MADRID — As a jet pilot, law student, Olympic sailor and heir to the throne, 24-year-old Prince Felipe of Spain gets a lot of attention. He'd settle instead for a little respect.
"Although I think people are pretty clear about the differences between my role and that of a rock star, I hope I show it in my daily work," Felipe told Spanish reporters.
In many ways, this is the year, amid nationwide celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus, when both Felipe and an increasingly self-confident Spain come of age.
The young prince symbolizes the proud tradition and maturing potential of a country marching toward the next century as a full partner in the new Europe. Felipe represents that new generation of Spaniards who will be reaching for the levers of power as the century turns.
When the occasion requires, Felipe is a dutifully ceremonial royal: He cuts a nice ribbon and wields a mean inaugural shovel. Tellingly, though, Spain's future king is beginning to use his position as a pulpit, speaking out for stronger environmental protection, attacking racism, lauding steps toward a unified Europe and acknowledging social problems such as high unemployment among young Spaniards.
"He understands that his generation is the future; that everything that affects his generation affects him," said Clara Isabel de Bustos, who covers the royal household for the conservative Madrid daily ABC.
Most Americans will get their first look at the future king on July 25 at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Look for the tall, gangly sailor carrying the red and gold Spanish flag in the entrance parade.
Felipe is still cloaked by the shadow of his father, 54-year-old King Juan Carlos I. But he is beginning to assume a higher profile in domestic and international affairs--meeting Cabinet ministers, hosting visiting dignitaries, venturing abroad for forays into informal diplomacy.
Predictably, the 6-foot-5 blue-eyed prince is also a familiar cover boy on Spanish gossip magazines riveted by his yes-and-no romance with Isabel Sartorius, a beautiful and decidedly independent 27-year-old alumna of Washington's Georgetown University who has since been taking graduate courses in international affairs here.
"I don't feel obliged to look for a wife among the European nobility," he told Spanish reporters. "I will marry for love." Felipe and Isabel reportedly broke up last fall, but magazines breathlessly report secret rendezvous and wonder: Do embers still glow?
As heir to the Spanish throne, Felipe has lived a life of unflagging public scrutiny, yet he is careful about the image he projects. Like most young Spaniards, he sometimes stays out with friends until the wee hours. But he eschews a playboy lifestyle.
"He works a lot, he works hard, he works well," said Elias Diaz, one of the prince's instructors at the Madrid Autonomous University, where he is pursuing a degree in law and economics.
The student prince is also a crewman on Spain's Olympic sailing team. Royal duties have caused him to miss more practices than his coach would like, but Felipe holds his own in international regattas.
"He has a lot of discipline because he has to do a lot more than the normal person," said Paul Maes, Felipe's Olympic coach.
Still a rookie public speaker, the boyish-looking prince reportedly reads and rereads the speeches prepared for him, scribbling in modifications, determined to deliver them effectively.
Late last year, Felipe represented Spain on an official tour of South America, made in connection with Spain's 500th anniversary fiesta.
Facing politically sensitive listeners, the prince was perceived as well informed. Spain and its monarch had been well represented; Felipe had passed a test.
It was only the latest of many challenges set by the king, whom Felipe emulates even to the point of wearing his watch--as his father does--on his right wrist.
The king wanted Felipe to learn English, the language in which Spain usually conducts diplomacy and international business. After a year in a rural Canadian boarding school Felipe was fluent.
Carlos insisted that his son acquire some military polish: One day, he will be nominal commander in chief of the Spanish armed forces. Spending time at all three national military academies, Felipe attained the ranks of infantry lieutenant, navy ensign and--earning his pilot's wings--air force lieutenant.
That Felipe is very much his father's son pleases most Spaniards. Not many years ago, King Juan Carlos was viewed suspiciously by Spanish democrats.
Many felt that the king, brought up since the age of 10 under the tutelage of dictator Francisco Franco, would hamper Spain's transition to democracy after Franco's death in 1975.
Quite the contrary. The king is now credited with helping to consolidate democracy, in part by deftly short-circuiting an abortive 1981 military coup in which plotters falsely claimed to have his support.