I first met Crown Princess Mary nine years ago in Kuala Lumpur. By this time Tasmania's Mary Donaldson had already captured the hearts of the Danish public.
The fairytale story of how she met her prince in a bar during Sydney's Olympics was very much old news and the new Crown Princess, wife and mother was already established as a much-admired member of the Danish royal family, one of the oldest dynasties in the world.
Her positive influence on Crown Prince Frederik was palpable, their four children the perfect heirs and now the Crown Princess was ready to fly. As I soon discovered, this thoroughly modern royal was eager to shape the extraordinary new role she found herself in and use this regal platform in exciting and surprising ways.
Love may have propelled her into an alien world of palaces and tiaras, but she wasn't going to sit back and just look pretty, nor did Denmark want that of her. The Danes like their royals to be strong leaders they can look up to, able to represent the democratic heart of a small wealthy country that regularly punches above its weight in global humanitarian endeavours.
"I have always been very aware that being Crown Princess is a position that comes with unique possibilities. From the very beginning, I was given the freedom and support to shape my own role and figure out how I could contribute to making a difference for the Danish people," Mary says today in a stunning new pictorial memoir, Mary H.K.H., that she is happy to share exclusively with The Weekly.
I had watched the wedding of course, felt the magic, but the Mary I met in Malaysia was very different from all that pomp and glamour. This was a woman eager to make a difference in some of the trickiest areas of human rights policy – the sexual rights of women and girls in countries where there are none and the desperate plight of refugees, to name a couple.
She was also already fluent in Danish and a consummate public speaker in rooms lined with world leaders and change-makers. But what struck me most was her practical application, her ability to look beyond the problem and towards a solution.
The Crown Princess Mary I first met then, and have been privileged to catch up with at regular intervals since, displayed a smart combination of practical application with noble ambition. Devoted to bold but achievable goals, she was prepared to wade through the protocol and diplomacy necessary to get results.
On that first day I was the only Australian journalist among a group of Danish correspondents in the select royal media rota for this visit to Malaysia. The Crown Princess arrived in a modest motorcade with only a couple of officials and stepped out onto a carefully-laid red carpet to a bank of photographers. Even in Kuala Lumpur Crown Princess Mary drew a crowd, which surprised me. She was elegant in a cream dress with a tailored jacket nipped in at the waist, a snakeskin print belt and nude patent stilettos.
Together with a clutch of high-profile women – former US Presidents' daughters Chelsea Clinton and Barbara Bush, humanitarian Melinda French Gates and Norway's Crown Princess Mette-Marit to name a few – she was here ostensibly for the third global Women Deliver Conference where 4500 bright-eyed, passionate women (and some men) from all creeds and cultures gathered to pursue a common goal: empowering women and girls.
The aim was to harness voices from around the world to call for action to improve the health and well-being of girls and women and in particular champion sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The air, I recall, was electric with intelligent plans to make contraception more accessible in the developing world, fight domestic violence, reduce backstreet abortions, and invest wholeheartedly in girls and women. This was exciting!
WATCH: Crown Princess Mary meets a 15-year-old mother. Story continues after video.
Then Crown Princess Mary was part of the UN's 24-person international population and development High-Level Task Force panel. "I am the mother of four beautiful, healthy children," she said when she took on the United Nations role. "I know that I was fortunate to give birth in a developed country with good maternal care. I hope for a day where maternal health is equally distributed and women no longer risk life, to give life."
Trailed by photographers, she sat in the front row in the conference's main hall and over the next few days watched and listened. In between sessions Crown Princess Mary packed her schedule with external trips which I accompanied her on.
There were visits to the maternity wing of a hospital for mothers with gestational diabetes, a school for refugee children on the first floor of a tumbledown building above a motorcycle repair shop, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, where hundreds of refugees lined up in the searing heat seeking help. She made many unscheduled stops to meet some of the refugees in person and in the years since has made a point of visiting refugee camps all over the world.
"I have focused on difficult – and often taboo – topics such as loneliness, violence against women, bullying, sexual and reproductive health and rights, grief, and the right to be who you are," says the Crown Princess today.
