MONTE CARLO, Monaco — At first glance, the splashy photos and gushing coverage of the glamorous wedding in this famously sunny place for shady people made sense. Princess Caroline’s handsome son Pierre Casiraghi wed Beatrice Borromeo, from one of Italy’s most distinguished and connected families, in a civil ceremony on Saturday that will help continue the line of Monegasque royalty dating back more than 700 years and Hollywood royalty dating back to Grace Kelly, Pierre’s late grandmother.
Beatrice arrived at the pink palace high above the Ligurian Sea in a vintage white Bentley, wearing a pale pink and gold lace chiffon dress by Valentino, and married Pierre, who is seventh in succession to the Monegasque throne. The ceremony was followed by a celebration in the palace gardens attended by about 70 family and friends.
Then, hours after the ceremony, Monaco’s ruler (Kelly’s son) Prince Albert and his wife Princess Charlene were photographed dancing together at the famous Sporting Club while, according to Hello! magazine, “sharing a look of love.” The Daily Mail called Charlene, in a scarlet jumpsuit, the “belle of the ball.”
But for savvy and cynical Monaco-watchers, there’s something fishy about these scenes. For starters, talk about a media makeover! Albert and the former champion South African swimmer Charlene Wittstock, who met in 2001 after a competition in Monaco, have long been the reigning wallflowers among European royals. Their 2011 wedding was notable only for the scandal surrounding Charlene's rumored attempt to escape the principality just days before the marriage took place (she and Albert denied the reports) and for her somber, almost tearful expression during the actual wedding. (Two Monaco residents close to the palace told The Daily Beast that the stories about Charlene's effort to escape before the wedding were true and several respected French media outlets have stood by their original reporting. Others, however, insist that the story was made up.)
But the media blitz surrounding these “serene highnesses” has been coming on strong for several months now in a series of fawning articles detailing the hitherto un-glimpsed and unheard-of marital bliss enjoyed by the couple.
The breathless chronicling of the Casiraghi-Borromeo extravaganza by tabloids that had up until very recently given the couple only the most perfunctory attention has dovetailed with the surprise emergence of Prince Albert and his wife Princess Charlene—along with their baby twins Jacques and Gabriella—on the international stage.
Recently Albert and Charlene have given major interviews to big magazines like People and Paris Match detailing what they say is their blissful marriage and contented parenthood. To read them is to risk a sugar shock.
"The happiest moments of the last 10 years would of course be the wedding with Charlene, then the birth of the twins," Albert told People.
"He's an excellent father," Charlene told Paris Match. "Family life is very important to him. It's always touching to see him talking to our children. Sometimes I catch him speaking to Jacques or Gabriella mid-conversation, and he's holding them in his arms with such tenderness."
In recent weeks, Charlene has been described as “every inch the royal style icon” as she handed out prizes at Monaco’s Grand Prix and even was seen teaching kids to swim off nearby Corsica. It’s the most press the Grimaldis have given—or gotten—since the family's most recent heyday in the 1980s when the misadventures of bad-girl princesses Caroline and Stephanie, the Monegasque forerunners of the Kardashian sisters, filled U.S. and European tabloids.
Is the ruling family of the world’s most famous postage-stamp-size principality making a deliberate comeback? Could the Kardashians be the inspiration? Probably the truth lies closer to home. One need look no further than Britain’s mega-popular royals as the reason why.
“Blame Kate Middleton,” says a Brazilian-American socialite who has lived in Monaco for more than two decades. “They saw how beloved she and William and their kids are and they wanted some of the action. They were under pressure from people in Monaco as well. The two couples got married at the same time but nothing was happening with Albert and Charlene while Kate was taking over the world.”
The oddest twist in what appears to be Monaco's heavy new PR push involves one of Prince Albert’s two illegitimate children, Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, 23, who grew up near Palm Springs and Orange County, California. Jazmin was featured in a glowing spread in Harper’s Bazaar this month in photos designed to be reminiscent of her grandmother, Grace Kelly. She spoke to an interviewer over the phone from the princely palace in Monaco, talking about her “great relationship” with her father.
