MADRID, Spain, Jan 26, 2009 — -- They're glamorous, modern and admired throughout Spain. The Bourbons, as the Spanish royal family is known, enjoy a level of popularity -- and protection -- that other royals and celebrities would envy.
Pick up any Spanish magazine, on any day, and you'll find a number of gushy articles on them, chronicling where they go, what they wear and whom they see. They have been profiled for years as a down-to-earth family whose members work for a living.
But some Spanish royals have been getting a drubbing in the media lately, despite having enjoyed a lengthy period of favor with the public.
Queen Sofia, who just celebrated her 70th birthday, provoked a flurry of headlines recently when she gave candid interviews to the royal journalist Pilar Urbano. Urbana then published her statements in her book "The Queen Up Close."
In the book, the queen, who has been known to be reserved but warm toward the public, comes across as more old school than previously seen. She stands firm on issues such as gay marriage, which she opposes, even though she agreed that gay unions should be legal in Spain.
Most controversially, she says that although she respects differing sexual orientations, Her Majesty Queen Sofia can't quite come to grips with why homosexuals "should feel proud to be gay." That caused outrage among more liberal sections of Spanish society.
Spain's media focus in particular on the trials and tribulations of the younger royals. The union of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia produced three successors, Prince Felipe of Asturias, the Infanta Elena and Christina.
The measure of attention cast their way has increased with the swell in gossipy publications in Spain, the kind of publications that cast eager eyes on the private lives of actors, footballers and bullfighters.
Royals are by no means immune from the interest, although they are spared the more intrusive scrutiny that is given to British royals, who are still recovering from the infamous "Diana effect."
The Infanta Elena has recently drawn attention for separating from her aristocratic husband, Jaime de Marichalar. The rumors had been swirling for some time that all was not well in the marriage before the news broke. Marichalar is often pictured in the glossies as a regular at fashion shows, which has often attracted backhanded compliments in gossip columns.
Dominating the publicity is the heir to the throne, Prince Felipe and his wife, Princess Letizia. They are the embodiment of what a modern royal couple should be -- young, active and photogenic. Both the prince and his wife have raised more than a little interest with their modest form of (dare we say it) sex appeal.
But there is a limit to how far the media can discuss the intimate life of the royal couple. A Spanish satirical publication was fined about $4,000 last year when it published a cartoon on the front page depicting the prince and his wife having sex. A high-court judge ordered the seizure of the magazines and said that the cartoon "struck at the honor and dignity of the people represented."
Plenty of Royal Material
The public muzzling was not a particularly surprising occurrence; scandalous stories rarely emerge from the royal household. And one reason is the harsh penalty for going public -- slandering and defaming the royal family can result in a two-year jail term, not a risk that many publications are willing to take.
"There aren't that many paparazzi following them about," Anthony Luke of the Spanish glossy society magazine Hola! said to ABC News. "They're not capturing every single moment of their lives. There's also self-censorship on the part of many newspapers in Spain; they don't print photographs that might upset the royal family."
But there is still enough material for magazines to cover. Spaniards are avid followers of the royals and their latest goings-on, such as their official trips, which are important in fostering Spain's ties with other countries.
As for the prince, there was much delight -- and relief -- when Felipe of Asturias selected his bride, Letizia Ortiz, a woman who was not from the usual stock of aristocrats who continue to inhabit various corners of Europe. Worldly, elegant and with a flair for the camera, his wife, a former TV news correspondent, has injected the royal family with a dose of glamour.
The magazines make much of her photogenic allure, from her support of Spanish fashion designers to her recent cosmetic operations.
"She's not a blue blood and that generates a lot of interest." Luke said. "She's a journalist and that encourages a lot of the media to concentrate more on her than on anybody else."
Her fame before catching the eye of Spain's Prince Charming paved the way to her eventual place in the house of Bourbon. She was already known for being a striking TV correspondent, dispatching reports from ground zero after Sept. 11, 2001, and also from Iraq after the fall of Baghdad. In short, she was celebrated as a modern, feisty, attractive woman.
Her transition from TV hack to polished princess was welcomed when she first entered the arena as the royal girlfriend and more so when the engagement to Prince Felipe was announced.
