Princess Olga Romanoff just dropped her phone on the toilet. “I had pulled my jeans down, lowered myself and the damn thing fell out of my pocket and fell into the pan,” she explains.
An unworthy experience indeed, but to hear a princess – the queen’s cousin and no less a descendant of the Russian Imperial Romanovs – tell it so colorfully is surprising.
Yet Princess Olga, star of the new ITV series Keeping Up With The Aristocrats, admits that people are often shocked when they meet her. The builders who worked on Provender House, her great Grade II listed home in Kent, brought her a curse box recently, because even they thought the expletives (quoted here in only a fraction of their frequency) were too much.
Kids have also been known to sob—not because of her language, thankfully—because they’re so disappointed to meet a real princess wearing jeans, not a tiara. Not that she doesn’t have a tiara for special occasions, and it seems to have special anti-curse powers.
Princess Olga, star of new ITV series Keeping Up With The Aristocrats, admits people are often shocked when they meet her
“Oh, I do behave in public when I’m wearing a tiara. I don’t do effing and dazzling. I am VAIRY polite. All the things my mother taught me will come back.”
Princess Olga, 71, is quite chic. The pictures on her walls (she has 30 rooms, so a lot of walls) are of people you would find in history books. Her father was Prince Andrei Alexandrovich, cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, who was massacred by the Bolsheviks in 1918 along with his wife and children.
Olga’s father, then 21 years old, fled to Britain to be assisted by members of the surviving family, who would spend the rest of their lives in exile depending on their British relatives.
Her grandmother — a niece of George V — lived in a succession of favor and favor homes, including Frogmore Cottage for a decade, lately home to Meghan and Harry, and now Princess Eugenie and her family.
The Queen once brought a young Prince Charles and Princess Anne to play with Olga, the only child from her father’s second marriage. Years later, Anne accidentally kicked her on purpose, she thinks (there was a man they both had their eyes on) during a dance. But now she likes Anne: ‘She did a damn good job. She’s got big balls, that girl.’
Olga’s mother was Nadine McDougall, of the Scottish flour mill family. Her childhood was of horses and governesses. She had no formal education. When she was 18, she got to choose whether she wanted a debutante ball or a swimming pool. She went to a ball at The Dorchester.
She was known as the future wife of Prince Charles.
“My mother was trying to put me up for sale. Well, sales is a big word, but she thought I’d be the perfect wife for poor Prince Charles. At the very least, she wanted me to marry a duke, with an estate.’
Unfortunately, she was the wrong religion (Russian Orthodox). ‘Actually, I was all wrong. I would have been a terrible princess of Wales. I was way too rebellious.
“I mean, I wasn’t a rebellious rebel. I’ve never taken drugs. I didn’t drink. I haven’t looked around as such. But I was a rebel in terms of what my mom and dad expected.”
Children have also been known to sob – not because of her language, thankfully – because they are so disappointed to meet a real princess wearing jeans and not a tiara
You don’t mess ‘as such’?
‘Oh, I was terribly innocent until I was 20! I can’t say too much about it because my daughter said “MOTHER!” will say, but virginity was very important to my mother to get me a good husband.”
Why is she venturing into the world of reality TV? “They paid me, and if you can’t heat your house, you’ll do anything. I would streak, although people might pay me NOT to take my clothes off!’.
After her mother died in 2000, she inherited her childhood home, which at the time was so dilapidated that woodpeckers had moved in. Millions have been spent on it since then and open to the public part of the year has literally kept the roof level.
She also runs part of the house as Airbnb. But the pandemic has had a major impact and there are mouthwatering fuel costs. This princess is another retiree trying to live in just one room, it seems.
Now it’s always awkward when toffs who live in huge houses advocate poverty, but she certainly doesn’t seem to be living a princess-like life.
She shops at Sainsbury’s or Tesco and doesn’t ‘get the size’ from Aldi yet, but that’s because it’s new to the area and she can’t figure out where the cat food is.
There is no butler or housekeeper. She runs the Airbnb herself and does all the washing of the sheets and mowing the lawn. Even that tiara is only borrowed from posh jewelers for special events.
Anyone sane would sell, buy a condo and blow up the rest on cruises, but she’d like to keep the house in the family.
