Princess Olga Romanoff has just dropped her phone down the loo. ‘I’d pulled down my jeans, was lowering myself and the f***ing thing fell out of my pocket and went down the pan,’ she explains.
An undignified experience indeed, but to hear a princess — the Queen’s cousin, and a descendent of the Russian imperial Romanovs, no less — recount it so colourfully is startling.
Yet Princess Olga, star of the new ITV series Keeping Up With The Aristocrats, admits people are often shocked when they meet her. The builders who have been doing work on Provender House, her grand Grade II listed home in Kent, recently brought her a swear box, because even they thought the expletives (quoted here at only a fraction of their frequency) were too much.
Children have also been known to sob — not due to her language, thankfully — because they’re so disappointed to meet a real-life princess wearing jeans and no tiara. Not that she doesn’t have a tiara for special occasions, and it seems to have special anti-swear powers.
Princess Olga, star of the new ITV series Keeping Up With The Aristocrats, admits people are often shocked when they meet her
‘Oh I do behave myself in public when I have a tiara on. I don’t do effing and blinding then. I am VAIRY polite. All the things my mother taught me come swooping back.’
Princess Olga, 71, is properly posh. 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, nephew of Tsar Nicolas II, who was massacred, along with his wife and children, by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Olga’s father, then aged 21, fled to Britain to be joined by members of the surviving family, who would spend the rest of their lives in exile, dependent on their British relatives.
Her grandmother — a first cousin to George V — lived in a succession of grace-and-favour houses, including, for ten years, Frogmore Cottage, latterly 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 of her father’s second marriage. Years later, Anne would kick her, accidentally on purpose, she thinks (there was a man they both had their eyes on) at a dance. She likes Anne now, though: ‘She’s done a bloody good job. She’s got big balls, that girl.’
Olga’s mother was Nadine McDougall, of the Scottish flour mill family. Hers was a childhood of horses and governesses. She had no formal education. When she was 18, she got to choose whether to have a debutante ball or a swimming pool. She went for a ball at The Dorchester.
She was famously lined up as a future wife for Prince Charles.
‘My mother tried to tout me for sale. Well, sale is a strong word, but she thought I’d be a perfect wife for poor Prince Charles. At the very least she wanted me to marry a duke, with an estate.’
Alas, she was the wrong religion (Russian Orthodox). ‘I was the wrong everything really. I would have been a terrible Princess of Wales. I was far too much of a rebel.
‘I mean, I wasn’t a rebel rebel. I never did drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t screw around as such. But I was a rebel in terms of what my mother and father expected.’
Children have also been known to sob — not due to her language, thankfully — because they’re so disappointed to meet a real-life princess wearing jeans and no tiara
You didn’t screw around ‘as such’?
‘Oh, I was terribly innocent until I was 20! I can’t say too much because my daughter will say “MOTHER!”, but virginity was very high on my mother’s bargaining chips for getting me a good husband.’
Why is she venturing into the world of reality TV? ‘They paid me, and when you can’t heat your house you will do anything. I would streak, although maybe people would pay me NOT to take my clothes off!’.
After her mother died in 2000, she inherited her childhood home, by then so dilapidated that woodpeckers had moved in. Millions have been spent on it since and opening to the public for parts of the year has, literally, kept the roof on.
She runs part of the house as an Airbnb, too. But the pandemic has had a major impact, and there are eye-watering fuel costs. This princess is another pensioner who tries to live in only one room, it seems.
Now, it’s always tricky when toffs who live in huge houses plead poverty, but she certainly doesn’t seem to live a princess-y sort of life.
She shops at Sainsbury’s or Tesco, and ‘hasn’t got the measure’ of Aldi yet, but that’s because it’s new to the area, and she can’t work out where the cat food is.
There is no butler or housekeeper. She runs the Airbnb herself and does all of the washing-of-sheets and mowing the lawn. Even that tiara is only borrowed from upmarket jewellers for special events.
Anyone sensible would sell up, buy a flat and blow the rest on cruises, but she’s keen to keep the home in the family.
