Thanks to a Curious 'Family Friend,' Princess Stephanie's in the Swim—and Daddy's in Deep Water

updated 09/30/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/30/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For a tiny principality on the cool, blue Mediterranean, Monaco has been stirring up a lot of hot water this season. True, Princess Caroline appeared to be mending her rebellious ways and assuming a more stately dress and manner befitting a first lady. But then her little sister, Princess Stephanie, began popping up topless in published photos, discoing past dawn and striking revealing, highly unregal poses as a swimsuit fashion model. Last spring her father, the Prince, laid down the law: Behave or else. To help in the Stephanie rehab, he called on an old friend of 31 years, yet another Princess, Ira von Furstenberg, to introduce his daughter to more refined people. And that's when things really threatened to get out of hand. Not only had Princess Ira once appeared in steamy movie scenes and in nude photos of her own, she has posed naked as recently as last year. When Prince Rainier, 62, dined with Princess von Furstenberg, 45, at a prestigious ball last month, Europe's jauntier newspapers resurrected her past vividly and began predicting they were going to get married.

From this disconcerting royal hodgepodge, Princess Stephanie, 20, has just emerged triumphant, like a prodigal daughter returned. Four weeks ago, Stephanie introduced her first designer line of swimsuits at a private showing in Monaco, with others doing the modeling, and scored a success with both fashion pros and her nervously watching family. As they sometimes say in royal circles, "Whew!"

One-piece bathing suits might seem to be the last things Stephanie would design, considering that she has seldom appeared in one when the paparazzi were around. Just last July they caught her topless again aboard the family yacht, Stales. Yet there was the petulant Princess, anxiously peeking through a tiny porthole backstage in the exclusive health spa California Terrace as models unveiled the sexy swimwear line from her design firm, Pool Position. "Okay, girls, let's go," commanded the Princess as her stringy models sashayed down a pool-side runway before 150 invited guests, including her entire family, designer Karl Lagerfeld, photographer Helmut Newton and members of the Paris fashion press. Stephanie had designed the suits with Alix de la Comble, 30, with whom she worked while apprenticing at Dior in Paris last year. "I've lived for over 20 years on the edge of the sea without ever managing to find shops with swimsuits that really pleased me," Stephanie explained.

In the audience, her brother, Prince Albert, gaped. At one point, when a barely clad model went by, a female friend fanned Albert with a program to cool him down. "I think he was clapping for the models as much as the swimsuits," says one witness. Then, as David Lee Roth's Just a Gigolo blared at the finale, Stephanie appeared briefly on the runway with the last model and then plunged into the pool with Alix.

When she came up, it was to loud applause. "A very good collection," said Lagerfeld, "just like the Princess wears in real life. It is sporty, very colorful, modern and chic." But the happiest person on hand had to be Prince Rainier, who hugged his daughter as she pulled herself from the pool.

The Prince has long been unhappy with his younger daughter's flamboyant life-style. Last year, living on her own, she changed boyfriends as often as she did skintight jeans and was continually in the gossip columns for her all-night partying. When she impetuously decided to take up modeling early this year, she did it without her father's permission. For Rainier the problems peaked in March when Stephanie was hospitalized for a week in Boulogne's Belvedere Clinic for exhaustion. It was just after her release that Rainier issued his ultimatum, instructing her to cancel her planned modeling trip to the U.S., where she could have earned up to $10,000 a day. He threatened to take away her passport if she disobeyed and went so far as to order her home.

It was there that Rainier, who has often sought advice on how to cope with his high-spirited daughter, discussed the problem with his old friend von Furstenberg. She had shown up at a spa where he had taken Stephanie. Ira insisted it was all coincidence: She was just there to shed a few pounds. In fact the two families have been close for years. There has even been speculation that Ira helped persuade Rainier to crack the whip, and at the least she offered to introduce Stephanie to better company.

Von Furstenberg knows something about that. She is frequently described as an "international jet set beauty" and "social butterfly." But those titles are not known to pay well, and she has become adept at other things too. A starlet in some 20 films of the '60s, her offscreen life has been flamboyant. At 15, she married Madrid-born playboy Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe-Langenburg; the marriage lasted five years. In 1961 she wed Brazilian millionaire Francisco ("Baby") Pignatari; they stayed together for three years. Since then she has been linked with various wealthy industrialists, but has remained single.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Rainier-von Furstenberg campaign had some results. Stephanie was reportedly happy to have the vivacious Ira's company, and after one party, says a friend of hers, "Stephanie was a bit surprised that she actually found a couple of the boys interesting."

If Rainier hoped to keep his eyes on her in Monaco, however, it didn't quite work. She regularly turned up as late as 5 a.m. at her reserved table in a chic nightspot called the Living Room. With a mostly male entourage, she sipped champagne and danced until daybreak. Stephanie's daytime beach shenanigans didn't always endear her to the locals either. As a prank, she recently stuffed a waiter's back pockets with ice cubes; he was not amused. Another time she was seen wrapped in a towel, chasing a male friend who had stolen her bikini top and was wearing it as earmuffs. "She doesn't seem much like a Princess," huffed one observer.

Finally there were her hours at the Beach Club with her latest beau. Rainier is said to be upset because the young man is a hired boatman who tows waterskiers and paragliders.

Meanwhile, Rainier and von Furstenberg continue to have their own public dates. Last month Ira turned up at the annual Red Cross Ball as Rainier's guest of honor. She was seated on his left, the spot once reserved for Princess Grace and, since her death three years ago, other members of the royal family. Moreover, Stephanie's dinner partner was Prince Hubertus de Hohenlohe, 26, Ira's youngest son. Again, Ira claimed coincidence: She was only in town for business, as a partner of an antique shop in Geneva. Many Monegasques are eager for their "sad and lonely" Prince to remarry but, says one of Ira's friends, "Why does she need Rainier? She already has everything she wants." Others believe Rainier will never remarry, and that in any case Caroline might be disturbed about sharing the first lady billing. She reportedly did not talk to Ira at the Red Cross gala.

Now Stephanie's fashion triumph, and the anticipation of her swimwear debut in Paris next week, have taken some of the heat off the Ira-Rainier speculation, an achievement for which her mentors are surely grateful. Cynics say she'll probably grow weary of her latest fashion passion; she tired of her job at Dior before the year was up, and modeling seemed a passing fancy. A top American photographer, who worked with her, reported, "Her heart was not in it. I found her difficult, impatient, bored and her attitude was very childish."

Others say the responsibilities of running a business are just what the Princess needs. "She seems to have found her place," says designer Jean Barthet. "She is very serious about her work." Adds another friend: "It is something her father can be proud of."

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