Di. The briefest of sounds, yet a syllable with a message that transcends mere language, calling to mind a tall, slender, elegant flamingo of a girl with a slow, mysterious Mona Lisa smile and blue-gray eyes that change color with the weather. She has been described as the most beautiful woman in the world, the Aphrodite of the '80s, the ultimate superstar. Her face has flattered thousands of magazine covers and her story has been told a zillion times, but still she seems elusive, still for most of us a little unreal, like a princess in a fairy tale.

On the contrary, this princess, who will be 27 on July 1, is vibrantly real. She is a vital, spunky, bewitchingly natural young woman with a magnetic charge of glamour that has dragged the sleepy old British monarchy kicking and screaming into the age of mass media. She is also a sex symbol who rivals the British lion and the union jack as a national emblem and does a damn sight more then they do for popular morale. She is an international salesgirl for British couture, a working mother whose children go everywhere with bodyguards, the heroine of a soap opera that has been running since King Alfred burned the cakes. Where did she come from and how did she get where she is today? The story of Diana, Princess of Wales, is the touching success story of a poor little rich girl who grew up and married Prince Charming but found out that it isn't always easy to live happily ever after.

She started life as a genealogical letdown to her father, Viscount Althorp (pronounced Awl-trup), who later inherited the title the Earl Spencer. Having had two daughters, he had prayed for a boy to carry on the family name. But when he saw what a tender beauty had been born, his heart melted. The subtle, irresistible rise of Diana Spencer had begun.

She didn't exactly rise from the bottom. Her father was heir to a huge estate, and in his veins flowed the blood of kings (see page 11). Her mother was the daughter of a wealthy, Harvard-educated Anglo-Irish baron, and her grandmother Ruth, Lady Fermoy, is the Woman of the Bedchamber (chief lady-in-waiting) to the Queen Mother. Until she was 13, Diana lived in Park House, a 10-bedroom mansion on the royal estate at Sandringham, and regularly romped in her family pool with Prince Andrew, the noisy kid from next door.

Diana was mother's little helper, a lively, happy child. But when she was 6, her mother ran off with the heir to a wallpaper fortune. While the hyena press feasted on the family skeletons, Diana's parents battled for custody of the children. By the time her father won, Diana was in a classic state of agitated depression. For months she chattered frantically. Then she fell silent and began to hang her head and bite her nails.

Diana did not impress her teachers. She was "an entirely average pupil," according to Elizabeth Ridsdale, the headmistress of Riddlesworth Hall, her first school. In fact, her major moment of academic distinction came when she won the Palmer Cup for Pets' Corner for taking especially good care of her guinea pig, Peanuts. Diana failed to pass any of her high school exams. But she developed a passion for ballet—and a crush on the Prince of Wales. She tacked his picture above her boarding school cot and confided dreamily to a classmate, "I would love to be a dancer—or Princess of Wales."

Luckily, when Diana was 16, the prince began to date her sister Sarah. So one day Di caught Charles alone "in the middle of a ploughed field" and irradiated him with adolescent charm. He said later he found her "amusing and attractive...bouncy and full of life"—and promptly forgot her. But in that brief encounter a romantic girl had found her one true love.

In March 1978, she dropped out of a Swiss finishing school after only six weeks and spent the next two years finding herself, and floundering about in the process. She failed ignominiously when she tried to teach a dance class of 3-year-olds. She hired out briefly as a cleaning woman but finally found her comfort level as an assistant kindergarten teacher and part-time nanny.

Yet all the while she struggled to transform her gangly self into an appealing young woman—a Diana even a prince might adore. She swapped her shoulder-length hair for a sportive windblown bob and stocked her closet with charming tartans and twin-sets. When she came into an inheritance, she bought a three-bedroom flat not far from fashionable Sloane Street and Knightsbridge, where she hoped the world would take her for a hip sophisticate. Not a chance. British journalist Tina Brown, now the editor of Vanity Fair, once described the
Diana she first saw as "a startled little foal, just enchanting, so nervous, frightened, shy."

