Today, foreign heads of state and VIPs will gather in Monaco for the religious element (the civil ceremony was conducted yesterday) of the wedding of Prince Albert, 52, and his bride, Charlene Wittstock, the stunning 32-year-old South African Olympic swimmer. The guests—including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, James Bond star Roger Moore, former supermodel Naomi Campbell, and veteran fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani—will no doubt try to ignore the extraordinary stories that have been swirling around the Riviera kingdom in recent days.
Try, but probably fail—and who could blame them? For, according to reports published this week in the French newsmagazine L’Express, the bride attempted to bolt just days before the ceremony, after discovering that "the private life" of Albert was "not as exemplary as she had imagined." Albert already has two confirmed illegitimate children, and a third is now widely suspected to be behind the escape attempt.
According to L’Express, Charlene fled to Nice airport, and, one-way ticket in hand, attempted to board a flight back home to her home in South Africa, before Monaco police caught up with her and persuaded her to stay. Wittstock has since formally denied the story, and Prince Albert’s lawyer, Thierry Lacoste, said Charlene never left Monaco, and that rumors of another illegitimate child are way off the mark.
"I heard everything about the child—white, black, who has been born, not yet born," Lacoste told The Daily Mail. "There is no child, it’s a totally false rumor and absolutely without foundation."
Lacoste’s credibility is undermined somewhat, however, by the fact that he issued similarly strongly worded denials about Prince Albert’s other illegitimate children, before DNA tests proved him wrong.
For Albert has two illegitimate children already, an 8-year-old son by a Togolese Air France flight attendant, and a 19-year-old daughter by a California real-estate agent. For a noted playboy, however, Albert is notably lacking in charisma. He is balding and overweight. He speaks in a strangely alienating and unattractive Mid-Atlantic English drawl. He has struggled with a stammer for his whole life. Fascinatingly, the stammer is far worse when he speaks in French, the language he used to communicate with his terrifying father, Prince Rainier, than when he speaks in English, the language he spoke to his mother.
The spotlight of fabulousness which illuminates Charlene rarely rests on Albert. No wonder, then, that the Monegasques are hoping that Princess Charlene can revitalize the house of Grimaldi, just as Princess Grace once did.
Charlene’s story could not be more different from Albert’s. She was born in the town of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and the family later moved to South Africa. Her father is an IT entrepreneur and her mother is a former competitive diver who won medals in the Commonwealth Games in the 1970s. She has two brothers, Gareth and Sean, and her uncle was once a captain of the South African rugby team, the Springboks.
Wittstock’s whole life has been focused on sport, particularly swimming. "Outside the pool, I have no life," she once told Sports Illustrated. She represented South Africa in a swimming competition in 2000 in Monaco, and met Prince Albert for the first time when he awarded her the gold medal for the 50-meter backstroke at that competition.
She never suspected a romantic relationship would ensue, but when she returned to Monaco for the same competition the following year, she was shocked to receive a dinner invitation from the prince. She had to rush around the shops of Monaco to find a suitable evening dress, as her suitcase contained nothing but swimsuits.
Charlene later told a paper in Johannesburg: "We sat in the back of the Rolls-Royce, and he told me about his passion for sports and swimming. He was training for the biathlon. I think he was even qualified for the Winter Games. He was charming, a true gentleman."
The first date apparently concluded with Albert taking Charlene on a chaste tour of the principality with a glass of champagne in hand and driving her back to her hotel at 5 a.m.
The couple made their first public appearance on February 10, 2006, at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics. That June, their engagement was finally announced.
Wittstock was required to convert to Catholicism (she was raised a Protestant) and has had to learn both French and the Monegasque dialect. Upon her marriage, she will become Princess consort of Monaco and gain the title and style of Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco, the position once occupied by Prince Albert’s mother, Grace Kelly.
Albert took the throne in July 2005 after the death of his strait-laced father, Prince Rainier. The driven Rainier had built the sleepy Mediterranean port into a tax haven for the rich and created a glittering financial center.
In the year he took the throne, Albert acknowledged that he had fathered a boy, Alexandre, out of wedlock by a former flight attendant. The following year, he also acknowledged an American daughter, Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, now a teenager, born to a California woman. Neither can assume the throne because they were born out of wedlock.
Although Wittstock has undoubtedly spent the last few years preparing for the stress and responsibilities of being one of the most high-profile princesses in the world, some doubt that the royal fairy tale is really as idyllic as it seems.
Charlene gave a glimpse of the struggles she faces in an interview with British Tatler when she said she hadn’t made any proper friends since moving to Monaco. "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," she said. And yesterday's awkward kiss at the wedding ceremony (pictured above) will do nothing to dispel rumors of a rift between the couple despite her denials to Vogue.com.
Most Monegasques won’t speak on the record, but Patrick Middleton, the Irish-born editor of the expat website Riviera Reporter, is one of the few to publicly express doubts.
"Monaco looks like a paradise from the outside, but as Grace Kelly found out, it is also a prison," he says. "It is a police state. Phone calls, for example, are regularly monitored, and if they don’t like you, or you make trouble, they just kick you out. It can be a very unpleasant place to actually live. And, unlike Princess Grace, Charlene won’t really be able to just quietly zip off to her apartment in Paris for a month and do what she wants—the world’s media will be watching."
"She’s known the prince for 10 years, so presumably she knows what she is letting herself in for, but I think she will be very unhappy," Middleton continues. "The big problem is that she will become bored and there will be a lot of pressure on her to play the part of the happy princess, the new Princess Grace, the mother of the Monegasque people. It is so unlike the outdoor, free life she knew in South Africa.
"Monaco is a combination of the sinister and the ridiculous. The thing to remember is that it is only the size of New York’s Central Park, so it is a very incestuous community with enormous rivalries not just in the wider society itself, but also within the palace itself, which is a nest of vipers. There are a great deal of very rich, idle trophy wives who have nothing better to do than criticize each other."
And the latest rumors—whether or not they contain an ounce of truth—will provide Charlene’s detractors with plenty of fresh ammunition.