Late one night in the summer of 1996, Sven Hoiby, a retired journalist living outside of Kristiansand, Norway, got a phone call from his daughter Mette-Marit. "I've just been taken home in a taxi," she breathlessly told her father, "by the crown prince."

Not quite as romantic as Cinderella's enchanted pumpkin, perhaps, but a shared cab ride seems just right for this modern, glass-slipper-shattering couple. Prince Haakon, 28, and Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, 27, announced last September, almost a year before their upcoming Aug. 25 wedding, that they were getting an apartment together. What's more, Hoiby is the single mother of a 4-year-old boy fathered by a man convicted of drug possession. All of which has raised a few eyebrows even in laid-back Norway, where unmarried cohabitation is common and almost half of all children are born out of wedlock. "The establishment felt she was not good enough for the prince—too nontraditional, too middle-class—and there were questions about her past," says Rune Saevik, a Norwegian reporter. "Everyone expected there would be a scandal, but it never happened."

And this crown prince, first in line to the throne upon the death of his father, King Harald V, 64, is used to bucking tradition. Haakon attended public schools and, unlike his father and grandfather before him, earned his degree not at Oxford but at the University of California at Berkeley. After graduation in 1999, the prince renewed his friendship with Hoiby, whom he had first met at a music festival on the night of that fateful taxi ride. The pair moved in overlapping social circles at the University of Oslo, where Haakon was studying law and Hoiby was taking courses in anthropology.

Today, the future princess is primarily a student of Norwegian Royalty 101. Her instructor: Queen Sonja, 64, mother of Haakon and his sister, Princess Märtha Louise, 29. Sonja was herself a commoner before marrying Harald in 1968, but though she has publicly supported Haakon's choice, some Palace insiders say she had initial doubts about the match. Hoiby "is not at all regal," complains one friend of the royal family. "She has no charisma, no makeup and very bad posture."

A $21,000 Manhattan shopping spree last winter helped Hoiby polish her look. But questions about her past have not been so easily quelled. The youngest of four children of Sven, 64, and Marit Tjessem, 63, a bank officer from whom he was divorced in 1984, she was a popular if unexceptional student. Like many Norwegian twentysomethings, she frequently partied at Oslo clubs where drugs were available. Hoiby has generally refused to address the whole issue of her background beyond telling reporters last December, "I just hope people will accept me for the person I am today."

Her fiancé—whose annual government funded salary of $150,000 will rise to as much as $653,000 only when he marries—has gone to bat for his betrothed against the critics. "People go through different stages, and that's how it is with my girlfriend," he told The New York Times in March. "We change with time."

Haakon, according to reports, is committed to helping rear (but not, he has said, to adopting) Hoiby's son Marius, the product of Hoiby's romance with Morten Borg, 33. Raised by upper-class parents in Oslo, Borg was convicted of cocaine possession in 1991. "Marius will be a full-fledged member of our family," Haakon told the Times—although he will have no title and will not be in line to the throne.

Meanwhile, friends of the fledgling royal, who is set to marry her prince in a gala wedding at Oslo Cathedral, say critics should just back off. "Did they expect the prince to find himself a 27-year-old virgin?" asks Ann-Christine Pedersen Ronningen, a high school classmate of Hoiby's. "She's a determined lady. I think she'll come into her own."

Michelle Tauber
Lee Wohlfert in Oslo and Melissa Schorr in Berkeley

  • Contributors:
  • Lee Wohlfert,
  • Melissa Schorr.