Conveniently left out of the upbeat Harper’s Bazaar feature was Jazmin’s rather grim back story. Her mother, Tamara Rotolo, a former waitress who met Albert during a three-week vacation on the French Riviera in 1991, found herself shut out of Albert’s life after she gave birth to Jazmin. Rotolo was so desperate for Albert to acknowledge paternity that she confronted him at an appearance the prince made in Cody, Wyoming, in 1993, pushing through the crowd with baby Jazmin in her arms.
“Suddenly, out from under a rope holding back the crowd ran a tiny girl,” recalled People correspondent Vickie Bane, who was covering Albert’s appearance, recalled of the moment father met daughter. “Behind the girl was a tall, slender brunette who scooped up the baby before she reached the prince and announced, ‘Albert, this is your daughter.’ I watched the prince's face turn bright red. The smile froze on his face, and he turned away without saying a word to Tamara or Jazmin. He never looked back.”
In 2006, however, Albert officially acknowledged paternity of the then-14-year-old Jazmin and another child, Alexandre Coste, now 11, the son of a flight attendant from Togo who lives with his mother in nearby Villefranche-sur-mer in a house the prince bought for them. He now has a relationship with both of his older children, although reportedly more with Jazmin than his son.
“We like to share family meals, have barbecues, go to the beach, everything a normal family does,” Jazmin told Harper’s Bazaar of her apparently now-thriving relationship with her father and Princess Charlene and her visits to Monaco. As for the past, “it’s just what it was,” she said.
The timing of the recent media blitz came after the birth of Albert and Charlene’s twins, Jacques and Gabriella, in December. It wasn’t until May 10, when the couple proudly showed off the 6-month-olds dressed in adorable Baby Dior after their christening at the Cathedral of Monaco. Charlene was flashing a rare smile. Since then, she appears to be working overtime to remake herself and her husband as a happier, more loving couple.
During the celebration marking Prince Albert’s 10 years on the throne this month, Princess Charlene spoke publicly in French for the first time, a language she has labored at with little success every since studying at the world-renowned Institut de Français in nearby Villefranche-sur-mer in 2008.
In a rather halting speech, Charlene referred to Albert’s forebears and then her husband himself: “Albert I was the Explorer, Rainier III was the Prince-Builder, and you are the Prince of Hearts, of my heart,” she said.
Albert told People this month that he himself had “underestimated” his wife. “She feels a little more comfortable with the media now, and to be quite honest she got there on her own,” the prince said. “She’s coming into her own. I think she’s found a good space.”
A Monaco businesswoman who has lived in the famously gossipy principality for years calls all the flattering recent stories about Albert and Charlene window dressing. “It’s not real and everyone knows it,” she says.
But Claudia Albuquerque, an American photographer who’s been based in Monaco and knows the couple, disagrees. “They get along wonderfully and they’re great parents,” Albuquerque told The Daily Beast. “Monaco’s a magical place and Albert has made it even more so. It’s so dynamic, it’s like a little New York City on the Riviera.”
Others say it’s hard to separate the business of Monaco from what really goes on with the Grimaldi family, who have ruled here for more than 700 years. Prince Albert, for example, is worth more than $2 billion, making him wealthier than Queen Elizabeth.
“Monaco is trying to re-brand itself and that’s why you’re seeing a lot of this new media coverage,” says Nice-based Elizabeth Chandler, who covered the south of France and Monaco for British media in the 1990s. “They want to seem hip and cool and young and appeal to American tourists and American celebrities, especially the younger ones. It’s gotten too stuffy and off the radar. They want to change that.”
Chandler, who has met the prince and knows some of the people around Charlene, says she believes a lot of the negative press surrounding the couple is partly because they are not as naturally media-savvy and charismatic as Prince William and Kate Middleton. Albert famously stuttered well into adulthood and Charlene often comes across fairly wooden and remote in interviews.
“Prince Albert is actually a great ruler of Monaco,” Chandler said. “He does loads of work for charities that a lot of people don’t even know about. He doesn’t brag about it like Brad and Angelina. He’s cleaned up Monaco by kicking out a lot of the criminals. My friends who know them say he and Charlene are a genuine couple who really care about each other.”