And then, amazingly, Diana's dream began to come true. In January 1979, invited to Sandringham by the Queen, Diana ran into Charles again. Again, he was captivated, and this time he invited her to some parties. But he saw her still as a sweet young thing—much too young to marry.

What changed the prince's mind? For one thing, Charles's great-uncle and greatly loved mentor, Earl Mountbatten, was assassinated on his fishing boat by the IRA. Then, Charles's flame of the moment, Anna Wallace, flamed out. On top of that, his parents kept nagging him to find a wife and produce an heir. Lonely and depressed, Charles poured his heart out to the Queen Mother, who knew through Lady Fermoy that Diana was mad about the man. It was grandma, insiders say, who suggested to him that a marriage to the Spencer girl might well combine business with pleasure.

And so began the most intriguing royal courtship since King Edward VIII and that Simpson woman. For five months the media besieged Diana's flat and bird-dogged the girl wherever she went. Headlines bullhorned everything she said and did, and before long half the world was in love with the "shy Di" who blushed and loved babies and had wonderful long legs. After Charles at last proposed—at dinner in his Buckingham Palace apartment on Feb. 3, 1981—Diana told her father in a surge of joy: "I can give my love to everybody. I have so much love to give!"

Charles and Diana had the wedding of the millennium. More than one million admirers, 4,000 policemen, 2,228 soldiers and 100 TV cameras lined the route to St. Paul's Cathedral. Around the world a billion people tuned in. The cathedral itself was power-packed with presidents, prime ministers and assorted royalty, including Princess Grace and the 500-lb. King of Tonga. The Archbishop of Canterbury officiated, and Diana floated to the altar like a Botticelli angel swathed in a cirrus cloud of ivory silk taffeta beaded with tiny pearls and followed by billowing miles of train. "Here is the stuff," the archbishop trilled, "of which fairy tales are made."

For several years the fairy tale unfolded like a perfect rose. William arrived 11 months after the marriage vows, securing the succession, and Harry followed two years later. Diana was blissfully happy as a wife and mother. Rising confidence erased that lost-puppy look. Metabolism accelerated, and like magic 30 lbs. burned off her rangy 5'10" frame, leaving it lean and elegant—a splendid rack for the designer rags she assembled with impressive taste. Almost overnight a pretty girl was transformed into a statuesque belle, a kindergarten assistant into a fashion front-runner.

And as her beauty bloomed, her personality unfolded. Forthright, humorous, down-to-earth, she was every inch a princess, but she had the common touch. She chewed bubble gum, took tap-dancing lessons, zipped through Buckingham Palace with a tape by Dire Straits wailing away on her gold-plated Sony Walkman. And she glowed in the limelight, knew instinctively how to move and what to say in public situations. Everywhere she went, she touched the hearts of her dazzled countrymen.

Charles was pleasantly astounded. Like Little Jack Horner, he had stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum: a People's Princess, a child prodigy of promotion. With a slumping economy, Britain urgently needed promotion, so Diana was put right to work. In nearly seven years of marriage, the Waleses have made official visits to 19 different countries and slogged through hundreds of handshaking marathons. In 1987 alone Diana kept 180 separate public engagements.

Every little thing Diana did—bought a bra, ate a pizza, adorned her ankles with butterfly bows—inspired a hemorrhage of ink. The public's passion seemed insatiable. No doubt the media kept it sizzling, but so did Diana. Shy Di had become a superstar, and she loved it. She raged at the endless invasions of her privacy, but insiders say she reads everything written about her, beaming when the stories are friendly, brooding when they're not.

