of events after a previous pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The couple are right now parents to 4-year-old Mia Grace Tindall, the little charmer who stole the show when she held her great-granny’s purse in a portrait the queen took with her great-grandchildren ahead of her 90th birthday in 2016.
As part of the extremely elite crowd that refers to the queen of England as “granny,” Zara and Prince Harry always had a close friendship—and their bond has endured enough to prompt recent speculation that she and Mike might ask Harry and Meghan to be their second child’s godparents.
It was during the 2003 Rugby World Cup (which England won) in Sydney, Australia, where Zara—who held onto her maiden name Phillips until just a couple years ago—met Mike, a beefy 6’1 center for Bath Rugby who was nicknamed “The Fridge.” She was at the Manly Wharf Hotel when Harry (a major rugby enthusiast who used to play until “numerous injuries” relegated him to the sidelines) spied his pal and called him over.
Zara, a University of Exeter graduate and accomplished athlete who had just secured her first big sponsorship for her competitive equestrian career, competing with her beloved horse Toytown, had recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend of five years, jockey Richard Johnson.
“It kind of went from there,” she told 60 Minutes.
They started texting and “we became mates, really,” Mike recalled to the Mail on Sunday. “Eventually it was one of those things where you realize that you’re spending all your time with someone, and it went to the next level.” He pinpointed April 27, 2004, as the date when they became a couple.
Already a celebrity himself as the captain of England’s national team, Mike never gave off that he was fazed by Zara’s royal status. He said he would love her just as much “if she worked behind a check-out at Tesco,” the supermarket chain. His social worker mother, Linda Tindall, called Zara, who didn’t put on airs and would conduct interviews in her riding gear, a “nice and ordinary” girl.
However, Linda told the Daily Telegraph, she would “never call [Princess Anne] by her first name, you have to address her as ma’am.”
“I’d been in the England team for a fair while, and Harry and William always used to come into the changing room, so Mum knew I’d met them before,” Mike said. “I think she was still a little bit shocked [about him dating a member of the royal family], but they were both fine with it. My grandma was a bit more nervous, because for her generation the Royal Family is massive. She was worried whether it was the right thing for me. Unfortunately, she’s not with us any more. But my parents have come to events to watch Zara, and they get on well with her dad, Mark.”
Zara was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2006 after winning the world eventing champion title (Anne was given the honor in 1971) and was honored with the MBE for services to equestrianism in 2007. In 2010 she collaborated the classic sportswear brand Musto on a line of riding gear, which she duly modeled herself.
Asked about her status as a sex symbol, Zara told the Telegraph in 2010, “I wouldn’t agree but it’s very flattering.” Of her triple-threat athlete-model-princess status, she said, “Athlete’s good. The others can get dropped…I’m not a princess anyway so I find that quite weird to be labeled as one.” (Princess Anne was so set on her kids having as normal a life as possible that she didn’t procure titles for either Zara or her brother Peter Phillips.)
Spurred on by his brother’s engagement and Prince William also popping the question to Kate Middleton after more than seven years together, Mike proposed to Zara in 2010, surprising her with a diamond solitaire set on a pavé band while she was watching TV at the home they shared in Cheltenham (living together was fine, but Zara predicted her parents would “disown” her should she get pregnant out of wedlock) with their dogs Misty, Storm (after Halle Berry in X-Men) and Sway (Angelina Jolie‘s character in Gone in 60 Seconds).
“Saturday night, on the sofa with the dogs, watching X-Men. That’s pretty much what our life is like. Rock ‘n’ roll, baby,” Mike joked afterward to the Mail on Sunday.
He recalled Zara calling her mum to give her the news and Anne asking, in reference to his rugby-embattled visage, “‘Is he going to have his nose straightened for the photographs?'”
He told her it would be a waste of time until his playing days were over. (Coincidentally, he just had surgery last month, the frequent breakage—after the initial damage was done when he was just a child and the seatbelt in a bumper car failed him—having left him with sinus problems.)
Their engagement was announced on Dec. 21, 2010, and the queen gave her official permission the following May. (Aside from being schooled in how to act while meeting the queen, Mike said that no one made too much fuss about his behavior.)
Zara and Mike Tindall were married on July 30, 2011, at the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh, the first royal wedding in Scotland since Princess Anne married her second husband, Zara’s stepfather Sir Timothy Laurence. The bride wore an ivory silk and duchess satin gown with a full skirt and fitted bodice (and cap sleeves, très risqué) by royal couturier Stewart Parvin. She accented the look with Jimmy Choo shoes and her mother’s diamond Greek Key tiara atop her cathedral-length veil.
Newlyweds Will and Kate were among the guests, as were Harry, Charles and Duchess Camilla, the queen and Prince Philip, Prince Andrew, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, Prince Edward and Countess Sophie, and a bit of sporting royalty, national rugby team coach Martin Johnson and former coach Sir Clive Woodward. But news coverage—however extensive—only included the arrivals and the couple’s exit from the church, before the reception at Holyroodhouse. No news cameras captured the I-dos or the party, where a vodka fountain dispensed shots, guests danced into the wee hours and Prince William reportedly sang “Livin’ on a Prayer” (which is apparently his go-to karaoke song).
Mike recently revealed that he and his brother primarily keep in touch via a What’s App group that also includes his wife and “then a few of Zara’s side like her brother Pete and the cousins.” All of whom are royalty.
