Helga Wagner Sells 'She Shells' and Shushes Talk That She's Teddy's or Prince Charles' Blond Bombshell

updated 09/08/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Helga Wagner likes to stir attention, but only if it's the right kind, she professes. She "loved" seeing a row of Stetsons turn toward her when she strolled into a Houston honky-tonk called Cowboy recently. She welcomes admiring glances for her seashell jewelry designs, which adorn the necks of, among many others, Farrah Fawcett, Princess Caroline and Jackie Onassis. But reports that Helga and Sen. Ted Kennedy were once more than friends, or that Britain's Prince Charles is her latest admirer, are not so welcome.

"It's all rumors and speculation," she huffs. "I am not a femme fatale, I work 16 hours a day. I am a serious designer and manufacturer." As for the prince, the Austrian-born Floridian says, "I grew up knowing royalty, and knowing not to discuss them." But clearly Charles was enchanted last April in Palm Beach when he ordered place cards changed so Helga could be on his arm at dinner. After they attended the next day's polo match together, he invited her to join him in Eleuthera. Helga demurred, claiming a business commitment in Ecuador. Charles still calls, however. Confides a knowledgeable Londoner: "The prince has always been attracted to tall, slim, blond, athletic women. And certainly Helga fits the bill exquisitely. She's a veritable female 007."

Wagner's friendship with Senator Kennedy is of longer standing. She was the first person he called the morning after the accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969. "That was so long ago," she sighs, explaining that Kennedy simply wanted the telephone number of his brother-in-law Stephen Smith, who was vacationing en famille in Spain and had originally asked Helga to join them. "Why are people still so interested?" Besides, Helga calls herself a friend of "all the Kennedys" and a special fan of Rose. "Despite the tragedy she's known, she never gives up," Wagner attests. "She is a winner, and I'm attracted to winners."

Helga Rose Mayerhofer, now in her upper 30s, developed her competitive spirit skiing and horseback riding in the Tyrol. Her wealthy Viennese father was, she recalls, "very strict and old-fashioned," but her Florentine mother was "adventurous. She encouraged us to have goals and never fear anything." At 19 Helga studied painting in Paris, and later in New York, but found herself "always doodling—I was more into design."

She shelved her aspirations when she married U.S. shipping and export heir Robert Wagner and hopscotched across 12 countries with him in six years. "I felt trapped in a golden cage," she remembers. "I wanted children, but my husband kept saying 'next year.' I took up drawing and photography but never completed anything. I had no confidence." Finally, she claims, Wagner refused to give her children or a divorce, and she "left without taking a penny." The marriage, she says, was annulled in 1974.

Helga pulled herself together in New York with the aid of Scientology. Then, captivated by native seashell jewelry she saw six years ago in the Far East, Helga began making her own shell chokers and earrings as Christmas gifts. Venturing into business, she took a loan, set up a factory in Miami and spent "night after night stringing coral beads, hoping they would be sold in time to pay the light bill." Rebuffed at first, she persisted and eventually placed a $3,000 collection in Britain's chichi Parrots. Her factory now ships as much as that daily to 1,500 outlets as far away as Saint-Tropez. Says socialite client Rita Lachman: "Wearing expensive jewelry requires a bodyguard and is foolish today. Helga's jewelry is as beautiful and chic as the best of Van Cleef & Arpels'."

Twice a day, Helga dips in the swimming pool of her rented Key Biscayne house, where the floors are spread with leopard and zebra rugs. An adept helicopter pilot, Helga enjoys buzzing the Everglades "to wake up the alligators." One of the few international sex symbols Helga does not know but would like to, she says, is John Travolta. "It's because he flies his own plane," she adds, "not because he's a Scientologist"—or to boost her jewelry sales. "I will not," says Wagner, "capitalize on friendships."

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