A royal pain

Romance can get complicated for anyone, but it's become a nightmare for the world's crown princes.

Published August 31, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

In the cult of celebrity worship, nothing ranks higher than royalty. Yet royalty's tradition and glamour often shield a murky reality that, as we learned from this summer's regicide in Nepal, can be more Columbine than Camelot. Royal marriages are the stuff of Franklin Mint and Bridal Mart dreams -- with higher-profile couplings like Charles and Diana or Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones immortalized in porcelain dishes and figurines. But behind every dream wedding, there are numerous near misses and crash landings.

A scan of recent royal relationship catastrophes reveals what a nightmare life has become for crown princes, the world's most eligible bachelors. For every wedding day special on network television, there seem to be dozens more varnish-removing exposés in the tabloids spotlighting every royal misstep -- be it sexual or financial -- which is making it downright difficult for the next in line for the throne to make it from "Will you marry me" to "I do." The torture starts almost from the first date. If the monarchs had their way, the poor princes would lead lonely, celibate lives or wind up with handpicked fiancies bred for the icy confines of proper royal life.

Royals have always been the subject of more interest than your average Ben Affleck or Julia Roberts on the fickle public's fascination scale. "We are totally obsessed with the way royals lead their lives and the way they marry," says Marco Houston, editor of Royalty magazine. "It must be very hard for a young prince to deal with the sexual and financial scrutiny."

Ever since the days when King Edward abdicated the throne in the name of love to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, the world has absorbed tales of royal courtship, marriage and breakups with insatiable appetite. In the 1970s, the collapse of Princess Margaret's marriage to Anthony Armstrong-Jones captivated a global audience, as did the tragic deaths of Princess Grace of Monaco, in 1982, and Princess Diana in 1997.

Marco Houston's father, Bob, who founded Royalty and has observed media coverage of kings, queens and their spawn for decades, chalks it up to sleazier media tactics in a landscape where the likes of Rupert Murdoch rule. "There used to be a deference in the way the media covered the royals," he says. "Following the breakdown of the marriage of Charles and Diana, all bets were off. There's this feeding frenzy mentality that's become the modus operandi for tabloids. They are the voice of the people, which is crap. They only report on royal events these days when there's a smell of scandal hanging about the air. They don't even talk about the serious aspects of royalty anymore."

Instead, they feature articles on, say, Princess Diana's penchant for colonic irrigation or, more recently, the royal massacre in Nepal, which, according to most reports, was triggered by deranged Nepalese Crown Prince Dipendra's parents' refusal to permit him to marry the woman of his choice.

Longtime American expatriate Barbara Adams, a charismatic figure, 40-year resident of Kathmandu and an observer of the royal family, knows better than most how tangled royal relationships can get. She's no stranger to controversy herself -- Adams' affair with a Nepalese royal has long been rumored to have been the source material for Han Suyin's 1959 novel "The Mountain Is Young." Adams, now in her 60s, lives in Long Island, N.Y., and has observed the tragedy in Nepal with much interest. "It's been a terrible struggle for Prince Dipendra," she says. "They wanted to choose his wife, and they never would have been happy with who he had chosen."

But there was little scrutiny of Dipendra's relationship by the media. That's in stark contrast to his counterparts in Western Europe, where Holland's Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Norway's Crown Prince Haakon have been dragged across the coals on their way to the altar. These days, young princes are the hottest players in the sizzling royal reality soaps and it seems no prince can get the role right.

Before he became engaged, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, heir to the Dutch throne, was a playboy and a partier. He earned the moniker "Prince Pils" for his beer-swilling talents at the University of Leiden. Then Argentine aristocrat and Deutsche Bank executive Maxima Zorreguieta came along and tamed him. The glamorous brunette won the hearts of Queen Beatrix and her successor to rule the House of Orange. But when it was reported that Zorreguieta's father was connected to Argentina's oppressive Videla regime of the '70s and '80s -- a period when more than 30,000 dissidents were murdered or disappeared -- a near-constitutional crisis erupted in Holland, a country where Parliament must give the future king's fiancie its blessing.

