Queen Camilla? A Reluctant Celebrity

SHE IS THE SUBJECT OF TWO GOSSIPY BOOKS AND A DOCUMENTARY THAT reconstructs spicy highlights of her love life. She has had her risque phone conversation about "knickers" and "Tampax" reprinted worldwide. She's been pelted with bread by neighbors angry about her boyfriend. Camilla--like her rival, one of those women who are known by only one name--has become one of the world's most dissected people. So how come Camilla Parker Bowles is the only player in the royal soap opera who can keep her mouth shut?

When the going gets ugly--as it did last week--Diana calls her favorite Fleet Street reporters to plead her case. Charles, in addition to the 1994 TV interview where he admitted to cheating on his wife, has also been rumored to condone damaging leaks about his soon-to-be ex. But in this era of loose royal lips, Camilla, 48, has virtually stood alone in clinging to old-fashioned notions of propriety. Not once since Andrew Morton's 1992 book disclosed her relationship with the prince has Camilla spoken to the press. Whether her discretion will increase her chances of moving into Buckingham Palace remains to be seen. But it has already won respect from the current occupants. "The royal family have always adored her because she is the one person who has always maintained her dignity," says Caroline Graham, author of the prematurely titled "Camilla: The King's Mistress." "She has never said a word and she never will."

It can't be easy. From Diana's gibes (she called Camilla "the Rottweiler") to Blackwell's fashion insults ("the biggest bomb to hit Britain since the Blitz"), the urge to defend herself must be fierce. And last year, the publicity fallout landed smack on her family. First her son, Tom, 21, the frequent butt of jokes by his Oxford classmates, was arrested for drug possession. Then Andrew, her seemingly imperturbable husband of 21 years, divorced her and remarried. Di would sooner die than keep mum under such conditions.

But more than the Windsors themselves, Camilla understands the demands of royalty. Her mother was a blue-blood heiress whose ancestors amassed a fortune developing real estate. Her father, Maj. Bruce Shand, was an officer in a ritzy cavalry regiment. Her most celebrated ancestor, Alice Keppel, was mistress to King Edward VII. In fact, when Camilla was introduced to Charles in 1972, she reportedly said: "My great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were lovers. So how about it?" Months later, Charles is said to have proposed. Camilla said no. The fact that she wasn't a virgin would have been an obstacle in any event. But royal-watchers say Camilla didn't want to relinquish her privacy. Royals had to behave in a circumscribed way. Or at least they did before Charles and Diana.

Will Camilla jump at this second chance to be queen? Probably not: their marriage would raise thorny constitutional issues over Church of England decrees about divorce. And they can live a cozy life as is. Both love hunting and other country pursuits, like to paint landscapes and have the same (somewhat adolescent) sense of humor. Last year Camilla bought a $1.3 million 19th-century mansion just 16 miles from Charles's country home in Gloucestershire. Charles is reportedly advising on the refurbishing; Camilla is said to spend much of her time at his place, where she boards her horses. The half-royal couple reportedly summered together in Scotland, and last October they appeared together in public for the first time in years, at a London ball. She seems to be handling the latest round of tumult smoothly. "She seems to be enjoying life again," says Graham. "After all, she knows he'll always love her." That's something Diana couldn't say in 15 years of marriage.