Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Out and About with Albert and Charlene

TSH Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene of Monaco went on a visit to the Kingdom of Norway and on Monday were in Kautokeino where they donned native clothes and took a reindeer sleigh ride through the pristine countryside. Later the Sovereign Prince presented a scholarship to students studying Russian and Mongolian reindeer herding. The Princely couple met with leaders from the University of the Arctic, the Finnish Sami Reinders’ Association, the NGO Finnish Sami Youth, the Youth Council of the Sami Parliamant of Finland, the Association of World Reindeer Herders and the Upper Secondary and National Reindeer Herding Scholl. Yesterday, Prince Albert II spoke at the 2012 World Indigenous Television Broadcasting Conference in Norway on the subject of "Arctic Change, Indigenous Youth and Future Opportunities".

Still keeping to the trend of activities involving ice, the Prince then dashed back to the south of France where he teamed up with TRH Princess Caroline and Princess Alexandra to take in the 2012 World Figure skating Championships.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Rose Ball 2012

It was not quite ‘all hands on deck’ this year at the Rose Ball. The Casiraghi boys were no-shows but TSH Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene, HRH Princess Caroline and Charlotte Casiraghi all cut fine figures at the Saturday bash which had the theme of “Swinging London - Swinging Rose”. Among the celebrities attending this year were English musician Miles Kane, Swedish model Victoria Silvstedt, Irish singer Imelda May (looking very pregnant), English musician Mark Ronson (lucky enough to get a seat next to Charlotte), TRH Prince Charles and Princess Camilla of Bourbon Two-Sicilies (as usual), Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, former Miss France Sylvie Tellier, Chinese model Luo Zilin, French choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot, Italian jewelry tycoon Alberto Repossi, Melanie de Massy representing the late Princess Antoinette’s branch of the Grimaldi family tree as usual and Russian actress Tatyana Dyagileva who would have looked absolutely fantastic if the party had been thrown with a 1920‘s rather than 1960‘s theme. Entertainment was provided by Pete Doherty with Imelda May and ’The Hype’ also taking the stage during the evening.
 HSH Prince Albert II arrived with Charlotte Casiraghi who wore ... a dress

 HRH Princess Caroline and HSH Princess Charlene arrived together

 The Grimaldi Group Photo of the evening, all looking very stylish. I have heard Princess Caroline is wearing a pair of Princess Grace's earrings and, as usual, Charlene seems alergic to jewelry.

 TRH Prince Charles and Princess Camilla of Bouron Two-Sicilies, a regular feature at these things. "What?! What Are You Saying?! I'm Sorry, I Can't Hear You Over That Dress!"

 Charlotte Casiraghi and Melanie de Massy hit the dance floor. Bust a move girls!

Melanie-Antoinette de Massy, representing

Some of the crew who made the evening possible

Princess Charlene, dancing with her man and having a look

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Princess Charlene Interview By the Sun Herald

What is it really like to be in the presence of royalty? John Elder spends a weekend with Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco.

When a bus drops a swarm of children at the front steps of the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, they are quietly sent around to the back entrance. Their chatter drops to a hush, and one little lad in outsize green-framed specs looks back nervously … perhaps as Lot’s wife did just before she turned into a pillar of salt. Standing in front of the main doors is a ferrety man with wrap-around sunglasses, a cheerless slit of a mouth and Terminator posture. He reeks of one thing: “Don’t even think about it.” Waiting off to the side are swimmer Sophie Edington and former Olympian Craig Jackson, a squad of diplomats, and a nuggety fellow named Lotfi Maktouf.

We’re all waiting for Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene of Monaco to arrive, but the mood isn’t entirely serene. I’m on the other side of the entrance, under strict instructions to keep my distance, hold my tongue and otherwise act “humbly”. I will get my interview with Her Serene Highness later in the day. For the moment though, I’m not to even say, “Hello, how are you doing?” because it hasn’t been scheduled. Maktouf, a businessman and royal confidant, begs me, “Don’t give me a hard time today … Earn your afternoon interview.” In his eagerness for everything to go smoothly, he is generating a weird kind of anxiety.

