WHEN ATHINA ROUSSEL TURNED 3, her mother, Christina Onassis, celebrated the occasion with typical excess. A flock of children were summoned to tea at Christina's opulent chalet in Saint-Moritz, Switzerland, where the salon held an Alpine-size stack of gifts. While guests dived into costumes and face paint, the doting Christina (who died 10 months later at 37) helped the toddler cut two enormous cakes—one adorned with a miniature Saint-Moritz, the other bedecked with sugar animals.
Times have changed. On Jan. 29, Athina celebrated her 10th birthday not as a Greek princess but as a simple Swiss schoolgirl. The day was marked quietly en famille with her father, Thierry Roussel, 42, her stepmother, Gaby, 43 (the Swedish model Roussel wed in 1990), and her half siblings, Erik, 9, Sandrine, 7, and Johanna, 3, at their bungalow outside Lausanne. Determined to keep Athina, who will receive an estimated $5 billion when she turns 18, from inheriting her mother's chronic unhappiness along with her money, Christina's fourth husband is steering his daughter away from the hothouse life of an heiress. "I [want] to make her understand that real wealth is wealth of the heart," he has said.
Not that Roussel is indifferent to worldly goods: Since 1992, he has been battling the Onassis Foundation for control of Athina's fortune. Roussel contends he has the right to manage her assets, while the trustees—who filed a countersuit last year—complain he has spent part of her $3 million yearly allowance on family holidays. Although the suits are still pending, a friend hints that Roussel—whose bequest from Christina is $1.42 million a year—may be nearing a truce.
Athina, meanwhile, has been growing into a sweet-natured, sensible child. "She's reflective," says a family friend, "and she expresses herself very well." Mad for horses, she feeds and grooms her mare Donna and is expected to help around the house. Already fluent in Swedish, English and French, she is learning Greek from a private tutor.
Each weekday, Athina takes the bus to the village school, always in the company of two British bodyguards. Although hardly a materialist (she reportedly traded her $1,500 Rolex for a friend's Swatch), she has taken an interest in modish clothes: At Christmas, she asked for bell-bottoms, and her favorite present was makeup.
When not in Switzerland, the Roussels divide their time between a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza, Christina's chalet and Thierry's French country estate, where he sometimes hosts underprivileged children. After a group of 70 decamped last summer, Athina admitted that she was "a bit sad. It was nice," she said. "Kids were everywhere."
By all accounts, Athina knows that she is a phenomenon of sorts. Paparazzi stalked her in London at the June 26 wedding of a cousin, and photographers were waiting when the family arrived in Greece last September for a "secret" visit. On the Onassis-owned island of Skorpios, she cavorted in the surf and picked flowers for Christina's tomb. But while staffers were trying to scope out their boss-to-be, the visit (her first since her christening) didn't seem to alter her vision of the future. While the world may think of her as an heiress, Athina is planning on a real career: When she grows up, she says, she will be an acrobat.
CATHY NOLAN in Paris, ELLEN WALLACE in Switzerland and LYDIA DENWORTH in London
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