It's a sport of kings, but for a moment on May 27, Britain's Prince William didn't quite seem to the polo field born. Playing for his exclusive high school, Eton, against a Gloucestershire club, the lanky second in line to the throne inadvertently blocked a teammate's shot from reaching the goal. (As his father, Prince Charles, watched in amusement, another player managed to complete the score.) "William and Harry are just at the learning stage," explains a friend who has coached both boys. Moreover, Will has a handicap most do not: Born a lefty, he must play polo right-handed because the game requires it.

Welcome to William's world, where the rules of the game—whether or not they happen to come naturally—dictate just about everything. That's especially true now that Britain's fair-haired prince has just turned 18 and is bidding farewell to his cosseted boyhood. As an adult, Prince Charles and Princess Diana's oldest, who planned a low-key birthday with friends, is now allowed to vote (though royals traditionally don't) and order a beer at a pub. That's the good news. The bad is that the publicity-averse prince can also expect heightened intrusions into his privacy by the world's rough-and-tumble tabloids, who until now have observed a hands-off policy toward the future king. Despite his dislike of media attention, William agreed to mark his June 21 coming-of-age by releasing written answers to questions submitted by a press representative. In addition he allowed a cameraman and a photographer to film him at school and take behind-the-scenes photos, which begin on page 50. Among the highlights: He likes action movies, casual clothes and dancing; he will take a year off before starting college and won't shoulder any royal duties until he graduates.

In short, he is at once like any 18-year-old and like no other on the planet—a surreal situation he is by all accounts handling with remarkable grace. At Eton, where he's part of the cool set (unlike his father, who was picked on mercilessly by his Gordonstoun classmates), William excels in geography, biology and art history, his chosen subjects. He's both an athlete and a gentleman, who inherited "his giggle from his mum," says a longtime friend. "The teenagers who knock around with him stress that he's got beautiful manners, is considerate and extremely laid-back," says James Whitaker, royals columnist for Britain's Mirror.

The prince wants to be accepted by a university (he'll study art history, he says) on merit alone and is "naturally nervous" about his final exams as a result. His top choice, Edinburgh University, has the added plus of being in Scotland, with which Grandmum the Queen is looking to strengthen ties. Not that royal concerns determine all his choices. With help from mentor and entrepreneur Mark Dyer, 30-ish, William is planning his upcoming "gap year," the find-yourself pre-college break that is de rigueur for upper-class Brits. But Prince Charles, 51, has already vetoed one of his ideas—to play polo in Argentina—as "too decadent." So William will probably spend his break visiting such British Commonwealth countries as Canada and Australia.

William's life is tightly circumscribed in other ways too. Sure, he can drive his Volkswagen Golf—a present from Dad for his 17th birthday—or the Kawasaki motorcycle Charles gave him for his 18th, but only with security officers riding shotgun or following behind. He can and does date, but only young ladies of his class, and only discreetly. "When the time comes for him to become king, they don't want any skeletons coming out of the closet," says royal biographer Brian Hoey.

Though the prince (who has some 500 Web sites devoted to him worldwide, most set up by eager female fans) is mum on the subject, he is known to have had two romances thus far, both with the sisters of unidentified pals. "He surrounds himself with lots of girls, so you never quite know which one it is," says Majesty magazine editor-in-chief Ingrid Seward. (See the box on page 58 for some suspects.)

One thing William will reveal: He and Britney Spears have not struck up a cyberfriendship, she told PEOPLE earlier this year. "There's been a lot of nonsense put out by PR companies," he says. "I don't like being exploited in this way, but as I get older it's increasingly hard to prevent." (Says Spears's publicist Betsy Boudreau: "Sometimes she says they have [e-mailed each other] and sometimes she says they haven't, so if they have, it's probably been one time.")

Those who really do get close to Will have no doubts about the encounter. "He's a beautiful young man," says Lydia Truglio, 19, a barmaid with whom William danced at a Swiss nightclub in January. "And in a few years he's going to be extraordinary."

