Royal wedding aims to revive glamour days

By Catherine Field

Grace Kelly has been dead for nearly three decades, but her shadow still falls across Monaco - and this week, as her son marries, her ghostly pull will seem stronger than ever.

On the heels of Britain's royal wedding, where Diana was a constant memory, the three-day celebrations on the Cote d'Azur will be haunted by the legacy of the Oscar-winning beauty who in a bizarre similarity to the Princess of Wales also died in a car accident.

It was Grace's marriage in 1956 to Prince Rainier III, with Alfred Hitchcock, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant and other Hollywood grandees in attendance, that marked the tiny principality's transformation.

A sleepy enclave for the tax-shy - "a sunny place for shady people" - became a playground for the rich and famous.

At the age of 53, in an exchange of civil vows tomorrow and a Catholic mass on Saturday, Albert will formally bid farewell to his playboy past and seal his union with swimming champion Charlene Wittstock, a fellow sports nut 20 years his junior.

Weddings are usually seized upon because they point forward to the future. But in a telling indicator of Monaco's celebrity status these days, gossip magazines are dwelling more on the past, disinterring pictures of "the wedding of the century" 55 years ago and comparing Wittstock to her illustrious forerunner.

Yet even Wittstock's blonde hair, blue eyes and killer cheekbones will not be enough to fix Monaco's glamour deficit.

The deaths of Grace in 1982 and Rainier in 2005 turned the spotlight on their three children, their string of failed relationships and scatterings of children by various lovers.

Albert's prolonged reluctance to marry stirred rumours about his sexual orientation, which were laid to rest when he acknowledged that he had sired two children, one with a former waitress and another with a former air hostess. Neither child is entitled to succession as they were born out of wedlock.

But today the soap opera of the Grimaldis, a dynasty in power since the 13th century, no longer enthrals the readers of Paris Match, Closer and Hello magazines with the same intensity of half a dozen years ago.

The loss of Grace and Rainier is only one reason. An arguably greater threat to the principality is its reputation for greyness, thanks to a frenzied devotion to construction and banking.

With the exception of the Rock, the promontory on which Monaco's old town lies, high-rise office and apartment blocks have mushroomed across its two square kilometres. The Italianate villas and lemon trees that gave Monaco its Mediterranean charm have been erased, supplanted by Luxembourg-sur-Mer.

Its 36,000 inhabitants, two-thirds of them foreign tax exiles or French service workers, have the world's highest GDP per capita income - US$186,175 (NZ$229,256) per head, according to World Bank ratings for 2009 - and more Mercedes, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches per metre of road than any other location.

Instead of eccentric English aristocrats and the Hollywood A list, the exiles in Monaco these days tend to be anonymous bankers or Russian oligarchs and their mistresses.

"Celebrities aren't the reality of Monaco today," a local official admitted.

"Michael Schumacher's gone, Boris Becker's gone. The new resident nowadays is typically a businessman who takes his family and business along with him."

Even the high rollers are less numerous in its famous James Bond casino. The Societe des Bains de Mer (SBM), which runs the monopoly on gambling, announced annual losses last month of €17.3 million (NZ$30.6 million).

But Monaco is doing what it can, in a slick marketing and sponsorship operation, to place the wedding on the world's stage.

Its target is 200,000 visitors, the same as for the Grand Prix. Extra trains have been scheduled, giant screens installed in public squares and the shops are stocked with souvenir mugs, key rings and plates and commemorative stamps.

The streets are bedecked in the red-and-white banner of the House of Grimaldi and the rainbow colours of Zimbabwean-born Wittstock's adopted country, South Africa.

Tomorrow, 1970s rockers The Eagles will stage a concert followed by French electro pop pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre on Saturday.

Later, 900 people will watch Monsignor Bernard Barsi, Archbishop of Monaco, celebrate mass in the palace courtyard, among them fashion guru Karl Lagerfeld, supermodel Naomi Campbell, racing boss Jean Todt and Jacques Rogge of the International Olympic Committee.

Heads of state will include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, presidents Michel Sleimane of Lebanon and Mary McAleese of Ireland, King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden and King Albert II of the Belgians.

Britain will be represented by Prince Edward and his wife Sophie.

After the ceremony the new royal couple will tour the microstate in a custom-made open-topped Lexus hybrid and head to the casino to join their guests for a dinner, followed by a four-tonne fireworks display and dancing - naturally - until dawn.

THE HAPPY COUPLE

CHARLENE WITTSTOCK, 33

* Born in Zimbabwe but grew up in South Africa.
* The daughter of a salesman father and a swim coach mother.
* Is a former teacher.
* Was a national swimming champion in South Africa and was a member of the nation's 4100m women's medley team which finished fifth at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
* Has taken French lessons and converted to Catholicism but has reportedly found it hard to be accepted in Monaco, saying she encountered "jealousy" from Monaco's elite, who "didn't relate to my South African mentality or humour". She also said in an interview: "I only have two people I consider friends here."

PRINCE ALBERT, 53

* Acceded to Monaco's throne in 2005 after the death of his father, Prince Rainier III.
* In the past was romantically linked to Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Gwyneth Paltrow.
* Has two children, neither of whom are in line to the throne because they were born out of wedlock.
* Mother was the American film star Grace Kelly.
* Met Wittstock in 2000, when she travelled to Monaco for a swimming competition.
* They have been seen together since February 10, 2006, at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

- NZ Herald

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