"She's a very pretty woman and the prince is obviously a handsome-looking guy," Luke said. "The media are concentrating on them more because they are going to be the future king and queen of Spain, and they're a handsome couple."
Prince Felipe has been no stranger to the adoring eyes of the public, not only for his heir-to-the-throne credentials but for his handsome movie-star looks. Tall, smart and athletic, the prince was a member of the Olympic sailing team in the 1992 Barcelona Games and spent time studying international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
No surprise, then, that he constantly topped the polls as one of Europe's most-sought-after bachelors by legions of love-struck, wannabe princesses.
Spain Is No Monaco
Much like Britain's Prince Charles, Prince Felipe spent a lot of his time in his youth pictured with beautiful and pedigreed ladies. At one point, the rumor mill went into overdrive when he was linked to Hollywood uber-princess Gwyneth Paltrow, exciting feverish speculation that there could be a Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly union, take two.
But Spain is not Monaco and while a date or two with a Hollywood superstar may have been tolerated, foreign celebrities are not ideal candidates for marriage into one of Europe's grander monarchies. Squeaky-clean pasts and an ability to withstand the rigor of royal life under scrutiny are an absolute must in a country that continues to be overwhelmingly Catholic in its traditions and institutions.
The princess' entrance into the royal household was welcomed as a breath of fresh air. A so-called commoner yet well-known enough, she was an unexpected choice of bride for the prince. First off, she was a divorcee. But because her previous marriage was only a civil one, the royal wedding was able to take place in the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid, in a traditional Roman Catholic ceremony.
Secondly, while it was obvious that she was hardly going to be the bashful virgin bride, there were those who were slightly taken aback by her boldness. During her engagement interview, for instance, she firmly put the prince in place when he interjected during her answer and gently admonished him for doing so, a slightly awkward moment in terms of royal protocol.
Little mistakes aside, the couple are seen as a force for good in Spain. Some of people who were relaxing recently in Oriente Square, in front of the Royal Palace of Madrid, said they remain positive.
"They're a source of pride for us," said vacationer Armando Gonzalez, who hails from the Canary Islands. "They're very modern and very much of the people -- we love them."
Taxi driver Paco de Conde agreed. "They're hardworking and great ambassadors, wherever they go."
The marriage between Princess Letizia and Prince Felipe was endowed with national significance: It was the first "proper" royal wedding in the country in 100 years. But there is a more poignant element -- their wedding took place two months after the Madrid train bombings, the worst terrorist attack ever to hit Spain. It provided the country with a much-welcomed national holiday, coming after the fallout from the tragedy.
The Spanish royals have only been in a position of power for three decades, making them, for all their tradition and history in the country, a younger and more modern monarchy. The memory of banishment has never been far enough away for them to forget their duty or neglect to earn the affection of their people.
The significance of their return to Spain in 1975, after spending 37 years in exile, has not been forgotten. After Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship ended, King Juan Carlos assumed the throne as the country's constitutional monarch. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in the early-'80s, the Spanish people praised the new king for upholding and protecting the fledging democracy.
Balancing Tradition and Progress
"Spain has also a great amount of respect for the Spanish royal family," Luke of Hola! said. "Particularly for the king, Juan Carlos for his role in the democratization of Spain which is very, very significant, not only for a democracy but also for putting down a coup d'etat in favor of maintaining the democracy. A lot of people think that the time has come for the monarchy to be disbanded but there is a great respect for that family, for Juan Carlos and for his son, Prince Felipe, because of his political implication in the democratization of Spain."
As for the future king and queen of the country, Felipe and Letizia continue to earn respect and kudos for successfully capturing the very essence of modern royalty.
The balance between tradition and progress in a country that has been a fully functioning democracy for a relatively short time has not always been an easy one to straddle. But in the case of this couple with their young daughters, the perception of what is "royal' and what is "common" in the country has become further blurred and, to an extent, less relevant.
To a degree, the Spanish royal family's popularity proves the adage that often what preserves a monarchy is not its rigid, blinkered attachment to the past and to tradition but rather its ability to change with the times as well as maintain a sense of national pride and heritage.