Meanwhile, I look at the security guard’s stone features and wonder if the princess herself might be similarly forbidding. Since her marriage to Prince Albert of Monaco in July last year, she’s been routinely dubbed “the runaway bride” because of reports that she got cold feet in the lead-up to the wedding, and was stopped by police at the airport while attempting to “flee the country” and return to her family in South Africa.

Maktouf has told me he was having lunch with Charlene “on the prince’s instructions” on the very day she was said to be hot-footing it elsewhere, but it’s a banned topic for discussion with the princess. And yet it seems to have clung to her public image. It’s a story from which she can make no easy escape, in part because she can come across as aloof and even charmless in television interviews, suggesting she’s very much on the defensive. In one interview, following a charity swim, she looks off to the side as she talks, doesn’t smile and her tone remains flat. In another, in a palace-like living room, she holds herself in a mild hunch as if physically hurt. She verges on a smile, but it could as easily be the ambivalent expression one presents to an intrusive stranger on a train.

Last December, however, a more ebullient and emotional princess was revealed when Charlene was the recipient of the Golden Heart award at the Ein Herz fur Kinder (A Heart for Children) ceremony in Berlin. The award was in recognition of her long commitment to teaching disadvantaged South African children to swim. Even so, in smiling footage and photographs from the ceremony, her eyes look startled, even pained. And so one question hangs over the princess, in a media-ruled world where princesses are eaten alive: “What’s she really like?”

This is what I’m thinking when a luxury Holden appears and there is Her Serene Highness on the back seat. She emerges with the beautiful and vulnerable gait of a giraffe, almost casual in a pale-pink pants suit (or is it that fashionable but tricky colour, “nude”?), with a blonde ponytail and the face of an excited schoolgirl who must remind herself to be a little solemn, as if she is in fact one of those children elected to present flowers to princesses.

She’s clearly excited to see Craig Jackson, a childhood hero and coach, and Sophie Edington, a competitor from her days on the international swimming circuit and, more importantly, a friend. Edington attended the wedding in Monaco and seems to be the most relaxed person present. There is, however, a moment of formality, when various members of the party bob their heads while shaking Charlene’s hand. I’ve been told that when I meet theprincess, I need to give a little bow. This has been stressing me out; I’ve never bowed to anyone before. I’d been hoping to get some instruction, but this head bobbing seems insufficiently deferential.

The party then wanders through the doors and into the pool area. A group of children are standing in two lines, shyly agog. Later, when I ask Charlene if little girls treat her like a rock star, she says: “I don’t know. Do they treat me like a rock star? For me …I don’t know myself any differently. I’ve always been surrounded by children during my swimming career. Giving them advice. I don’t feel any different among children.” Her Serene Highness was an Olympic swimmer, a Commonwealth Games medallist, and her visit to the aquatic centre is a nostalgic one: she took out a gold medal for backstroke in the 2002 World Cup here. In South Africa, as in Australia, sporting champions are a kind of royalty, anyway. Kids have always looked up to her.

When the children dive into the pool and perform a series of drills, Her Serene Highness stands close to the edge – not noticing or caring that the bottoms of her trousers are getting damp – her hands behind her back, chatting and at ease with her friends, but her eyes are often fixed on what the swimmers are doing. When they start kicking off the side and doing tumble turns over the lane rope, she cranes forward and seems to be making mental notes. Later she tells me, “I was learning something. I’m always looking at form and technique [for coaching] and I hadn’t seen that before. I think I’ll copy it.”

