Monaco’s Royal Wedding: Does Future Princess Charlene Wittstock Have Cold Feet?

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REUTERS/Yves Herman

Monaco's Prince Albert and his fiancee Charlene Wittstock arrive for amfAR's Cinema Against AIDS 2011 event in Antibes during the 64th Cannes Film Festival May 19, 2011.

Astonishing claims suggest that the future princess tried to flee to South Africa just days before her $70 million wedding to Monaco’s Prince Albert.

Yesterday, in an article entitled “Albert-Charlene: Marriage in Peril,” respected French magazine L’Express reported that the couple had a falling out on June 21 over fresh allegations that Albert was having an affair. A distraught Wittstock reportedly purchased a one-way ticket to her home in South Africa, and then high-tailed it to the Nice airport. Police, acting on behalf of the prince, stopped her from boarding. “Shaken, Charlene Wittstock had just learned a few hours earlier, that the private life of the man she was about to marry….was not as exemplary as she imagined,” the article says. A number of other reputable French newspapers, including Le Figaro, have subsequently published follow-ups, and the Times of London has quoted an unnamed source who says the couple had “an incident” last week on a Monaco helipad.

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The Palace of Monaco dismissed the reports as “untruthful allegations,” and Thierry Lacoste, the prince’s lawyer, obtained an injunction obliging L’Express to publish evidence that Wittstock sought to become a runaway bride. “I was with the prince and Charlene Wittstock three days ago and I can promise you everything is fine,” he said.

Rumors of her unhappiness started swirling long before the latest allegations. Wittstock, a former swimmer who represented South Africa at the 2000 Olympics, moved to Monaco four years ago with no job and no knowledge of French. She passed her time by reading at a local cafe and appearing at balls and on red carpets whenever Albert summoned her. The super-wealthy locals—many of whom probably fancied themselves as future princesses—hissed that he would never marry her. That judgment stemmed partly from mean-spiritedness, but also from Albert’s notoriously complicated personal life. The 53-year old prince counts Brooke Shields and Claudia Schiffer as ex-girlfriends, and has already fathered two children: one with a California barmaid, and another with a flight attendant from Togo. In both instances, he only admitted paternity after DNA tests proved the children were his.

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Wittstock, 33, has confirmed that life in the principality hasn’t been easy. Speaking with Tatler magazine last October, she described the jealously she felt from Monégasques, and said she struggled to forge meaningful relationships with her neighbors. “Although I have met some wonderful people since I’ve been living in Monaco, I regard them all as acquaintances,” she said. “I only have two people I consider friends here.”

The non-stop comparisons to Grace Kelly, who married Prince Albert’s father Prince Rainier in 1956, haven’t helped. Nor has the pressure of throwing Europe’s first royal wedding since Kate Middleton became Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, on April 29. (Monaco is certainly trying. During the two-day event on July 1 and 2, Johnny Hallyday will sing Hymne à l’amour, an “opera of fireworks” will light up the Mediterranean harbor, and celebrity chef Alain Ducasse will cook for the couple’s A-list guests, who include Prince Charles and Camilla and Naomi Campbell).

Whether the current reports are true or not, Wittstock will clearly face an uphill battle as she tries to grow into her new role as princess of a land she reportedly doesn’t seem particularly fond of. “Charlene Wittstock is a young woman who was not prepared for all this,” says Henry-Jean Serat,  a royal commentator told the London Times. “When Grace Kelly arrived in Monaco, she had the training to deal with it. Charlene Wittstock does not.” (via L’Express)

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William Lee Adams is a writer-reporter at TIME’s London bureau. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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