Prince Charming

He may be 6 feet 2 with eyes of blue and a future fortune estimated at more than a billion, but Prince William Arthur Philip Louis has had more than his share of bad heir days lately. First, there was the fuss over the big bash his granny, Queen Elizabeth II, is throwing at Windsor Castle this Wednesday, which also happens to be William's 18th birthday. Reasonable people might see a connection between the two events. But, as it turns out, William says he won't attend. The official excuse: he'll be holed up in his room at Eton (about a 10-minute walk away) studying for an exam the next day. So now the party will celebrate the birthdays this year of his great-grandmother the Queen Mum (100 on Aug. 4); his great-aunt Princess Margaret (70 on Aug. 21); his aunt Princess Anne (50 on Aug. 15), and his uncle Prince Andrew (40 in February). Which leaves gossips

wondering: could William's no-show be a big dis of his spectacularly dysfunctional extended family?

Then there was the embarrassing dust-up over 14 candid photos that Prince Charles's press office arranged for release last week as a way of stopping paparazzi from exploiting William's coming of age. Turns out someone (it's not clear who) forgot to secure copyrights to the images, leaving open the disturbing possibility that carefully selected shots of William at work and play could end up on mugs, tea towels and God-knows-what-else. It was all resolved in a very civilized manner, but Charles's press secretary resigned in the aftermath.

A few days later, the tabloid News of the World printed unauthorized (although harmless) pictures of William at Eton, breaking a deal the royal family struck with the press after Princess Diana's death that placed William and his brother, Harry, off-limits. To top it off, a poll released June 12 showed that support for the royal family has fallen to its lowest level in modern times. Even more ominous, another poll found that three out of four young people would rather live in a republic than a monarchy.

As a wise man once said, a crown is just a hat that lets the rain in. It's hard enough to turn 18 if you're a regular bloke trying to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. But imagine the burden on William's young shoulders. He has to save the beleaguered British monarchy. This is, after all, a family that, in the last century, ruled a good chunk of the world, giving birth to the amazing claim that the sun never sets on the British Empire. In fact, the sun did set, long be- fore William was born, and his grandmother has presided over a land of much diminished expectations for the sovereign. His father, Prince Charles, has spent much of his adult life in waiting; he won't become king until the queen dies, and she's a healthy 74. Given the long lifespan of the Windsor women, Charles's tenure could be brief. William is "really the great hope of the future," says Hugo Vickers, a royal historian. "He's got the heritage of his mother and his father. He could unite the two factions."

With a smile disarmingly like Diana's and his father's sense of duty, William has the makings of a thoroughly modern monarch. As befits a 21st-century prince, he's being introduced to his future subjects through the media, with the release of the birthday photos and an accompanying video and interview. Although he's still very young and no one knows what challenges he'll face, imagery clearly will have to be a top priority. The pictures tell the story of a young man equally at home on the rugby field or in front of a computer. He's a leader, but also one of the boys, and seems remarkably comfortable in his own skin. It's a very different image from the stiff and formal portraits of Elizabeth and Charles at the same age.

Royal watchers say the tug of war between the monarchy and the media dates back to a 1969 documentary that showed William's grandparents, Elizabeth and Philip, barbecuing with the kids. It was supposed to charm the nation, but the ultimate effect was somewhat different. "As soon as you put people unscripted on the screen, then you start relating to them as actual personalities," says historian Ben Pimlott, who has written a well-regarded biography of the queen. "That sort of debased the coinage. They became famous for being famous."

The magic seemed to come alive again briefly at Charles and Diana's 1981 fairy-tale wedding. But as Pimlott points out, "It was a ceremony about nothing watched by 3 billion people around the world." By that time, the monarchy was really nothing more than a draw for tourists, like Big Ben or Madame Tussaud's. And it was downhill from there. Throughout the '80s and early '90s, it seemed like there was a scandal du jour, from Diana's bulimia to Fergie's toe-sucking lover to Camilla and the royal divorce. Not only was the mystery gone, but a growing number of Britons began to wish the whole lot would just vanish into history.

