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50 Looks Nifty for the Prince

On a Milestone Birthday, Charles Has Reason to Celebrate: His Popularity Is on the Rise

November 15, 1998|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Prince Charles has just celebrated his 50th birthday, which, if his grandmother's life is any gauge, makes him truly middle-aged. Half a century down, half a century or so to go.

And what a middle age it is starting out to be. The Prince of Wales, who finally seems to have grown into his big ears and conservative suits, has had one of the best years of his adult life. He looks fit, happy, distinguished even. Why shouldn't he?

Charles has undergone a metamorphosis in the British press from a whiny king-in-waiting and hateful two-timer of the world's most popular woman to a sympathetic "single parent" and charming hobnobber with the stars. He is alternately pictured strolling with his sons and exchanging air-kisses with actress Emma Thompson.

Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, in a voluminous blue ball gown, sang a breathy "Happy Birthday" to Charles at his royal party. It was an embarrassing imitation of Marilyn Monroe's performance for President Kennedy but still managed to enhance the prince's image.

Charles' approval ratings are the highest they've been since he was an available young bachelor.

Also on the rise is public acceptance of his liaison with Camilla Parker Bowles, the "other woman" in the ill-fated Charles and Diana marriage.

Diana's premature death in a Paris car crash more than a year ago marked the turning point for Charles. His recovery of Diana's body and dignified handling of her funeral won him public esteem, while the tragedy put an end to a rivalry played out in the media that he could not possibly win.

The competition is over. Most of the reams of newsprint dedicated to his 50th were approving, although there were a few barbs. Writing in the Observer, his unauthorized biographer Anthony Holden asked whether Charles is fit to be king, noting dryly that he is "a 50-year-old father of two who has two men paid by the state to help him get dressed."

The so-called "abdication issue" also raised its ugly head in London Weekend Television's "Charles at 50" program, which quoted an unnamed palace aide as saying that the prince would be delighted if his mother were to step down so that he could be king. Charles and the queen issued a rare and angry denial.

At the same time, however, the year has seen Charles and Camilla come out of the palace for their first public appearance together. Sort of. They attended the same high-society wedding, although they arrived separately and made sure not to get into the same camera frame.

Details of their shared but separate lives routinely appear in the press. The two spent a few days together in Scotland in September, then cruised through the Greek islands on a friend's boat. Camilla is said to frequently stay over at his country home, Highgrove.

Now a senior bishop says he sees no reason why the prince should not become head of the Church of England if he marries Camilla Parker Bowles. The bishop of Durham, the Rev. Michael Turnbull, said it would be "more desirable morally" for the couple to marry than to continue as they are.

The prince's mom, Queen Elizabeth II, doesn't agree. She still thinks Camilla is an adulteress who ruined her son's marriage.

Meanwhile, some commentators think the current situation is the perfect marriage.

"I know swatches of women who long to live a semi-attached life. Separate but together, with plenty of telephone access," wrote Vicki Woods in the Sunday Telegraph.

Charles and Camilla are studiously avoiding the topic of marriage. The public accepts the prince's relationship with Camilla but doesn't want her as their queen.

Maybe sometime in the next half-century.

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