Then Sarah Ferguson stepped up to co-star on the royal scene, and the stories that followed gave Diana plenty to brood about. After five years in a corset of decorum, Di was ready to bust loose, and fun-loving Fergie was just the girl to help her unlace. At one private party Diana wore plastic falsies. At another she and Andrew waylaid Charles and almost yanked his pants off. Soon the merry wives of Windsor were cutting up in public. Last year at Ascot, wielding their umbrellas in full view of photographers, Di and Fergie mischievously poked the posterior of Maj. Hugh Lindsay (who would later die in an avalanche that nearly killed Prince Charles).

The British press made much of the incident, reporting that Charles had scolded his wife for trashing the dignity of the royal family and that Diana had scolded him right back for being "stuffy, boring and old before his time." Well-informed sources say, in fact, that nothing of the sort happened. But it's true that the marriage had been anything but blissful for some time. Right from the start, Charles had misread Diana's character. Mistaking the persona for the person, he had expected a sweet, quiet, supportive wife. But the mouse soon began to roar. Wherever the royal couple went, crowds clamored for Diana and largely ignored Charles. And, time and time again, when Charles made a serious speech, dailies would give it a brief mention below a large photo of Diana in her latest frock. To a man searching desperately for a significant public role, the situation was galling.

But the most serious problem in the marriage was the couple's across-the-board conflict of interests. He likes Mozart; she's gung ho for the Police. He reads Jung and Solzhenitsyn; she prefers searing love stories. He favors quiet dinner parties attended by intellectual heavyweights; she likes to dance the night away with the "Hooray Henrys" of London's smart set. As for holidays, he just can't wait to spend them at Balmoral; she just can't stand what one reporter called "the hellishly convivial royal family picnics." Observes one long-time insider: "The problems of the marriage have come out in the open because Di's self-confidence has developed. She now appreciates her own incredible sexuality and the fact that the world is at her feet. This adoration used to terrify her. Now she quite enjoys the effect she has."

Clearly, the fairy-tale phase of the marriage had gradually come to a close. The couple had agreed to pursue their separate interests—the usual pattern in royal unions—while still residing under the palace roof.

Inevitably, rumors began to fly. According to one, Diana had found solace with a handsome broker named Philip Dunne. Yet the idea that the princess, though known to be flirtatious, could actually be unfaithful is unthinkable to people who know her well. Said one friend: "Her position as Princess of Wales means more to her than anything in the world. There is no way she would risk this—or the fact that she will one day be Queen—for a silly fling. The consequences of being caught are too horrendous."

Charles has fueled the marital rumors by staying away from home for extraordinary lengths of time over the past 18 months. The pair spent their sixth wedding anniversary apart last summer. During the last six months he has spent entire weeks away from his family, including much of this year's Easter break. Sometimes it has been duty that summoned him, but the claim of princely obligations has begun to wear thin. Charles's intimates are close-mouthed. "I make a point," said one, "not to ask questions." "What the hell are you playing at, Charles?" veteran columnist Jean Rook demanded in London's Daily Express, presumably asking on behalf of millions of Britons.

Whatever his game, it could be having an unsettling effect on his wife. In early April, well-known royal watcher and gossip columnist Nigel Dempster printed a report that three eyewitnesses had seen Diana weeping uncontrollably while she was dining with friends in a posh London restaurant. "For a member of the royal family," says one Diana watcher, "this is an astounding collapse of public demeanor. If the report is accurate, it suggests that the princess is living under great strain."

Not for the first time and surely not for the last. Emotional problems come with the royal territory, one in which both partners must always and forever sacrifice personal preferences to public expectations and duty. As Diana herself, with a grim little smile, said recently: Being a princess "isn't all it's cracked up to be." Yet the situation is far from hopeless. Much has been made of the interests Charles and Diana do not share. Yet they also have powerful concerns in common: love of country, belief in the monarchy, devotion to their children, affection for each other—not to mention the pleasures of their opulent life-style.

And give credit where it's due. If Diana's impeccable performance so far is any indication, Charles picked the perfect woman to be the next Queen of England—and that may well be the most important thing he will ever do.