Her daughter, Alex, also features in the show, most hilariously while trying to convince Olga — who has been single since her marriage ended in 1989 — to try online dating. Alex duly set her up with a profile. On which site? ‘Oh Christ knows. It wasn’t one of the upmarket ones. They were trying to get me to go on a date and I said “no f***ing way”. She didn’t use my name for the profile either. She couldn’t really put bloody Princess Olga Romanoff, could she?’
Well, no, not if you wanted to avoid gold-diggers. ‘There is no gold to be dug, unfortunately, but I did make the mistake of saying, in the programme, that I’d quite like a man who was ex-military, a trained killer. When it goes out, I’m going to be contacted by every psycho in England, aren’t I?’.
She has quite a list of requirements for a future husband. He would be ‘a huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ type, but who also happens to be attractive. Not a toy boy either.
‘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 remote.’
Her dream man was Prince Philip, whom she met at a Serbian funeral. As you do. ‘He had everything — backbone of steel, good sense of humour, there wasn’t a sport he couldn’t handle. He said it as it was, even if 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, one wouldn’t have gone that far. Those are very modern thoughts, Jenny,’ she chides.
For all her outspokenness, there are some subjects that are off limits — namely Prince Andrew and the Sussexes ‘I do not agree with airing dirty washing in public,’ she says.
She cherry-picks the royals she CAN be positive about. Prince Charles will do a sterling job as king, she thinks. Camilla is her type of gal (‘yes we do share similar characteristics, and people do say we look alike’).
The Duchess of Cambridge gets a thumbs up. ‘She will be a good queen’. Why? ‘Because she is grounded and looks good’. But the Queen soars above them all. ‘An extraordinary woman. She brought up those four children, and she still has those red boxes brought to her every day.’
Convention is not for Olga, though. At one point I ask if she would ever marry a poor man. ‘I did! That’s why I’m sitting here with no housekeeper, freezing.’
Whether she married out of love, or to annoy her mother, is unclear. Thomas Mathew was a master printer, not a duke, but they did live for a while in a flat in Eaton Square, which doesn’t sound that 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 bit, sleeping on the sofa. She was an alcoholic, and one night was so desperate for a drink that she drank a bottle of Princess Olga’s perfume. ‘I was furious. It was the perfume too, not the eau de toilette.’
Most of her married life was actually spent in Scotland, in the small town of Banchory.
Was hands-on motherhood a challenge? ‘I took to it like a duck to water,’ she says, suddenly wistful. ‘My husband came from a big family and I remember him showing me how to change a nappy. I loved it. My regret is that I didn’t realise 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 go to pieces? ‘I’m not the sort of person to go to pieces, because of my background. One cries, obviously, at home, but . . .’
She did the stiff upper lip thing, in the immediate aftermath, but unravels a little in the telling of it.
‘Tom died on my daughter Alex’s eighth birthday. He had been in the intensive care unit in Edinburgh, and we had stayed with him, but the night before, I’d gone home to get things ready for her birthday and I got the phone call at 10am the next day to say “he has died”.
‘We decided telling Alex on her birthday would be mean, so we went ahead with the celebrations. She is still upset we didn’t tell her immediately.’
What absolute steel it must require to blow up balloons and keep smiling in that situation. She recalls her last moments with Tom, and does cry. ‘He was very keen on Michael Jackson. The last time I sat with him, I played him some Michael Jackson. I can’t remember which song. It would have been something I thought was hideous but he loved. He squeezed my hand. He was such a happy wee boy.’
Tom is buried in the churchyard in Banchory. He has a simple headstone, pink granite, and a glorious view. ‘If you have to have a grave, it might as well be there.’
She makes a few references to family graves during our interview, which is perhaps inevitable with her family history. Now a grandmother herself, she has only been to Russia a handful of times but would like to return for a burial that is long overdue.
The remains of two of the slain Romanov children, Maria and Alexei — her father’s first cousins — have still not been laid to rest, over a hundred years on. ‘They are in Tupperware boxes,’ she says. While that may not literally be true, their burial has been blocked by the Russian Orthodox Church so their bones remain in storage. ‘Which is frankly s**t,’ she says.
n Keeping Up With The Aristocrats starts at 9pm on Monday, January 17, on ITV and ITVHub.