French tabloid Closer has bought photographs of the Duchess sunbaking topless at a swimming pool while on a private holiday with Prince William in Provence last week.
A shocked Wills and Kate were told the news and shown copies of the pictures this morning over breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, where they are on a four-day visit.
“Their royal highnesses were saddened to learn about the alleged photos,” a royal source travelling with the couple told AFP.
“The incident, if true, turns the clock back 15 years.”
The source was referring to the intense media attention on Princess Diana, who died in a car crash while fleeing paparazzi in Paris in 1997.
The monarchy was investigating the authenticity of the photos and would then “make a decision about what to do”, the source said.
Closer posted the cover of its latest issue – due to hit the stands tomorrow – on its website today. It features three pixelated shots of the royal couple under the headline “OH MY GOD – the photos that will go around the world”.
Underneath, it says: “See incredible pictures of the future queen of England like you have never seen her ….and as you will never see her again.”
“At the chateau, Kate was perfecting her tan and (applied) SPF 50 sun tan (lotion), while William was tapping his fingers on a table,” the magazine teases in French.
“And to avoid streaky tan marks, Kate thought it all the way through…and took off her bathing suit.”
It was not clear whether the publication was running the photographs unpixelated on its inside pages.
The couple were photographed without their knowledge while they were staying at Chateau d’Autet, the private home of the Queen’s nephew Viscount Linley, in the Luberon region of France.
The threat to publish the shots has provoked anger in the British press and amongst the public.
The Mirror ran the story with the headline “Kate’s agony at topless pictures: Sneaky French mag prints snaps of Duchess sunbathing on private holiday”.
“Our future Queen faces embarrassment today after the revealing pictures of her taken as she and Prince William enjoyed a private sunshine holiday this month were printed,” the paper raged.
“Kate and Wills thought they would not be photographed as they stayed at the magnificent Chateau D’Autet in Provence, owned by a nephew of the Queen.
“But France’s Closer mag obtained images of the pair, now in Malaysia as part of the Diamond Jubilee tour, by the swimming pool – including snaps of Kate, 30, half naked.”
The palace (and the British press) has only just recovered from the ”Dirty Harry” scandal, where pictures of a naked Prince playing strip billiards in a Vegas hotel room were sold to US gossip website TMZ.
Closer editor Laurence Pieau is unrepentant about the underhand way in which the photographs were obtained, bragging to the Mirror: “We have to say that after Closer magazine comes out, Harry is going to feel a lot less alone.”
Pieau also vowed,” there WILL be nipple”.
The Mirror’s website was inundated with comments from furious members of the public.
Andrea McLerie wrote, “Pathetic, when a married couple on a private holiday are spied upon and photographed like this. Shameful!”
Her sentiments were echoed by Pat Massie who said, “I hope British papers refuse to print these pics out of decency to a young women doing her best. Leave her alone!!!”
France has some of the strictest privacy laws in the world, but there is a growing celebrity magazine industry which is prepared to accept the very small fines they have to pay.
Yesterday, Kate chatted to youngsters with terminal illnesses and also gave her first speech overseas at the Hospis Malaysia.