From poppie to princess

26 June 2011 - 03:41 By Claire Keeton

The Cinderella from Benoni had the natural drive and the discipline to win her prince - and ensure the slipper fits, says Claire Keeton

Charlene Wittstock has seldom put a foot wrong in her 10-year fairy tale from barefoot Olympic swimmer to enchanted princess in high-heeled slippers. Except when it came to wearing high heels. That took practice for the golden girl from Benoni.

But, like Cinderella minus any wicked relatives, the slipper now fits and she's found her prince charming. At 33, she is poised to follow in the footsteps of the late Hollywood star, Grace Kelly, when she marries Kelly's son, Prince Albert II of Monaco, at the Prince's Palace of Monaco next weekend.

Mining magnate Bridgette Radebe, who is close to her, says: "Charlene can bring her uniqueness and energy to follow on the legend of Princess Grace."

Wittstock's elegance, like another glamorous blonde from Benoni, Hollywood star Charlize Theron, already glitters from red carpets and the covers of glossy magazines such as Vogue.

Despite her metamorphosis, Wittstock - born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and raised in Benoni and Durban - remains passionate about her family, friends, Africa and her charities. Radebe says: "Charlene has never stopped being who she is. With Charlene, what you see is what you get." And what you get includes friendliness, fun, compassion and commitment.

During Radebe's visit last month, Wittstock's day was packed with official duties, so the friends only caught up in the early hours of the morning.

"By the time we finished, it was something to four and we had not eaten. We asked the chef to prepare a spicy, vegetarian pasta. Charlene is vegetarian and we asked for lots of garlic and chilli. She said: 'I'm a Durban girl.' We started chatting about South Africa, her passion - which is mentoring and the development of children in swimming - fashion and social responsibility.

"She always wants to know: 'Am I doing enough?' She wants to go the extra mile in her new role."

Wittstock will soon represent Monaco on the global stage. Yet she will still be an ambassador for South Africa. She sent Radebe, who is married to Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, an sms last week saying: "Oh, South African flags all over the country before the wedding. It's awesome."

Wittstock's patriotism is part of her family heritage. Her father, Mike, is a loyal, no-nonsense South African.

When Prince Albert II called her father last year to ask for her hand in marriage, she advised him to phone before South Africa played France in the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

"The next day I asked: 'When did you call?' and he said it was five minutes before kickoff. I asked what my father had said, and he replied: 'He said he had to get off the phone because the national anthem was coming on.' I said that I hope he got the message," Wittstock said in a recent TV interview.

A tall and imposing figure, her father says Wittstock grew up a fearless tomboy who often got into scrapes.

"Once she jumped off a tree onto a horse and broke her arm in three places. She was not scared of anything," her father says.

In her competition days, Wittstock joked that she got into swimming because the pool was the safest place for her. Ultimately, swimming dominated her youth. Her first crush was on a local freestyle champion, Peter Williams, whose picture she used to kiss good morning, she said in an interview in 1992.

Wittstock was a South African backstroke champion and represented the country at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 - and through a swimming meeting in Monaco that year, she met Prince Albert II.

Her former teammate, Penny Heyns, remembers Wittstock as a friendly, entertaining person "who knew somebody, without exception, wherever we were in the world".

"She has a lot more depth of character and is more perceptive than you see on the surface," says Heyns. "I can't think of any time I saw her grouchy, and she was an unselfish, considerate roommate."

An injury forced Wittstock out of competitive swimming in 2007, but she still trains with her coach, who has accompanied her to Monte Carlo.

He's not the only member of her close circle of family, friends and pets to move to the principality. Her mother Lynette, a gentle and supportive woman, and her brother, Gareth live in Monte Carlo. Her other brother, Sean and her father, escorting her remaining dogs, flew over for the wedding.

"She has her own puppy and between her and her mom they have about six dogs," says Radebe, describing her as very pro-animal. Wittstock is traumatised by the slaughter of rhino and she and Prince Albert II are promoting environmental awareness from Monaco.

Radebe says Wittstock is in her element at the family lodge in the mountains, near Marseilles, where she has time and space to herself to hike and unwind with her friends and family.

Wittstock's African heritage has permeated the royal palace and wedding programme.

She invited South African Idols winner Jason Hartman to perform at their wedding celebration, as well as local boy band the Romanz.

"I thought I would give input on the music," she said in the TV interview. "My wedding is just a little bit bigger than most but, ja, my nerves are alright for now."

When Radebe joined Wittstock's family for a dinner at the palace in honour of her conversion to Catholicism, she noticed that French music was no longer the sole genre. "We were sitting in these beautiful Japanese gardens after her christening ceremony, having dinner, and in the background was South African music: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Johnny Clegg, Miriam Makeba, and then comes the South African national anthem."

Wittstock's appreciation of contemporary African art shows in her beautiful apartment, says Radebe. "Lynette is an artist and Charlene is very creative, like her."

