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Her parents owned a corner dairy - now Claire Kelly is living the lifestyle of the rich and famous as the wife of a royal billionaire.

Nearly a decade ago, the Taranaki woman, now in her mid-30s, packed her bags for the bright lights of Paris and later married playboy Prince Jefri Bolkiah, a Brunei royal with a penchant for fast cars and flash houses.

The former model became his fifth wife - the 53-year-old has two others and has been divorced twice - and is happily married with two young children, living in a London mansion "the size of Eden Park".

But despite once being one of the wealthiest men in the world, Prince Jefri has told the Wall Street Journal he fears becoming homeless and forced into bankruptcy.

He's locked in a legal battle with his elder brother Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, over claims he funded his playboy lifestyle with $18 billion from his homeland's royal treasury.

Little has been revealed of his wife. Even Time and Forbes magazines failed at attempts to write a profile piece after the birth of the couple's first child.

"She has been kept very secret," said Wayne Tempero, one of Prince Jefri's New Zealand-based bodyguards.

"These people have got a lot of money and when they want things hidden, it's not a problem for them.

"Her children are now royal family. Everything is done to protect them."

But today the Herald on Sunday can reveal fresh information about Kelly's Kiwi beginnings.

Her parents ran the 4 Square franchise at the Moturoa Dairy in New Plymouth.

A pretty and popular pupil at New Plymouth Girls High in the late 1980s, Kelly showed talent in dance, music and drama.

A member of the senior debating team and a gifted performer in school productions, Kelly was a polished pianist who once shared the stage with virtuoso Richard Clayderman.

"She was an incredible piano player, an absolute genius," remembered Sarah O'Sullivan, a high school friend.

"I can see how a Prince would find that endearing."

That and her natural beauty.

With "amazing" blue eyes and dark hair, Kelly had plenty of fans at neighbouring New Plymouth Boys High.

"She had an incredible smile, she was a stunner. But Claire was a lovely girl too, not stuck up at all," remembered one.

After finishing school, she left New Plymouth to pursue double degrees in drama and music at the University of Auckland.

Her modelling career took off after she signed with 62Models in the early 1990s.

She quickly became the face of household products, appearing in magazine and television adverts and gracing the cover of She magazine.

A regular at the trendy Les Mills gym in downtown Auckland, Kelly moved to Paris on her OE and got a job chaperoning the Sultan of Brunei's wives.

One of the perks of hobnobbing with the rich and famous was to live in a royal palace on Champs Elysees.

That's how she met Prince Jefri, whom she married five years ago.

Schoolfriends contacted by the Herald on Sunday were "not at all surprised" Kelly married into royalty.

"Of all the people who we went to school with, she would be the one," said Karen Reiser.

"You could imagine her in that lifestyle. She was naturally beautiful and a really lovely person. Claire was always smiling and happy and treated everyone the same. Nothing fazed her."

Another schoolfriend, Angelique Bolger, the niece of former PM Jim, last saw Kelly in the lift of the Heritage Hotel in Auckland in January - on an advertisement for the hotel bar.

"Her story is phenomenal, but so is Claire," Bolger said from Australia yesterday. "If anyone was going to do it, it would be her. She's beautiful but a beautiful person too."

The Herald on Sunday traced Kelly's parents to Auckland's North Shore but they refused to comment on their daughter's rise to riches.

Since marrying the Prince and raising their children, she spends most of her time at luxurious homes in Paris or London, where armed guards patrol the perimeter of St John's Lodge in exclusive Regent's Park.

Prince Jefri cemented his playboy status with a massive spending spree during his time as Finance Minister of Brunei from 1986 to 1998.

He bought mansions around the world, 1700 luxury cars, 17 aircraft, hoards of jewellery and a fleet of yachts - including a 60m superyacht he called Tits.

The Sultan accused him of funding the spree using Brunei's money channelled through an investment agency into his Amedeo Development Corp, which went under in the 1998 Asian finance crash.

He dismissed Prince Jefri from his official position a decade ago and has since won a string of legal battles against him. In 2000, Prince Jefri agreed to settle misappropriation charges out of court to avoid criminal prosecution and agreed to hand over nearly all his wealth - although the Brunei Government agreed to set up a $200 million trust account.

Since then the Sultan's advisers have started legal proceedings to evict Prince Jefri and Kelly from their London home.