Tuesday, June 28, 2011

It'll be wall-to-wall billionaires and bling at this week's Monaco nuptials of Prince Albert to Charlene: The royal wedding that puts Kate's in the sh

By Catherine Ostler

Glamour: Charlene Wittstock marries Prince Albert this week in a lavish wedding that is set to make Kate and William's look like a village fete in comparison

Good news for those who have been craving some more royal wedding glitter. There’s another one this weekend.

It’s the event many thought would never happen: the marriage of Prince Albert of Monaco, the 53-year-old bachelor head of state of the tiny but rich principality on the Cote D’Azur, and Charlene Wittstock, a South African Olympic swimmer 20 years his junior.

The Grimaldi family has ruled Monaco for more than 800 years, and has featured on the global glamour map ever since Hollywood arrived in the form of the last bride to marry into the family, Prince Albert’s mother Grace Kelly.

The state may be small, but the event will be extravagant. This being Monaco, a tax haven where you are practically imprisoned for understated dressing, chances are the guests’ jewellery and couture alone will make the Windsor effort look like the Middletons’ village fete.

Guests are already docking their yachts in the harbour, and knocking back Cristal champagne on the decks. Those trying to book landing space for private jets at Nice airport have been denied permission unless they can prove they have been invited to the wedding.

Catch: Prince Albert and South African former swimmer Charlene Wittstock in a picture released a year ago to mark their engagement

Glamour match: Hollywood actress Grace Kelly pictured at her wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco during their ceremony in Monaco on April 19, 1956 (left) and Prince Albert's South African fiancee Charlene Wittstock, (right) whose two-day wedding is tipped to be an even grander occasion

Charlene will require a minimum of four fabulous designer outfits for this three-day affair, which kicks off on Thursday night with a stadium concert by those ageing rockers The Eagles and a cocktail party for select guests.

We can expect Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Richard Branson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Virginia McKenna, Topshop’s Philip Green, the Earl and Countess of Wessex and lots of Euro royals, as well as ‘representatives from Japan, Mexico, the Middle East and Africa’, according to a Palace source.

There will also be the rest of the intriguing Grimaldi family — elegant Princess Caroline and her erratic husband, Ernst of Hanover, as well as the eccentric Princess Stephanie and their assorted offspring.

Join the family: The rest of the intriguing Grimaldi family will attend including the elegant Princess Caroline (left) and her erratic husband, Ernst of Hanover, as well as the eccentric Princess Stephanie (right) and their assorted offspring

On Friday, there’s the civil ceremony at the town hall, with two more concerts that evening, ‘with very famous French and South African bands, as Charlene wants the wedding to be a fusion of cultures’, one guest confided.

On Saturday afternoon, it’s the religious ceremony, a Roman Catholic service at the 13th-century palace at which Charlene will wear Armani, followed by a white-tie dinner and ball.

The food is by swanky French chef Alain Ducasse, who again has been asked to fuse cultures, the champagne will be Perrier-Jouet, and, promisingly for glamour-lovers, one of the two maids of honour is voluptuous Danish fashion designer Isabell Kristensen, a woman who looks set to make slinky Pippa look like a novice nun.

Charlene’s hen night, a couple of months ago in New York, was an encouraging sign for the tone of the future celebrations.

Names on the door: Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld will dress to impress and Charlene will require a minimum of four fabulous designer outfits for the three-day affair, which kicks off on Thursday night

Guest list: Richard Branson and Desmond Tutu are among the 500 A-list guests and must prove they have been been invited to the wedding if they wish to book landing space for their private jets at Nice airport

Venue: An interior view of the Sainte Devote church in Monaco where Charlene Wittstock and Prince Albert II of Monaco will place her bouquet of flowers after their wedding ceremony

She wore a leather corset and skintight trousers to go with the leather-and-lace theme, drank tequila and danced at Cipriani.

So who is this lively blonde glamazon who has persuaded Albert, at such a late stage in his life, finally to embrace matrimony?

Few can resist comparing the sunny good looks of Charlene to Albert’s mother. Like Princess Grace, she has fine features, wide eyes, and high cheekbones, and often sports similarly elegant chignons and well-cut frocks.

At 5ft 11in, with broad shoulders and an athletic figure, she is an impressive-looking creature, as seen in this month’s U.S. Vogue wearing a sleek black swimsuit and then a frothy ballgown.

Albert has always had an eye for a beauty — former loves include Angie Everhart, Brooke Shields, Naomi Campbell, Gwyneth Paltrow and Claudia Schiffer.