Wittstock enjoys local favourites such as Mrs Ball's chutney and rooibos tea, and asks for Zambuk, her father says.

Radebe says: "She is the most inexpensive person to please."

Terrence Bray from Durban is one of Wittstock's favourite designers, but for her wedding she'll be wearing a dress by Giorgio Armani. Radebe says Wittstock has an innate sense of style and understood what suited her sculpted body even before she met Armani. "She is not cluttered and knows how to carry herself."

Wittstock has such grace when she accompanies Prince Albert II on formal occasions that she looks as if she were born into royalty. But at her first major appearance with him, despite being briefed on the protocol, she found the attention overwhelming. Radebe says: "She phoned me the next day and said there were hundreds of people clapping when they walked in - and sounded quite upset."

Wittstock, like any celebrity on a world stage, has also had moments when her high-flying lifestyle trips her up. She once shared the royal box with the celebrated tenor Placido Domingo at the Grand Prix and did not realise who he was.

"She asked him: 'What do you do?' and when he told her he was a singer, she said she would love to meet the Three Tenors, unaware that he was one of them," says Radebe. "She does not mind not knowing everything and learning along the way."

Hartman describes Wittstock as a "very genuine person who is pretty down to earth and kind and caring".

The Monegasque people love her spirit of ubuntu and her fresh, natural energy. "Africa is a symbol of nature and sunshine and Charlene oozes naturalness and attracts a lot of people," says Radebe.

Her vitality could be channelled into her children, potential heirs to the throne. "You are on a journey with this person (after marriage) and you would like to have little people along the way, and potential Sharky supporters," Wittstock said in the TV interview.

"I would say I'm looking forward to it," she said, joking that she hoped her husband would support the Sharks, since he had become a staunch rugby fan.

"He is a sports fanatic himself. He has done triathlons, been to five Olympic games for bobsleigh and swims and runs."

Radebe feels the couple are lucky to have found each other. "They are so gelled together and so similar, with their interests intertwined."

The prince introduced Wittstock to Radebe and the two women connected from the moment they met.

"She is very open," says Radebe. If she arrives for a visit, Wittstock will exclaim "Bridg" and fling open her arms for an embrace.

Prince Albert's family have been very welcoming to Wittstock, making her feel part of the family, Radebe says.

She realises she will share her husband with the country and is ready for the role of first lady, adds Radebe, who thinks the royal union will benefit South Africa by enhancing the social, economic and political union of both countries.

Wittstock said in the TV interview: "I will have many duties here to fulfil and will have to dedicate my time to the Monegasque people. But I will not be forgetting South Africa."

Charities are a priority for her and Wittstock is excited at being chosen as the Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics. "I would put everything aside (for charity) and focus on that when I have time," she said.

After the wedding, Wittstock and Prince Albert II will take their first international trip together, to Durban. Perhaps she'll even get to go surfing, which is one of her favourite sports.

"Initially we'll go to the International Olympic Committee meeting and then relax with family and friends," she says.

"I will always come back to South Africa, at least once a year."

Your Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco, take a bow.

Family Affairs

The prince and princesses of Monaco - the children of the late Princess Grace (née Kelly) and Prince Rainier III - flouted royal protocol with unconventional relationships and scandalous antics.

The Grimaldi children became famous for their wild ways, romancing with Hollywood stars, flight attendants, racing drivers, bodyguards and elephant trainers.

But Prince Albert II, Princess Caroline of Hanover, and the youngest, Princess Stephanie, have long since abandoned their hedonistic days, and the prince's wedding to Charlene Wittstock next weekend symbolises a new era for the dynasty.

Wittstock, who has lived in the Mediterranean principality since 2006, will be its first crown princess since Kelly's death in 1982. In the past, the bachelor prince has been romantically linked to supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Angie Everhart, and actress Brooke Shields.

After Prince Albert II ascended the throne in 2005, he acknowledged fathering a son, Alexandre, and a daughter, Jazmin Grace, out of wedlock with different women. A former Air France stewardess from Togo is the mother of his son, aged seven, and a former waitress from California is the mother of his teenage daughter.

Prince Albert II and Wittstock are keen to have children, who would be legitimate heirs to the Grimaldi throne. Children born out of wedlock are not eligible for succession.

The father of the youngest child of the tattooed Princess Stephanie remains a mystery. Her two older children were born during her marriage to her bodyguard.

Stephanie, who was 17 when she survived the car crash that killed her mother in 1982, divorced the bodyguard. Her second marriage also ended in divorce.

Her older sister, Princess Caroline, endured tragedy when her second husband, the father of their three children, died in an accident in a speedboat race. She is now married to German Prince Ernst August of Hanover, but they are living apart after Princess Caroline and their daughter moved back to Monaco.

Despite the turbulence, family friends say their children have been well raised and that the next generation of Grimaldis will be a fine reflection on the family legacy. - Claire Keeton