To be sure, William wouldn't be a teen if he didn't test some limits, especially given the many imposed upon him. And so he rebels—enough, at least, to have earned the nickname "Willful Will" in the British press. He recently told a teacher at Eton that he doesn't want to live at Buckingham Palace—traditionally the monarch's London residence—when he or 2 his father becomes king. ("None of the royals like it there," says a longtime royal watcher.) Last January, while planning a ski trip to Crans Montana, Switzerland, with pals, he incurred Charles's staff's disapproval by insisting on taking a regular flight instead of a special charter. "He likes to do his own things without people knowing," says Daily Mail columnist Richard Kay, who has covered the royal family for years, "which is frightfully difficult when you are second in line to the throne."

Interestingly, it is his father's paramour (and his late mum's rival), Camilla Parker Bowles, 52, now an accepted presence at Highgrove and St. James's Palace, who can sometimes talk sense to him. After Will irritated his father by inviting friends to crash at his St. James's apartment without clueing in the staff, Camilla played peacemaker. "Charles wanted to tell him off," says Brian Hoey, "and apparently William accepted it from her."

So far, though, William hasn't strayed far from the proper royal path. His closest friends—who include William van Cutsem, 20, a Bristol University student; Andrew Charlton, 18, a grade school pal; and James Meade, 18, an Eton buddy—are all upper-class. Fiercely loyal to the prince, "they tend to be more discreet," says an acquaintance.

To his father's alarm, some in William's extended circle have been experimenting with drugs. William's cousin Nicholas Knatchbull, 19, was arrested for marijuana possession on June 15, and Tom Parker Bowles, 25, admitted to using cocaine last year. But the prince's riskiest indulgences to date have been relatively tame trips to trendy London nightclubs K-Bar and Browns (where he drank soft drinks) and to pubs near Highgrove, his Gloucestershire home. "When you go to pick up Will after a party, he's not being sick like some of his contemporaries who have taken too much alcohol," says the parent of a pal. Concurs a close friend: "He is absolutely out of that."

Secluded Eton, 20 miles from London, has played a major role in William's maturity. "I'll miss my friends and [Manor House's master] Dr. Gailey, who has been a tremendous support to me," he said in his birthday interview last week. "I've really enjoyed being able to go about Eton as just another student." Well, almost. Granny's mammoth Windsor Castle is barely a stone's throw from Eton, and William joins her there for tea most Sundays.

But William is in no hurry to enter the royal spotlight. Though convention dictates that he be addressed as "Your Royal Highness" once he turns 18, he has insisted that all continue calling him plain William for now. "It will be a few years before I do royal engagements," he says, adding that he has no plans to hire a personal secretary. "I don't need [one]," he says. "My father's office looks after my mail and diary." He was not even planning to attend a joint birthday bash for several family members at Windsor Castle June 21, his own birthday: "I will be studying for my History of Art exam." (Latest hot tip: Word has it a warehouse in trendy East London has been booked for Will's birthday party soon.)

When the time comes for William to take up his public role, though, he will undoubtedly be ready. "I think he will make a fantastic king," his uncle Earl Spencer, whom he sees a couple of times a year, said recently. "He has some of his mother's magic with people." And the Queen, who by all accounts adores him, is an ever present role model. William gets on just as famously with his hard-to-please grandfather Prince Philip ("They share a love of hunting, shooting, fishing and polo," says a Palace source). By contrast, William's maternal grandmother, the reclusive Frances Shand Kydd, 64, sees him only rarely. Diana's friends consider it "one of the sadnesses...that he has a totally royal world now," says Richard Kay.

How William will fare in the wider world—or more to the point, in a country where just two weeks ago 58 percent of those polled said they believe that the royal family is out of touch with "the views and hopes of the nation"—is an open question. But with his loved ones and the world cheering him on, Diana's intensely private son is already growing more comfortable with the public role he must one day embrace. Touring Cardiff, Wales, with Charles and Harry in January, his most recent royal engagement, the prince with the Di-blue eyes and unassuming manner "spoke to people and listened and gave that slightly shy smile, which endeared him to everybody," says Welsh courtier Captain Norman Lloyd-Edwards, the royal trio's host. "He is obviously getting more assured as he gets older."

King George III, his 18th-century forebear, is reported to have had a prescription for royal success: "Be seen, be splendid." Prince William, ambivalence and all, appears poised to make a go of both.

Kim Hubbard
Simon Perry and Nina Biddle in London

  • Contributors:
  • Simon Perry,
  • Nina Biddle.