After the demonstration, and a brisk walking tour, the princess heads to the centre’s modest café, settles onto one of the plastic chairs and sips at a cappuccino while swapping stories with Jackson and Edington. When others are speaking, Charlene tends to rub at the cuticles of her thumbs with her fingertips – or at least she does when there’s a giant journalist sitting nearby noting down her every gesture. I have long thought how rotten it would be to have people constantly noting your every move and gesture, but here I am doing it. Is it any wonder if she freezes in the relentless glare of media curiosity? But here, in this cafe where little kids are running around with half-eaten sausage rolls in their hands, when Charlene speaks to her mates, she forgets who is watching and her hands paint wild pictures in the air.

Because she has such long, elegant arms, she takes up a lot of space with this gesticulation. Her face is equally expressive. Her eyes almost pop when she’s telling a yarn; her mouth draws wide with amazement at what she’s recounting. She is, in short, a live wire.

An hour later I talk to John Kelly by phone. John is Prince Albert’s cousin, and Grace Kelly’s nephew. Like Charlene, John Kelly was in Australia for the opening of the fabulous Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery. He told me about Grace at the annual Kelly family gatherings at their beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey. “I’d be hanging around as the youngster, and Grace would be sitting at the table playing cards and gossiping and laughing and telling stories. Just having a good time with her family.”

The more he talked, the more I thought about Charlene unselfconsciously hamming it up with her mates. I’d been asked by Lotfi Maktouf not to “push Charlene into a corner with comparisons between her and Princess Grace”, but I couldn’t help but think of the old notion that men end up marrying their mothers. The story goes that Grace was the family’s light and soul. When John visited his cousin in Monaco, he recalled the family playing exuberantly “in the rec room” as happy families do. After Princess Grace died in 1982, the rec room was closed down. Prince Albert told his cousin that Prince Rainier could no longer bear to go in there. The light had gone out. So perhaps there’s something restorative at play in Albert’s marriage to Charlene. For as John Kelly says: “She is just too lovely and a lot of fun. A really good gal. I just know that she and Albert have a great time together. They are fun to hang out with. She makes him laugh and have fun.”

He also mentions that Charlene, like Grace, is a person of great thoughtfulness and compassion. During the lead up to Charlene’s wedding, John’s sister Maura died. He says Charlene took the time to call and let him know she had commissioned a special rose for the palace garden in Maura’s name. “It was a wonderful gesture, very touching … that in the midst of getting ready for the wedding, she took the time to think of that and think of Albert’s cousin and include us in her thoughts. I just find her to be a pretty special person.”

I’d meant to go home and change into a good suit for the exclusive interview with Her Serene Highness. But the day had passed talking to Charlene’s friends and family and I realised I had run out of time and would have to attend the interview in a sports coat, chinos, a blue shirt and riding boots. I looked like an old farmer who’d come to town for the royal show. As I walked up the hill to the Grand Hyatt hotel, my shirt soaked through with sweat. I’d been told so many things not to ask the Princess - even about her love of South African ethnic poetry and contemporary art – that I was freaking out. Maktouf said he’d be sitting in on the conversation “and would be interrupting, making corrections … I will stop you from asking the wrong thing.” He said one thing that was crucial for me to understand was that Charlene was under permanent scrutiny, and that every word she says is “carefully weighed”. Meanwhile, I’d tried out various ways of bowing in front of a mirror – and looked like a goose.

As I walked into Charlene’s suite, she turned and threw out a warm and enchanting hand. For some reason, I clicked my heels together like a German count, dropped my head in salute, and in a voice better suited to a late-night telephone call said, “Your Serene Highness, hello.” She laughed easily at the fool that I was, and continued to laugh throughout the interview. And what did we talk about in those 15 minutes? Somehow it all came back to swimming.

She told stories of “stalking” the South African Olympic swimming team when she was 12, keen to watch their every move, lying on the bottom of the pool and looking up as they trained above. When on holidays, she says, people came up and asked if she’d teach their kids to swim. While not everybody can be a champion, she believes that “when you teach a child to swim, to help them further themselves, they then have the self-esteem to go even further”.