Back in 2011, about to marry into the royal family, Tindall told Readers Digest, “They’re good, fun people, all of them. They’re just a normal family.” He told the Daily Mail, “I’m on the edge of that world. You might call it bizarre, but you see the extreme side of it at something like William’s wedding. If you spend time with them in a social setting, they’re the nicest people around. You meet Prince Harry or Prince William in their own environment, where they feel secure, and they’re normal people; they’ll sit and talk to you normally, about everything that goes on.”
After their own wedding, Zara resumed training for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, especially intent on making the team after injuries to her horse kept her out of the 2004 and 2008 Games. Talking about her intense preparation to be ready to compete, she told the Telegraph, “I get up and usually try to swim before I get to the yard at maybe 8 a.m., 8.30 a.m. Then I spend the day exercising the horses. Or I’ll be competing, which can mean staying in the horse lorry for three days at a time.”
She even obtained a truck-driving license so she could ferry the horses around herself.
“I don’t let anyone else drive my truck,” Zara said. “I can say that I work all day riding the horses but unless they followed me around with a camera they probably won’t believe it. The way to prove it is by results and going out there and getting on with it.”
“Our life isn’t as grand as people think,” Mike, whose rugby nickname had evolved into “The Lord” because of his fairer half, noted to the Daily Mail. “We both work hard at what we do.”
Tindall, however, put a fork in the honeymoon phase later in 2011 when he was fined and suspended from England’s Elite Player Squad for allegedly making what were described as “inappropriate” comments to a female hotel worker in New Zealand along with some teammates (who were also punished), during the Rugby World Cup that November.
“While we acknowledge [Tindall’s] previous good character, it needs to be made clear that what he did will not be tolerated,” Rugby Football Union operations director Rob Andrew said at the time. In detailing the reason to boot him, he continued, “We do not believe the players had any intention to sexually harass or intimidate [the woman]. However, the incident is precisely the kind of dangerous, compromising situation the players were warned about prior to departure for New Zealand and that they were specifically told to avoid in the EPS code of conduct.”
So it was early on in her married life that Zara had her first chance to not comment on some embarrassing news.
Happily, all that training paid off and she earned a silver medal in jumping at the London Olympics, presented to her by her own mother, Princess Anne.
A year later, Zara and Mike announced that they were expecting their first child—”I agree with you all that hopefully he/she won’t have my nose,” the expectant dad tweeted—and Mia was born on Jan. 14, 2014, at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. Mike retired from professional rugby that July but just months later was back to competing on the grassroots circuit. He has also been a brand ambassador for numerous companies over the years; is heavily involved with Right to Play UK, which helps get underprivileged kids involved in sports; and has dabbled in reality TV. He was airlifted to the hospital after a falling tree branch hit him on the head in the Costa Rican jungle during Bear Grylls‘ Mission Survive (he returned after getting stitched up) and competed for charity on the show And They’re Off! (And, naturally, he golfs.)
Asked how she was balancing riding, philanthropy and family since becoming a mother, Zara told China Daily, “Yeah, obviously there is a lot going on and you know, number one, family. And then you’ve got to fit the horses ’round in training and then everything else sort of after that…I think before I had a baby I think I must have had so much time to do everything, and now [the question] is fitting it all in at the same time—but it all seems to work. I’m very lucky.”
Despite insisting that, thanks to her parents, she was “pretty normal” on a day-to-day basis, she admitted that the amount of attention she receives purely due to her famous family isn’t exactly ordinary.
“Everyone’s gonna try and catch you out ’cause that’s just the way they are,” Zara told Seven Sharp‘s Toni Street in New Zealand in 2015, when she was in town as patron of CatWalk Trust, which seeks to advance treatment for spinal cord injuries. “I don’t think you ever get used to it. You’ve just got to try and learn to deal with it.
“You get to a point where you want to build your own boundaries, and try and keep what you can to yourself. Obviously when you’re out in the public it’s kind of fair game, I guess, but to a certain extent you try and do things and be in places where they can’t follow you so much.”
She and Mike suffered a crushing, unfortunately public, blow in December 2016, however, when Zara miscarried about a month after they had announced another baby was on the way.
“One thing you do learn is how many other people have to go through the same thing,” Mike told London’s Sunday Times in May 2017. Ultimately “the saving grace for us has been Mia. However down we feel, she will come running up in our faces.”
Zara’s other passion, horseback riding, was also there for her. Just weeks after the miscarriage, she and Mike traveled to Queensland, Australia (aside from being where they met, Zara spent her gap year Down Under and just loves it) and she competed at the Gold Coast’s Magic Millions Polo day.
She even fell off her horse at one point and got right back on, her husband at the loudspeaker telling the crowd, “That’s her will to win. She’s tough, she bounces!”
This past January, the resilient Tindalls announced that they were expecting a baby this summer. (A couple weeks beforehand the queen had said in her 2017 Christmas speech that the family looked “forward to welcoming new members into it next year,” referring at least to Meghan Markle and the soon-to-be-born Prince Louis.)
But first, they will be royal wedding guests once again.
“We will be going to Harry’s and Eugenie’s weddings—well I think so, we haven’t been invited yet though,” Mike told the Daily Mirror in January (they’ve since been invited; then Eugenie is marrying Jack Brooksbank on Oct. 12, also at St. George’s Chapel). “We’re looking forward to them, but the big thing this year will be the new one on the way.”
He added, “That, I think, will be the most important thing to happen this year. I don’t think there is too much to worry about except that. And if it goes well, we’ll be happy.”