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- July 01, 1996
- Vol. 46
- No. 1
William the Conqueror? At 14, the Heir to the Throne Is Charming, Cute and the Reluctant Idol of Thousands of British Schoolgirls
Just how much potential, though, not even Thornton could have predicted. Smash Hits' October issue, which included a pullout of a blue-blazered William, became one of its top sellers, and the May 1996 issue of the magazine, which contained I Love Willy stickers, sold 250,000 copies. Seizing on the frenzy, one tabloid, The Sun, declared the prince a "smasher" (a seriously adorable guy). Not to be outdone, another teen mag, Live & Kicking, ran the "Top 10 reasons why Prince Wills is cool!" They included: (No. 3) He knows how to par tee! (No. 6) He wears trainers [sneakers] instead of sensible shoes! (No. 7) He's not scared of going on scary theme park rides! "Our readers have latched onto the fact that he's the same age as they are and has the same interests," says Live & Kicking editor Jeremy Mark. "This is the first time a member of the royal family has been popular with teenagers. They see him as a regular boy growing up in Britain."
For a young man (William turned 14 on June 21) whose fishbowl existence demands that every feat and foible be played out in public, that is a remarkable accomplishment. Even at Eton, where he has just completed his first year, attributes such as his natural athleticism, his solid if not stellar scholarship and his hormonal interest in Pamela Lee, have earned him the most sought-after honor: acceptance by his peers. "Kids are all very similar at that age," says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty. "He's undoubtedly just trying to blend in."
That's not to say being a royal doesn't add to his cachet. Says Mark: "A lot of our readers find the idea of being a princess exciting and glamorous." Indeed, when asked recently by a reporter who would want to be the next Windsor, a crowd of young girls at St. Saviour's Church of England School in London exclaimed in unison, "I would!" "As long as he buys everything," added Susana Vega, 11.
While less reserved boys might revel in the attention, Palace observers say that William has inherited his father's decorous sensibility when it comes to such matters. "He cringes at things like the Smash Hits poster," says Daily Mail correspondent Richard Kay, a confidant of Princess Diana's. "He doesn't enjoy public life."
The prince—almost as tall as his 5'10" mother—doesn't need to do much to drive some girls gaga. Last Valentine's Day, 54 cards from amorous fans were delivered to him at Eton, 53 more than he'd received last year (and that one was from Diana). At London's Hammersmith Palais nightclub last October, Willy-mania was in full swing when the future King arrived—with two Scotland Yard detectives in tow—for his first teenage dance, a lively affair complete with lip-locked couples and some boys the worse for wear. "Lots of girls introduced themselves to William," one witness told the Mail, "but I think he was shocked when they asked him such things as, 'Would you like to snog with me?' '
With friends helping fend off the more aggressive admirers, William spent the night dancing with his pals, waving his arms in the air to the music ("He is quite a good mover," one observer told the Evening Standard) and stopping only to indulge in a dousing of suds under the foam machine. Even if he wanted to party harder, William "knows better than anyone that the press is going to be watching," says Kay. By the next morning, The Sun had set up a hotline for girls to phone in juicy tidbits about the prince. After the dance, says Kay, "he told his mother, 'Lots of girls tried to kiss me but I didn't do anything because the cameras are everywhere.'"
Despite such scrutiny, William has managed to carve out a life not unlike that of other teenagers. A fan of video games, mountain bikes and, more recently, Charles's Range Rover—which he drives on visits to Balmoral—he dresses only in the hippest clothes, at least when he's with Diana: designer sneakers, Benetton threads and baseball caps. At Eton, though no posters are allowed inside his 10-foot by 7-foot room (the only one with a private bath and no nameplate on the door), he has put a pinup of Baywatch babe Lee in his locker. And though Diana occasionally invites luminaries William would like to meet for tea at Kensington Palace—in April it was Cindy Crawford—he recently got an autographed poster from the band Pulp the old-fashioned way: by writing them a fan letter.
