Monaco’s New Princess

06.29.11

The Other Royal Wedding

Like Kate before her, Charlene Wittstock, the nearly 6-foot Olympic swimmer marrying Prince Albert of Monaco, has been groomed to be a princess for years. Isabel Wilkinson on her transformation.

When he first laid eyes on her, she was in a tight spandex bathing suit. As the story goes, Prince Albert of Monaco was so taken with Charlene Wittstock, a 5-foot-11 blond freestyler for the South African swim team, that when he saw her competing in the 2000 Olympic Games, he asked her manager if he could take her out on a date. “We spent the whole evening laughing and talking,” Wittstock later told Vogue magazine.

This weekend, Wittstock and Albert—the only son of Grace Kelly—will tie the knot outside on Monaco’s Place du Palais. She’ll walk down the aisle in a gown custom-made for her by her friend Giorgio Armani. Wedding guests, which will include designer Karl Lagerfeld and Desmond Tutu, will swill boatloads of Perrier-Jouet Champagne and dine on an endless meal prepared by culinary legend Alain Ducasse. After dinner, the Eagles will perform—just before the spectacular fireworks show. (On Tuesday, wedding guests had reportedly already begun to fill Monaco’s harbor with their yachts, and access to Nice’s Côte d’Azur airport had been reserved for visitors who can prove they’re invited to the wedding—such is the build-up of private jets on the tarmac.) The couple will drive off in an electric-powered LS600h L Landaulet Lexus following the ceremony, and a 33-year-old woman from Zimbabwe will inherit the title of Serene Princess of Monaco.

It may be the epitome of a fairytale wedding—and one far more private and luxurious than the pomp and circumstance of the Windsor nuptials, which played out in front of a TV audience of more than 2 billion people. But the Monaco ceremony, already referred to as that other royal wedding, brings a new royal crush into the limelight: Charlene Wittstock, who mixes Grace Kelly’s reticence and glamour and Princess Diana’s passion for charity with Kate Middleton’s (comparatively) humble upbringing.

Gallery: Charlene Wittstock

Wittstock was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, to a swim coach and a sales manager, but moved to South Africa with her family at age 12. She was a member of the women’s 4x100 meter medley, finishing fifth at the 2000 games. She retired from the sport three years ago after an ankle fracture, but still trains with an Olympic coach at the couple’s sweeping Roc Angel estate, a hillside estate given to Grace Kelly by Prince Rainier. Wittstock is an active supporter of the Special Olympics and the Born Free Wildlife Foundation. According to the South African Sunday Times, Wittstock demonstrated her social conscience at the tender age of 12, penning in her yearbook: “What’s happening to our world? Imagine the year 2000 and our ozone layer has vanished…Our planet has a fever and she is burning up—what will you do?” As her fiancé said of Wittstock last year: “Charlene has a very strong personality and I have no doubt of her desire to get involved in things alongside me.”

And gradually, since she first appeared alongside Albert in 2006, she also has distinguished herself sartorially: not as Diana did—embracing high fashion only after leaving the palace—or as Kate Middleton does, slowly swapping her sundresses for saucer hats. The former Olympian, already an official “ambassador” for Armani, is outspoken about her love of fashion. She’s sat front-row at Armani’s fashion shows and is pals with Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, Naomi Campbell, and Karolina Kurkova. One minute she’s next to Albert at the Monaco National Day Gala Concert in a glittering Armani Privé gown. The next she’s kicked off her heels to dart barefoot onto a yacht for a “Jet Set” soiree in a mini-dress. And at her bachelorette party last month at Cipriani in New York, which was themed “leather and lace,” Wittstock wore a leather corset and tight pants as she drank champagne and danced alongside Bungalow 8’s socialite-founder Amy Sacco and her bevy of model friends. Wittstock says she wants to introduce a Monaco Fashion Week, telling Vogue that she would like to make the principality “one of the fashion capitals of the world,” by introducing brands such as Stella McCartney and Ralph Lauren. “Grace Kelly forged a link between Monaco and the movie world,” she says, “And I would like to create a strong bond between Monaco and the fashion community.”

On paper, Charlene and Albert—who took their relationship public in 2006—certainly appear a perfect match. The prince himself is a famous crusader for environmental causes and has competed in the Olympics himself as a member of Monaco’s bobsled team.

Still, after dating a string of stunners from Brooke Shields to Gwyneth Paltrow, Albert earned the nickname “the Playboy Prince.” He has fathered two children out of wedlock, including one with a former Air France flight attendant from Togo. His reputation as a bachelor was so well-known that in 2002 Monaco’s Parliament even changed the country’s constitution to allow one of Albert’s two sisters to inherit the crown should he fail to produce a male heir.

As for his bride, Wittstock has been groomed to be a princess for years, like Kate before her. She was raised Protestant but has converted to Catholicism to participate in the Roman Catholic service. And though not yet fluent, Wittstock is currently cramming in French lessons. “I speak a little bit and I can follow conversations, but I think it will take time to improve myself,” she told Madame Figaro magazine (in halting French) in May. Though Wittstock has been closely guarded in her interactions with the press, she admitted to Tatler magazine last year: “The people I mixed with in Monaco didn’t relate to my South African mentality or humor…Although I have met some wonderful people since I’ve been living in Monaco, I regard them all as acquaintances. I only have two people I consider friends here.”

Some are already pointing to this image of Wittstock as a woman kept in a gilded cage, and Albert’s playboy past, as evidence that trouble may be lurking for the couple down the road. As The New York Times’ Elaine Sciolino wondered: “Will her royal marriage end up being a happy union based on mutual love and respect, as Kate [Middleton’s] seems to be so far, or a melancholy charade like Diana’s?”

Last week, the French magazine L’Express reported that Wittstock had tried to escape to South Africa days before the wedding “only hours after learning that Albert had not been leading the exemplary life she thought” and was stopped by police at Nice airport as she tried to flee. A lawyer for Prince Albert said on Tuesday that this story was “madness” and that “everything is false.”

On the surface at least, after their wedding, Wittstock is expected to continue to transition effortlessly into her new role as princess of Monaco. Since she appeared alongside Albert in a now-infamous “Christmas tree” dress at the Red Cross Ball in 2007, Wittstock has managed to transform herself into a modern-day Grace Kelly. “Finding my fashion feet has certainly been the biggest challenge,” she told Vogue. But on the eve of her wedding, she’s already come full circle: Now, she says, “I’ve reached the point where I know what I like and what works.”