These days she loves ocean swimming. I suggested this must be more meditative than training for races. “Yes, I just love to get in and swim … When I retired [in 2007] it was a bit difficult because I was always contemplating whether I should come back or not. But watching all the times now, it’s like, ‘Whoa, I’m definitely not coming back.’ So now I can just swim for fun.”

I asked if the discipline of swim training had helped her adjust to a public life as an ambassadorial princess where there is always the demand to be on. “We do have a demanding schedule. When we do have to time to relax with friends, that’s great … but really, I’ve never known anything different. That’s just the way it is.”

The following day, Charlene and party drove to Bendigo, where she was opening the Grace Kelly exhibition. The word of her visit was kept so quiet that, outside the official party that included the Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and his wife, and dozens of schoolchildren waving flags, there was only a small scrum of regular folk who gathered over the hour beforehand to see what was happening. It was an almost nostalgically country setting, and a weirdly magical one in which Charlene appeared out of nowhere after the drumming pageant of Chinese dragons was done parading back and forth.

She emerged with her hair down and behind her ears. Her dress (she insisted on a local designer, in this case Johanna Johnson) featured jewel-like borders along the neckline, shoulders and waist. She paid no heed to the media gathering but stopped to pose for children with their digital cameras and phones, accepting flowers and cards and asking, “What’s your name?”

Her speech was a modest affair, paying tribute to Grace Kelly as an artist and style icon, and to Princess Grace as a mother. She started out with a sweet “g’day” and then struggled with nerves momentarily. I couldn’t help thinking of my question to her, as she relaxed in her hotel room the night before: did you dress up as a princess when you were a little girl?

“No. Never. I liked to dress up as Zorro.”

Facts about Charlene:

Born in Zimbabwe in 1978, Charlene Lynette Wittstock is the first of three children. Her swimming-coach mum sparked her interest in the sport at a young age.

Charlene and her family relocated to South Africa when she was 11.

By 15, she was a South African junior swimming champion.

At 22, Charlene was a member of the women’s 4 x 100m medley South African team, which finished fifth at the 2000 Olympics.

After fracturing her ankle, Charlene retired from competitive swimming aged 29.

At 33, Princess Charlene married Prince Albert II of Monaco. While the ceremony itself was small, more than 5000 Monégasques followed the proceedings from the palace square.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Honoring the Prince's Firemen

Yesterday, HSH Prince Albert II opened the new Centre de Secours de Fontvieille in that ward alongside the Court Chamberlain and Senior Commander of the Public Force of Monaco Colonel Luc Fringant. The Sovereign Prince then decorated eleven Monegasque firefighters with the Medal of Courage and Dedication for their service in the aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The Prince sent some of his expert forces to assist the victims of that disaster a year ago and it is very nice and appropriate that these brave individuals are being recognized. Accompanying the Prince was Monsieur Hugues Moret, French Ambassador to Monaco. The ceremony was held at the Fontvieille barracks. Finally, the Prince unveiled a special commemorate plaque for the occasion at the new Centre de Secours de Fontvieille.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

St Patrick's Day in Monaco

 The Princely Palace bathed in green light in honor of St Patrick's Day. Of course, any palace where Prince Albert lives is "green" all year round ;-).
HSH Prince Albert II with the Ambassador (and Ambassador's wife) from Ireland to France and Monaco.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Birthday and St Patrick’s Day Salute

On Wednesday HSH Prince Albert II celebrated his 54th birthday (hurrah!) and he spent the day doing what he does best -attending an environmentalist conference. Specifically it was the Territorial Governance of Water in the Mediterranean at the 6th Annual World Water Forum. The conference was held in collaboration with the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Blue Plan, Veolia Environment, the International Office for Water and Unitar and the Water Think Tank Méditerranée. Our Albie was in his element (so to speak).