Indeed, on one afternoon this past spring at Eton, the prince appeared cheerful, relaxed—and practically unrecognizable—as he walked with two chums (he had either given his detectives the slip, which he is known to do, or they were maintaining a discreet distance) down Eton's Keates Lane. "He loathes being chaperoned at every waking minute," journalist Rory Ross told Hello! "He's been heard to ask, 'Why do I have to be surrounded by policemen?' "
His school chums don't seem to mind. While parental indiscretions such as Diana's reported affair with rugby star Will Carling, a onetime hero of William's, don't go unnoticed by his classmates ("He definitely gets teased when there's an explosion," says a veteran journalist who covers the royals), the worst William has had to endure otherwise was a snowball pelting in March by other students that may or may not have been friendly, and last September, a fax sent to the school-most likely by older boys—of the infamous nude picture of Charles from his French vacation. "He is treated as just another boy," says royals author Brian Hoey. "But if he was to be picked on, he can stand up for himself. He's quite tough-minded." And if William—though not on any official school teams, he sculls and plays soccer and water polo-does end up needing to fight some battles, he has his allies. Nicholas Knatchbull, 15, a distant cousin of the prince's and a grandson of the late Lord Mount-batten, Charles's great-uncle and beloved mentor, keeps a watchful eye on William, while Eton officials have vowed to expel any pupil who talks to the press about the future monarch.
Still, the stresses caused by William's parents' ongoing divorce negotiations haven't been easy, especially now that the warring twosome keep him apprised of their every move. "I know for a fact that when Charles or Diana have any thought about the divorce, they run it by him," says a well-connected source. "They really want his input." Whether or not the weight of such responsibilities has affected his schoolwork, it is clear that the split has intruded on William's day-to-day activities. At Eton's traditional end-of-year celebrations in May, for example, a program of speeches on the Seven Deadly Sins was hastily abridged to six, with lust dropped so as to not offend the attending Waleses. "[It] caused a terrific row," one boy told the Mail. "I can't think that the subject of adultery would be embarrassing to either of them now."
Though William and his younger brother, Prince Harry, now 11 and in his fourth year at Ludgrove boarding school, refuse to take sides in the divorce, Seward says William was particularly upset by Diana's BBC interview last November. Indeed, when William needs to unburden himself, he now turns to Tiggy Legge-Bourke, 31, the personal assistant hired by Charles in 1993. In April, Legge-Bourke was spotted at Eton—much to Diana's displeasure—cheerfully romping with William and his Labrador puppy Widgeon, named after a type of wild duck. "Her influence is enormous," says Hoey. "He knows she would do anything in her power to make things easy for him." Still, despite Diana's insecurity, William is devoted to his mother. "He has a huge sense of responsibility for her," says a source close to the family. "I don't feel he's moving away from her at all."
Diana's influence over her sons remains considerable. Yet in the end, William is bound by his birthright. As a future king (some speculate that Charles might be passed over, for example, if he were to marry, though it's unlikely,), he is already being groomed by Buckingham Palace in small but significant ways, including being consulted by Charles's staff on such matters as scheduling photo shoots—this, despite an unconfirmed report in the Mirror last month that he told his parents he didn't want to ascend the throne. "Once the divorce is through, he'll come more under the influence of the Queen, and Diana will become more isolated," says Hoey. "The royal family will take over his life, but so gradually and insidiously he won't be aware of it."
Though formal training for his role as a future King will not start until he is 18, even now a sense of destiny is being instilled in him by the Queen. "She might show him a letter written by Henry VIII or a letter from Queen Victoria to Disraeli," says Hoey, "to give him a sense of what his role will be." Some say the Palace is taking an interest in his social life. Reportedly already having been on a handful of dates with sisters of friends, he can expect potential girlfriends to come under tight scrutiny. "He can go out with girls of his own choosing," says a Palace insider, "but they'll obviously be from a suitable background, because those are the only girls he'll be allowed to meet."
Less certain, though many have faith in him, is whether William will be able to restore the monarchy's luster. Given Charles's probable advanced age at the time of his succession, his son stands to inherit the throne at a younger age than his father will and to reign for decades. "The usual things they say about him are true," says Kay. "He's well-balanced, got his feet on the ground." They are traits that are proving useful already. "Within the last year, his sense of destiny has come upon him much more strongly," says one Palace insider. "He knows what's in store for him. It's tough, but he's coping with it."
ELLIN STEIN in London
- Ellin Stein.
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