Zorreguieta had virtually no chance of further reforming Willem-Alexander or helping him to breed a future heir to the throne if she did not take extraordinary steps to distance herself from her parents. "Disappearances, torture and killing have left great scars on the society in Argentina," Zorreguieta told her future countrymen at her first public appearance at The Hague in March. "I renounce the regime. I have learned about the importance of democracy and human rights." She also learned Dutch, became a naturalized citizen of her adopted land and told her parents she'd rather not have them at her wedding later this year. The extraordinarily popular Queen Beatrix also came to Zorreguieta's public defense in order to save the planned marriage.

For Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, fiancie to Norway's strapping Crown Prince Haakon, the issue was the father of her 3-year-old child -- the man had been convicted of cocaine possession. Haakon and Hoiby, a Gwyneth Paltrow clone, have been celebrated in spreads in the glossy society fanzine "Hello!" But the media had a field day with reports of her previous boyfriend's drug history and her own penchant for frequenting house parties where drugs were exchanged freely. Though the prince and Hoiby were engaged last December and got married last weekend, the scrutiny was embarrassing for the couple, and for the royal family. In a twisted bit of irony, the same media that ran through Hoiby's past with a fine-toothed comb feted the couple's August wedding with double-truck spreads in magazines and four-hour television coverage.

Until Prince Edward met Sophie Rhys-Jones, all tabloid bets were that he was gay. "I am not gay," Edward famously told London's Daily Mirror newspaper following reports that he had had a "touching" relationship with the male lead of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. But apparently Rhys-Jones wasn't good enough for the British press either. The 36-year-old countess' reputation was stained when she made disparaging remarks about the royal family and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in an effort to secure business from a News of the World reporter who had disguised himself as a posh Arab sheik.

Tapes of her conversation were eventually released and dubbed "Sophiegate." Most embarrassingly, in an effort to circumvent publication of the tapes, Rhys-Jones agreed to an interview with the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, in which she offered, unsolicited, "My Edward is not gay." After another publication printed portions of the tape's contents, the News of the World went ahead with full publication -- an embarrassment for the palace, Prince Edward and Rhys-Jones, who at the time was working in public relations.

Then there's the unfortunate matchmaking that can break a prince or a princess. The textbook example was the supposed fairy tale marriage between Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. In Charles' marital failure, biographer Penny Junor, author of the bestselling "Charles: Victim or Villain," sees a link to the classic problem of modern crown princes. "There is no doubt that the Prince of Wales was put in an impossible position, and I suspect that his son William will find life even tougher. The intrusion of media means that any kind of normal courtship with a girl is out of the question. If Charles was seen with a girl, she immediately found herself on the front page of every newspaper, and if he was seen with her two or three times, they would dig up friends, long-lost cousins, nannies, old boyfriends, anyone with the faintest connection to interview about her. This sent the right sort of girls running, and attracted the wrong sort of girls." (Girls, perhaps, like Koo Stark. Did ever an heir foul up more than Charles' younger brother Andrew when he struck up a relationship with Stark, who starred in such soft-core skin flicks as "The Awakening of Emily," which featured the 17-year-old in a lesbian shower scene?) "And because the media is so much more brazen today than it was when Charles was William's age, it will be infinitely worse for him," Junor says.

At the same time, today's princes may be paving the way for William. Good luck finding a suitable virgin his age in the U.K. as his father was forced to do. Ironically, the recent royal eruptions in Holland and Norway, where the princes were publicly humiliated but were ultimately successful in convincing their compatriots to stand behind their choice of fiancies, may make life easier for the next generation of royals like Prince William. Concludes Royalty's Bob Houston: "The straitjacket on many of the men has loosened and will loosen considerably."

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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