Tomorrow the Sovereign Prince will be at the Chapelle de la Visitation for a special Irish harp concert, held under the auspices of the Princess Grace Irish Library, to mark St Patrick’s Day and pay tribute to the Irish heritage of the Prince, thanks to his mother, the iconic Irish-American Princess Grace. The Princely Palace will also be lit up in green lights for the occasion and the Ambassador of the Irish Republic to France and Monaco will be among the special guests for the events.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Josephine Baker and Princess Grace

One of the most seemingly unlikely friendships in the recent history of Monaco was that between Princess Grace and the African-American singer/dancer/actress Josephine Baker. One was from a well-to-do patrician family of New England while the other was a poor, Black orphan girl from St Louis, Missouri. Both became famous but whereas there was not a great deal of mixed feelings about Princess Grace (generally, to know her was to love her), Josephine Baker was a highly controversial figure due to her outspoken opinions on politics, her renunciation of her American citizenship and, most prominently, her active role in the civil rights movement. Although not controversial today, it certainly was at the time and this was one thing, besides the most basic background in “entertainment” that the two women had in common. Both were committed to the idea that to discriminate on the basis of race was absolutely abhorrent.

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 in east St Louis and was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas by two former slaves, Richard and Elvira McDonald who adopted her. Forced to work at a young age, she dropped out of school at 12 and lived on the streets, dancing for tips. Finally she won a place in a vaudeville show, moved on to New York and began working her way up the slippery show biz ladder. When Grace Kelly left home to become a model and ultimately an actress her parents, particularly her strict German-American mother, thought it was scandalous. She would have been absolutely mortified by some of the career turns of Josephine Baker who, in addition to the usual song and dance numbers, was not opposed to more “exotic” performances as well. In time she became a big star, appearing in several films, having a number of hit songs and won fame as the “Black Pearl”, the “Bronze Venus” and the “Creole Goddess” during her career.

Obviously, because the hardships she herself had endured, having been raised by former slaves and seeing the plight of those around her, Josephine Baker was an outspoken campaigner for civil rights for African-Americans and an avowed enemy of slavery and the slave-trade which, sadly, was still going on in parts of Africa at the time. Sometimes this got her into a great deal of trouble. For instance, when Italy invaded Ethiopia most Blacks in America rallied to the side of Emperor Haile Selassie, seeing the conflict in simple racial terms as a fight between Black Ethiopians and White Italians. Josephine Baker didn’t automatically see things that way. All that mattered to her was that slavery was still practiced in Ethiopia and it did not exist in Italy, so Josephine Baker voiced her support for Mussolini and offered to campaign to help raise troop of Black soldiers to fight alongside the Italians to “liberate” the slaves of Ethiopia. This was something, particularly after the onset of World War II, that many Americans would never forget or forgive her for but it is important to understand the reason behind what she said.

This was part of the reason for her decline in popularity in the United States just as she was becoming a huge celebrity across the pond in France. She came back to France in 1937 and married a Frenchman, renouncing her U.S. citizenship. Nonetheless she continued to support the civil rights movement in America. She adopted a number of mixed-race children, refused to perform before segregated audiences and later worked with the NAACP and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even speaking at his famous March on Washington. When World War II broke out she quickly offered her services to France as a spy, relating talk from German, Italian and Japanese officials at elite parties to the government. After the invasion of France she smuggled messages for the Free French forces and after the war was given the Cross of War and Legion of Honor by Charles DeGaulle for her efforts.

She met Grace Kelly for the first time in 1951 when she was refused service, because of her race, at Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club in Manhattan. Grace witnessed this and was instantly outraged, rushing over to support Josephine before storming out of the club with her entire party. Grace vowed never to give her business to the establishment again and she didn’t. From that time on Grace and Josephine Baker always remained good friends. Later, when some bad financial decisions left her nearly destitute her friend, by that time HSH Princess Grace of Monaco, offered Josephine a villa and financial assistance to help her get back on her feet. Josephine later performed in Monaco at the invitation of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier. She continued her work for civil rights in America and was even offered the leadership of the movement after the assassination of Dr. King but could not accept because of her commitment to her many adopted children.