Then came the fatal car accident in Paris, and the royals took another hit for staying hidden in Balmoral while the world mourned. In his eulogy, Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, criticized the family's isolation from the real world. But in the wake of that tragedy, the royals had a chance for a fresh start, and an image makeover, with William. The royals "cannot regain the mystique," says Penny Junor, author of several books about Charles. "What they can do is gain our respect." And how can William accomplish that? "By not putting a foot wrong," says Junor. "His behavior has to be exemplary."

Because he's been sheltered from publicity, William is very much an unknown quantity to most of his future subjects. And he seems to like it that way. At almost every photo op in the past few years, William has appeared at best shy and often deliberately distant. Photographers frequently complained that they would go through many rolls of film just to get a few frames in which William was actually smiling. It is a wariness that seems his birthright as the son of the most famous woman in the world. William is said to have hated the paparazzi who emerged from nowhere when he was out with his mother and, as he grew older, he reportedly avoided appearing in public with her. He preferred holidays with his father at Balmoral in Scotland, where the flashbulbs could be kept at bay by acres of royal land.

His five years at Eton were cocoonlike, with classmates facing potential expulsion if they talked to reporters about William. He lived in a dormitory led by a housemaster, Andrew Gailey, whom William says was "a tremendous support to me." People who know William say that relationship was especially important after Diana's death. The zone of privacy enabled William to have a remarkably normal life at the exclusive school (although normal means wearing a uniform to class of tailcoat and pin-striped trousers, and studying with the scions of some of the richest families in the world). Harry, 15, lives in the same dormitory, and the brothers are close.

William thrived on Eton's legendary playing fields, excelling at rugby, football, swimming and water polo. The birthday pictures show him participating in all these sports with some gusto, enjoying a rough-and-tumble life. But he was more than just a jock. William reportedly took his studies very seriously and earned a respectable number of A's at the academically demanding school. The birthday pictures also show him in a popular cooking class, preparing chicken paella with his classmates. (Hint to William: don't give up your day job.)

William's success at Eton is very different from his father's experiences as a teenager, and that has helped him develop leadership skills he'll need as king. Charles has said that he was miserable at Gordonstoun, his no-frills boarding school in Scotland, and was bullied by classmates. But if Charles was the kid everyone picked on, William at 18 appears to be the quintessential cool guy whom everyone wants to befriend--regardless of his royal status. He was elected to the Eton Society, or "Pop," as the school prefects are called. That entitled him to impose fines on younger boys who broke school rules. It also meant he got to wear a special uniform, including vests of his own design (he favored a Union Jack and polka-dot motifs).

In the official interview released with the birthday photos, William seemed wistful when he talked about his experiences at Eton and the ever more intense media attention he anticipates in the future. "I have particularly appreciated being left alone at Eton, which has allowed me to concentrate on my schoolwork and enjoy being with my friends without being followed by cameras," he says. "I hope I can enjoy the same freedom at university."

That doesn't seem likely. After Diana's death, nobody wanted to inflict more grief on the two suddenly motherless boys who walked silently behind the flower-decked coffin. Buckingham Palace and Fleet Street agreed that coverage of the young princes would be restricted to authorized photo ops. But many reporters think an 18-year-old is fair game--especially an 18-year-old who could be king. "There are certain things the public has a right to know," says Richard Kay, a respected royals correspondent for the Daily Mail. "We pay an awful lot of money for the upkeep of the family."

At a university, there's a lot more potential than there was at Eton for William to be exposed in a compromising position; girlfriends, parties, even his grades could all be tabloid fodder. Fear of publicity may be one reason William's first choice for university is reported to be Edinburgh in Scotland rather than Oxford or Cambridge, his father's alma mater. "I think William is attracted by the distance from London," says Kay. "It will deter all but the hardiest of paparazzi. They're very metropolitan. They need good restaurants, especially the French."

