Britain’s Prince Harry may be home safely from Afghanistan after five months as an army helicopter gunner – but he has swapped the crackle of gunfire for the clicking of countless paparazzi cameras.
In a series of surprisingly candid interviews before he left Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan, the third-in-line to the throne spoke not just of his passion for army life, but of the escape it offered from Britain’s hungry press.
With a hint of sadness, the 28-year-old said that for him, life in Afghanistan -sleeping in a shipping container when he wasn’t targeting Taliban insurgents from his Apache attack chopper-was “as normal as it’s going to get”.
“He felt he could be private at Camp Bastion in a way he could never be on the streets of London,” royal author Kate William said. “He felt he could do his job in peace.”
Captain Wales, as he is known at work, spoke to reporters just three times during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, on the condition that the interviews were only released once he left the war zone.
But the media assault restarted in earnest this week as the famously fun-loving prince returned to more familiar terrain – London’s swanky Fulham district – and was snapped, bleary-eyed, leaving a party long after dawn.
The images will not have pleased the prince, who surprised reporters in Afghanistan by peppering his interviews with digs at them. “I never wanted you guys to be here,” he told them flatly.
Flame-haired Harry has struggled to shake off a “playboy prince” reputation, especially after images of him partying naked in a Las Vegas hotel were splashed around the world last August.
But public relations experts say footage of the prince in Afghanistan – performing weapons checks in his helicopter cockpit, queuing in the army canteen and making tea for fellow pilots – has helped to rehabilitate his image.
“He came across as a hard-working royal who has been putting his life on the line,” said Danny Rogers, editor-in-chief of the Brand Republic group of marketing magazines.
“It’s a nice counter to last summer, when he was caught out in Vegas. He’s positioned himself as one of the lads and as a gritty soldier. Generally I think it works.”
Harry is unlikely to return to Afghanistan as Britain prepares to withdraw its troops in 2014.
And along with an uncertain future, he faces more intense scrutiny than ever, even though it is his older brother William who is set to become king one day.
“It’s tough for Harry – William has a much more formal and established role,” said Rogers.
Harry has said he does not know what lies ahead, though he would like to take on “more royal stuff”.
He won praise for a mature yet playful performance during a tour of the Caribbean last year representing his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II, in which he “beat” the world’s fastest man Usain Bolt in a mock race.
“I will always be here for my grandmother, and whoever needs to send me abroad for whatever reason,” Harry told journalists in Afghanistan.
“As to how long I’m going to spend in the army, who knows?”
Royal-watchers expect him to take on more charity work in the coming years. “But he’s not going to give up his interest in the army,” said Kate Williams. “Possibly he’s going to work with some military charities.”
While Harry has made his fair share of gaffes – from the 2005 costume party which he attended dressed as a Nazi to the video that emerged of him using the derogatory term “Paki” – he remains one of the most popular members of the royal family.
Williams said the public’s fascination with the prince was balanced with sympathy for his loathing of the media.
“He is very resentful of the press, but I think people forgive him for that – because they know he blames the media, fairly or unfairly, for the death of his mother,” she said.
Princess Diana was killed in 1997 when her car crashed in a Paris road tunnel as it was being pursued by paparazzi.
In addition, Williams noted, Harry was furious with foreign media outlets when they broke a carefully arranged blackout on his first tour in Afghanistan in 2008, forcing the army to hastily pull him out.
For Harry, it seems the battle goes on after Afghanistan – he simply faces a different enemy.
“Harry’s had a chequered relationship with the media,” said Rogers. “It will be difficult to change that.”