Josephine’s final performance in Paris, a celebration of her long career, was financed by Prince Rainier III, Princess Grace and Jackie Onassis. It was a great success but only a few days later she collapsed and went into a coma. Josephine Baker died at the age of 68 on April 12, 1975. She was given full French military honors at her funeral in Paris and was buried at the Cimitière de Monaco in Monte Carlo, mourned by her friend Princess Grace, a co-combatant in the struggle against racial bigotry.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Princess Charlene Down Under

HSH Princess Charlene of Monaco is doing it on her own this week. The Princess consort arrived in Bendigo, Victoria in the Commonwealth of Australia on Saturday where she opened the exhibit "Grace Kelly: Style Icon" at the Bendigo Art Gallery. This tribute to her predecessor and late mother-in-law has been making its way around the world for some time now, introducing Princess Grace to a new generation that never knew the great lady. Crowds of children greeted the princess waving Monegasque and Australian flags as she arrived at the museum and Princess Charlene was all warmth and friendliness, greeting almost every child in line, exchanging smiles, thanks and a 'high five' here and there. Princess Charlene really seems to have gotten into the 'groove' of the Monegasque Princely Family; stylish and dignified, approachable and down-to-earth at the same time.

Inside at the opening Princess Charlene made some short remarks, doing things the Aussie way by greeting those assembled with a cheerful "G'Day". Princess Charlene spoke of her husband's late mother as a devoted parent, an icon of style, patron of the arts and as "one of the most captivating personalities of all time". After more speeches from Victoria Premier Ted Baillieu, the director of the Bendigo Art Gallery Karen Quinlan and the Honorary Consul for Monaco Andew Cannon the Princess was taken on a tour of the exhibition. Aside from introducing Princess Grace to a new generation that never knew her, the exhibition will be a great benefit to the local economy and is expected to draw thousands of visitors and as much as $10 million to Bendigo. So, even all these years after her untimely loss, Princess Grace still manages to do good for others.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The "Green" Prince in Italy

HSH Prince Albert II, devoted environmentalist, crusader against global warming and defender of the earth (you know, in a way) is in the beautiful northern Italian city of Milan to participate in a conference concerning pollution in the Mediterranean Sea at Bicocca University. This will be followed by a gala event that evening at Palazzo Mezzanotte organized by the Italian branch of the Prince Albert II Foundation. As all regular readers will know, the Sovereign Prince, in addition to his global environmentalist zeal, has naturally always had a special interest in the Mediterranean (it being a rather immediate concern for the Monegasque) and in maintaining sustainable biodiversity, fighting pollution and protecting the local marine life. Monaco is directly responsible for more of the Mediterranean than most probably realize as Monegasque territorial waters extend farther out to sea than is usual for most nations. Here's hoping the event is a productive success.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Charlotte Goes Gucci

Our Charlie has been in the news and gossip mags alot lately, mostly because of tongue-wagging over her latest boyfriend (though it seems odd calling a 40+ father a "boy" friend) but get ready to see still more of her; which is hardly a hardship for the eyes. The Casiraghi cutie is set to replace Evan Rachel Wood as the new "face" of Gucci, the brand Charlotte favored for her riding wear in the Global Champions tour last year. Is this the start of a new career as a model for our Charlie? Hardly. She's always been a model, now she's just going to be getting paid for it. I would think this to be an absolute coup for Gucci. Could anyone ask for a better "face" than that of our beloved Charlie? I think not. It does though make me feel a little bit of sympathy for all the other young ladies who might have been hoping for the position. It's pretty hard to compete against someone whose mother is Princess Caroline and grandmother was Princess Grace. Mad scientists in a laboratory couldn't have created a greater genetic masterpiece as far as looks go if they tried to.

Friday, March 2, 2012

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