Although other universities have been mentioned as well, including East Anglia and St. Andrew's, many royal watchers are betting on Edinburgh because it's known for its history-of-art program, and William, who had an internship at a London art dealer in 1999, has said that's what he wants to study. He'll have plenty of time for classes because his father has decided that he won't have any royal duties, like opening hospitals or sponsoring charities. In fact, the only change in his official status is that he could be addressed as "Your Royal Highness." William won't actually know if he's been accepted until the results of his entrance exams are released in late August--although no one thinks a university would really turn down an heir to the throne over a mere trifle like an exam score.

Even if he's admitted, William says he won't start this fall. Instead, he'll take what the British call a "gap year," time off to see the world. That could give him a few more months of privacy if he chooses (as have other members of the family) to work on a ranch or farm in a remote part of Australia or Canada--perhaps to get to know the commonwealth he may one day preside over. In the birthday interview, he said he wanted to keep the details private until all the arrangements have been made.

Although he's very close to his father, William makes it clear that he's in charge of his own life--another marked contrast to Charles's situation at 18. Just before Charles's big birthday, his mother convened a dinner party at Buckingham Palace for her most trusted advisers--including Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The topic was Charles's future, and a committee formed that night ultimately decided he would enter Cambridge and then the military. The only voice not heard in this discussion was that of Charles. His life plan, at least for the next five or six years, was simply presented to him with no way out.

Flash-forward more than three decades to Charles's quarters in St. James's Palace. Earlier this spring, according to the Daily Mail's Richard Kay, Charles invited a select group to lunch. On the guest list: the Bishop of London, whom Charles has known since Cambridge; a former Tory Party chairman who is also a close friend, and William's housemaster, Andrew Gailey. The goal was to come up with some ideas for William's gap year. When William found out, according to Kay's account, he was furious because Charles had excluded the man William considers his most trusted adviser, a former captain in the Welsh Guards named Mark Dyer. (They met when he served as Charles's equerry; he's also an ex-boyfriend of Tiggy Legge-Bourke's, the woman Charles hired to look after the boys.)

It wasn't the first time William demonstrated his independent streak. Last July, he created a frenzy in his father's office when he invited some young women who were sitting next to him at a party to join a cruise on a yacht owned by Greek billionaire John Latsis. Normally invitations to royal social gatherings are issued many weeks in advance, so that details of protocol can be worked out. That didn't deter William. The guests included Davina Duckworth-Chad, 21, who became famous as the "Deb on the Web" when she appeared in a sexy dress on Country Life magazine's Web site.

The gossip columns reported that William lost his virginity on this cruise--although many royal watchers dismiss that rumor. No one knows for sure whether he's actually had a girlfriend. He does confess to a few vices, like smoking occasionally and drinking too much champagne on New Year's. Although some members of the rich crowd he hangs out with have admitted using drugs (including Camilla's son, Tom Parker Bowles), William seems too sensible and too well supervised to get into trouble. Nonetheless, Charles has reportedly told friends that he worries about his sometimes headstrong son.

William refused to discuss his personal life in the birthday interview: "I like to keep my private life private." He did deny rumors linking him to Britney Spears, who has been quoted as saying she exchanged e-mail with William. "There's been a lot of nonsense put out by PR firms," he says. "I don't like being exploited in this way, but as I get older, it's increasingly hard to prevent."

He is beginning to understand that his best hope for keeping these intrusions at bay is to slowly tame the beast that stalks him--the media. Despite his childhood mistrust of the flashbulbs, he's beginning to find his own way in the spotlight. This April, Nicholas Owen, a correspondent for the British television network ITN, was understandably startled when a royal aide approached him at Klosters, the chic Swiss ski resort favored by Charles and his sons. The aide wanted to know if William and Harry could watch as Owen and his editor looked over their tape of the most recent photo op of the royal family. "The two young men came over and stood alongside me standing behind the editor," Owen says. "They were kidding one another and nudging and joking over their skiing prowess." Both boys, but especially William, asked a lot of questions about the mechanics of editing. When he was finished, the editor asked the princes if there were any inaccuracies. "No, it was great," William replied. And then he politely thanked them for their time and took off down the slopes. On this day at least, even the cynical journalists were charmed. Score one for the prince.