"Is This The One?," a British headline blared on a clear September morning 17 years ago above a picture of a diffident kindergarten teacher named Lady Diana Spencer. The blue-blooded 19-year-old was being courted by Prince Charles, the then 32-year-old heir to the British throne. Five months later, the pair announced their engagement, inciting a media maelstrom that would, quite literally, haunt them for years to come.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed. But heavier still are the heads of young, unmarried royals, the freshest of meat for the perennially ravenous international paparazzi. Rich and privileged, they are real-life fairy tale characters whose pedigree crowns them the world's most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. And dating one -- no small feat, given their highly protected status -- is a recipe for instant celebrity.
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Such was the case for Kate Middleton, the college sweetheart of Princess Diana's dashing first-born son William. In March the international press devoured the scuttlebutt that William, second in line to the throne, would pop the question to Middleton, a chestnut-haired commoner with a thousand-watt smile.
A month later came breathless reports that the pair had split after three years of dating. (That inspired the requisite post-mortems analyzing what went wrong.) Then in August the pair were said to be vacationing together in a remote island in the Seychelles--dubbed "Love Island" by British tabloid The Sun, one of the scores of media outlets that feasted upon the news. (The Sun also ran a retouched photo of the iconic surfside embrace between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster the 1953 romance From Here to Eternity, subbing Kate's and Will's heads with the lead actors.)
All the while, British bookies placed odds on a royal marriage. Woolworths commissioned William and Kate memorabilia in anticipation of an engagement. And a slew of Middleton-inspired fan sites cropped up on the Web. (There's even a fake MySpace page devoted to her. Regarding the split, the ersatz and grammatically challenged Middleton writes, "I am very upset about this, but we will remain friends, so that is good.")
Matches among the monarchs are regular tabloid fare in Europe, thanks to its bounty of royal families. (At least 50 royal lines dot Europe.) Long gone are the days when royals dated only those of similar status.
Prince William's cousin Beatrice, the daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, is said to be dating American Dave Clark, a young employee of Sir Richard Branson's space tourism venture Virgin Galactic. (The pair were purportedly set up by her cousin Prince William.) Daniel Westling, said to be the longtime beau of Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria, owns a chain of gyms.
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Periodically making headlines stateside is the House of Grimaldi, more familiar to Americans as the royal family of Monaco. Following the death of Prince Rainier III two years ago, Monaco is now ruled by Prince Albert, the only son of Rainier and Grace Kelly. Unmarried, Albert, 49, remains one of Europe's most eligible bachelors, presiding over a family fortune estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.2 billion. Over the years he has been linked with supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, Brooke Shields and Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock.
Now his good-looking niece and nephews are commanding their share of the limelight. Charlotte Casiraghi, the 21-year-old daughter of Princess Caroline, reportedly compared to Brigitte Bardot by Chanel paterfamilias Karl Lagerfeld, was recently linked with a British real estate scion. Her older brother Andrea is reportedly dating Tatiana Santo Domingo, daughter of Colombian beer billionaire Julio Mario Santo Domingo, whose net worth Forbes pegged at $5.7 billion in March.