Patriotic: A truck which carries a sign saying 'Long live the marriage, Albert and Charlene' in front of the Monaco palace where the wedding ceremony will take place

Flying the flag: A banner that promotes the royal wedding in front of the royal palace in Monaco. The banners are in evidence all around the principality

During his long bachelorhood he managed inconveniently to father two children — one, from a brief fling, is now an 18-year-old girl who lives in California: and another, aged six, is the son of an Air France air hostess from Togo.

Neither of them is in the line of succession, although after conclusive DNA tests he does have contact with them.

The woman he has chosen (hopefully) to be the mother of his legitimate heirs, who this weekend will become Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco, was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1978, to Michael, a sales director, and Lynette, a swimming teacher.

From a very early age it was obvious she could swim like a fish, and at eight she was already practising for hours a day.

By the time she was in her teens, the family had moved to South Africa and she was winning backstroke and breaststroke competitions, culminating in a place in the South African Olympic team in Sydney in 2000.

A year later she met Albert at a swimming competition in Monaco. ‘I was 22 and focused on my sport. I wasn’t in the emotional place for a relationship,’ she said last year.

Exterior view: Preparation works in the square in front of the Monaco Palace where the couple will marry

Marquee: Workers prepare the main courtyard of the Monaco Palace, which has been tented over with a canopy for the ceremony and dinner prepared by French chef Alain Ducasse, complimented by Perrier-Jouet champagne

Tradition: The main courtyard has been the setting for major events in Monaco and it will be the setting for a multi-course dinner created by celebrity chef Alain Ducasse who said the menu carries 'the essence of the Mediterranean Sea'

‘But the moment I met Albert I felt a profound sense of destiny. I have been quoted as saying I felt weak at the knees. This is a slightly trite way of phrasing it, but it is true — I knew he was “The One”.’

Albert pursued her to South Africa and they stayed in touch, but they didn’t emerge as a couple until the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006. She was still competing and in 2007 became South Africa’s 50m women’s backstroke champion.

But after an ankle injury in 2008 she withdrew from competitive swimming and, at Albert’s invitation, moved to Monaco.

It took Albert three long years to propose, and Charlene had no formal status and no career. She didn’t seem to doubt that he would come through eventually, although she didn’t enjoy the wait.

She has said that ‘the people I mixed with in Monaco didn’t relate to my South African mentality or humour’.

She is frank, funny and self-deprecating — traits for which the Monegasques are not known for — and she didn’t speak French, although she is learning.

Rock royalty: The Eagles will play a free show at Stade Louis II in Monaco on Thursday in front of 15,000 people to kick off the wedding celebrations

She knew she had aroused jealousy; she was a sporty, open, South African girl arriving in a country where locals expected their Prince to marry a guarded Catholic European aristocrat.

Charlene told an interviewer last year that there were only two people in Monaco she considered friends.

It is safe to say that Monaco high society didn’t know how to cope with such honesty. Luckily, she has somewhere to hide.

Charlene spends a lot of time at Roc Agel, the house in the hills outside Monaco which Prince Rainier gave to Grace Kelly. There, she trains in the pool and goes hiking.

Charlene shares Prince Albert’s enthusiasms both for sport and the environment.

He, too, is a former Olympic athlete, having competed in four Winter Olympics in the bobsled team, and he has been a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1985.

He also plays tennis, squash, judo and handball, sails, skis, runs cross country, fences and throws javelins — when he’s not campaigning to save the environment.

Fairy-tale wedding: A view of the harbour in Monaco where the guests are already docking their yachts and knocking back Cristal champagne on deck

The fact he has found a fun-loving eco-minded sportswoman and humanitarian (she has long campaigned for Virginia McKenna’s Born Free Wildlife Foundation and the Special Olympics) who looked the part seems something of a miracle. No wonder it took so long for him to find his Serene Highness.

By her own admission, she has come a long way from being the girl who arrived in Monaco with a suitcase full of swimsuits and cut-off jeans, who went to her first Red Cross Ball in 2007 in a borrowed green dress ‘looking like a Christmas tree’.

Luckily, Giorgio Armani spotted her potential and asked her to be an ambassador.

Since then Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Karl Lagerfeld have joined in, and Charlene has discovered a love of labels, saying she would like Stella McCartney and Manolo Blahnik to open stores in Monaco.

She even told Natalie Livingstone at U.S. Vogue that she wants to start a Monaco Fashion Week: ‘Grace Kelly forged a link between Monaco and the movie world, and I would like to create a strong bond between Monaco and the fashion community.’

Given the cash in the principality, I think they should take her up on the offer. However she does it, the new Princess Charlene of Monaco is guaranteed to bring her own style to the party.


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