"My aim is to be a voice for those who often are not heard. It is also the basis of the work of The Mary Foundation [established in 2007]. As founder and Chairman of the Board, our focus is on helping those on the edge of our communities. Our work also echoes a strong Danish tradition to help create a world where everyone has equal opportunities. Ever since I was a child, I've had a strong sense of justice and belief in equal opportunities for all – no one should be limited by where they come from and who they are."
A few months after the Malaysia trip I was invited to interview the Crown Princess in her home – Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen – where The Weekly also did a landmark photo shoot with the Crown Princess in bespoke dresses made by Australian designers.
The palace is dazzling and unexpected, dotted with contemporary art and chic modern furniture. Standing in the main room I spied the balcony where the Crown Prince Couple had greeted the massive crowds gathered for their wedding on May 14, 2004, and as she prepares to celebrate her 50th birthday the Crown Princess has fond memories of that day.
"One piece of advice I was given in the lead-up to our wedding, which I imagine many expectant brides receive, was to enjoy it, take it all in and just be present in the moment. Easier said than done – the day was very overwhelming. It was huge. Everything was – the church, the flowers, the crowds, the dresses, the atmosphere, my emotions. Ja … overwhelming!" she says.
"I was saying 'yes' both to the love of my life and to my new country. Not only before our families and friends but before of the whole of Denmark.
"I remember how the magnificent music of [Händel's] Zadok the Priest in the church carried me up the aisle until I was standing face to face with my soon-to-be husband. I remember riding in a carriage through the streets of Copenhagen, standing together on the balcony at the Palace and how we literally could feel the warmth and joy flow towards us from the Danes (and Australians) who were out sharing the day with us.
"And I remember the relief I felt when that day and evening were over and I could finally take my insanely heavy wedding dress off – beautiful as it was.
"Throughout the day, I felt a strong sense of gratitude. Thankful to be married and to be beginning our life journey together. Thankful for the warm way in which the Danes had received me as their new Crown Princess."
One of the secrets to their marriage is "sharing a mutual respect for each other," says the Crown Princess. "It is important to give each other space and to be able to rejoice in each other's successes. It has been exciting and rewarding for me to shape my role – give it content.
"The Crown Prince and I have different roles and competencies and we, like most couples, find a good way to bring them together in a balanced way – we are good together. And together with our children, we make a strong team."
WATCH: Relive Crown Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederik's wedding day. Story continues after video.
In the years since that first meeting I have noticed Crown Princess Mary become more and more Danish – her Aussie accent has faded and a newcomer not previously aware of her heritage wouldn't spot it at all. But she says at heart she is a hybrid.
"Today, my life values are a mix of both Australian and Danish values." And home for the Crown Princess is being with her family, as her album of photos shows.
"Together with my family is where I feel most at home and most myself. Being part of a family, I believe, is where we are both our strongest and our most vulnerable. Strongest because it is here, we unconditionally love and belong, and where you can be exactly who you are. And most vulnerable because to love so deeply is not without risk. The deeper the love, the deeper the grief. Something I experienced when I lost my own mother at a young age."
Henrietta Donaldson died from a heart condition when Mary was 25, just short of three years before she met Crown Prince Frederik and her royal life started, but her influence lives on in her daughter.
"Children become strong through love and feeling safe and secure. Growing up in the royal family, brings with it some unique circumstances. We are very aware of the attention around our children and how important it is that they are proud of who they are and understand the role the family and its individual members have within the Danish society.
"We want to raise our children to be strong and independent people. Key to this is showing them we have confidence in them and the importance of mutual trust. In our book, trust gives freedom.
"One of the values that we believe is important to impart to our children is to always do your best – at school, with friends and the community. This value is one I have from my own parents. We believe it is important that the children know themselves well enough to stand by who they are and what their boundaries are but, at the same time have the capacity to be able to see things from another's perspective."
The Crown Prince Couple's life is also about having fun. "Black humour and being able to laugh at oneself is very Danish, but it is also very Australian," Mary notes.
In Denmark there will be a festival atmosphere to celebrate Crown Princess Mary's 50th birthday, including two new exhibitions about her life and a gala banquet at Rosenborg Palace. Alas she won't make it to our shores – and because of the pandemic, I sadly can't make it to Copenhagen – so from everyone at The Weekly we too wish the Crown Princess a very happy birthday!
Mary H.K.H., published by Politikens Forlag, is on sale from January 31.
You can read this story and many others in the February issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.