Invasion of the Harry Hunters

Taylor McKinley at Notting Hill Gate. Seamus Murphy / VII for Newsweek

As she squeezes through the crowds of inebriated young aristocrats at London's Mahiki nightclub, Courtney Fleming tries to stay focused. The men are enticing, the beach music is infectious, and the "treasure-chest cocktail" foisted upon her by well-bred clubgoers is plenty strong. But she has come tonight on a mission that brooks no distraction.

The objective: find, seduce, and eventually marry Prince Harry.

This is no schoolgirl whim. The California Anglophile spent days before this trip poring over British gossip blogs to identify the hottest royal hangouts. And when she packed, she made sure to include the black floral dress with the plunging neckline that was sure to catch her prince's eye. After all, she'd have plenty of competition.

Fleming is part of a small but resolute group of American "Harry hunters," aspiring princesses who are crossing the ocean in hopes of capturing the redheaded royal's heart (and the tiara that comes with it). Some rely on semesters abroad to lend an air of social normalcy to their excursions, while others simply count their pennies—or lean on their parents—to fund extended vacations in Britain. But the goal is always the same: to live happily ever after with a prince of the realm.

These days, their mission has taken on a distinct sense of urgency. Next month Harry's older brother, Prince William, will wed Kate Middleton—a commoner herself, the Harry hunters note optimistically. But even as these earnest, young crown chasers devour royal-wedding news, the nuptials are a source of serious anxiety. When it comes to available slots on the Windsor family tree, explains author Jerramy Fine, whose 2008 memoir recounts her own unsuccessful efforts to marry into the monarchy, "Harry is now their last chance."

This reality is not lost on Taylor McKinley, a sweet 21-year-old George Mason student who recently began a semester abroad at the University of Leicester (two hours outside London). McKinley takes her princess prep seriously. She reads magazines with names like Majesty and Royalty. She studies the historical monarchy. And in high school, she even abstained from dating, figuring she would "hold out for royalty." Now, she spends her weekends dragging classmates to Harry's favorite restaurants and waiting for fate to strike. Her parents are skeptical, but McKinley is confident she will one day find her prince. "I'm one of those people who only reads books with happy endings," she says.

McKinley's tactics are mild for a Harry hunter. Fleming, for example, has spent the past two summers attending duke-studded events like the Henley Royal Regatta, bluffing and flirting her way into the upper echelons of British society. With no accent to denote her breeding, Fleming—who works part-time as an actress in the States—seizes the opportunity to cast herself as a prince-friendly version of the archetypal California girl. "Sometimes the men are taken when they find out I'm from Los Angeles," she says. "But there's this stereotype that American girls are loud and obnoxious, so you have to find the right balance." To that end, she has mastered the art of civilized binge-drinking. It's necessary, she says, to be able to drink a bottle's worth of champagne and still engage in witty banter.

Of course, Harry hunting is not an exclusively American pursuit. London's Daily Mail frequently chronicles the exploits of young British socialites who spend weekends trolling the prince's favorite bars. (The Mail calls them "throne rangers.") But while Brits seem to approach the hunt like a frivolous game for the pretty and rich, their Yankee counterparts take it much more seriously, employing a classically American can-do zeal.

This hybrid of earnestness and audacity has become familiar to Britain's aristocratic set. Schuyler Evans, a pedigreed bachelor from London, says he can spot a Harry hunter a mile away. "You see them out and about at various places, especially the summer social scene," Evans says. "They're just so happy to be involved ... it's really funny." And while he and his friends may snicker, they're happy to keep the attractive young tourists company while they await Prince Charming. "Assuming she's cool and pretty, no one is averse," Evans says.

Fleming's endless mingling has yet to bear fruit. But now that she's infiltrated all the right social circles, she believes it's just a matter of time before she's face to face with her would-be husband. Besides, if Harry doesn't work out, her stated "plan B" is to marry a peer—and her hunt has yielded plenty of attractive options. One summer, Fleming says, she "went out with a titled man for a bit." But when pressed for details, she plays coy. A princess doesn't kiss and tell.