Her daughter, Alex, also stars on the show, most hilariously as she tries to convince Olga – who has been single since her marriage ended in 1989 – to try online dating. Alex has properly profiled her. On which site? ‘O Christ knows. It was not one of the more expensive. They tried to get me on a date and I said “no f***ing way”. She also didn’t use my name for the profile. She couldn’t really put the damn princess Olga Romanoff down, could she?’
Well, no, not if you want to avoid prospectors. “Unfortunately there is no gold to dig, but I made the mistake of saying in the program that I would very much like an ex-serviceman, a trained killer. If it goes out, every psycho in England will contact me, won’t they?’
She has quite a few requirements for a future husband. He would be a ‘huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ type, but who also happens to be attractive. Not even a toy boy.
“Unfortunately, my chances of finding a man in his seventies who can sit on a horse and pick up a gun AND look good are slim.”
Her dream man was Prince Philip, whom she met at a Serbian funeral. If you do. “He had everything: a backbone of steel, a good sense of humor, there wasn’t a sport he couldn’t handle. He said it like it was, even when people got upset.’
Wouldn’t it have upset the apple cart, I say, if you had married Prince Charles but secretly lusted after his father? “In those days they wouldn’t have gone that far. Those are very modern thoughts, Jenny,” she chides.
For all her candor, there are some subjects that are off limits – namely Prince Andrew and the Sussexes. “I don’t agree with airing dirty laundry in public,” she says.
She chooses the royals that she can be positive about. Prince Charles will do very well as king, she thinks. Camilla is her type of girl (“yes, we have the same characteristics, and people say we look alike”).
The Duchess of Cambridge gets a thumbs up. “She will be a good queen.” Why? “Because she’s under house arrest and she looks good.” But the queen soars above them all. ‘A special woman. She raised those four kids and she still gets those red boxes every day.”
Convention, however, is not for Olga. At one point I ask if she would ever marry a poor man. ‘I did! That’s why I’m here without a housekeeper, freezing cold.’
It is unclear whether she married for love or to annoy her mother. Thomas Mathew was a master printer, not a duke, but they did live in a flat in Eaton Square for a while, which doesn’t sound so poor (“Rented!” she says. “And a peppercorn rent. A one-off.”).
Her good friend Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the Two Fat Ladies, lived with them for a while, sleeping on the couch. She was an alcoholic, and one night she was so desperate for a drink that she drank a bottle of Princess Olga’s perfume. ‘I was furious. It was also the perfume, not the eau de toilette.’
She actually spent most of her married life in Scotland, in the small town of Banchory.
Was hands-on motherhood a challenge? “I took it like a duck to water,” she says suddenly wistfully. “My husband came from a large family and I remember him showing me how to change a diaper. I loved it. I’m sorry I didn’t realize how much at the time. It’s so fleeting.’
Then there is Tom, her fourth child. He was born with a heart defect and died at the age of 18 months, in 1989. Did she break? ‘Because of my background, I’m not the type to break down. People cry at home, of course, but . . .’
She did the stiff upper lip thing, in the immediate aftermath, but unravels a bit in telling it.
“Tom died on my daughter Alex’s eighth birthday. He’d been in intensive care in Edinburgh and we’d stayed with him but the night before I’d gone home to get things ready for her birthday and got the phone call at 10am the next day to say has died “.
“We decided to tell Alex on her birthday that it would be mean, so we continued the celebrations. She’s still upset we didn’t tell her right away.”
What an absolute steel it must be to blow up balloons and keep smiling in that situation. She remembers her last moments with Tom, and cries. “He was very fond of Michael Jackson. The last time I sat with him, I played Michael Jackson for him. I don’t remember which song. It would be something I thought was horrible, but he loved it. He squeezed my hand. He was such a happy little boy.’
Tom is buried in the cemetery in Banchory. It has a simple tombstone, pink granite and a beautiful view. “If you must have a grave, it might as well be there.”
During our interview, she refers to family graves a few times, which may be unavoidable with her family history. Now a grandmother herself, she has only been to Russia a few times, but is eager to return for a funeral long ago.
More than a hundred years later, the remains of two of the murdered Romanov children, Maria and Alexei – her father’s first cousins - are still unburied. “They’re in Tupperware boxes,” she says. While that may not be literally true, their burial has been blocked by the Russian Orthodox Church so their bones remain in storage. “That’s honestly s**t,” she says.
n Keeping Up With The Aristocrats starts on Monday 17th January at 9pm on ITV and ITVHub.