Prince Albert of Monaco is engaged to marry Charlene Wittstock, a former Olympic swimmer for South Africa, a union that will give this wealthy Mediterranean principality its first crown princess since American Grace Kelly died in 1982.
The palace announced the engagement of "His Serene Highness", 52, and Wittstock, 32, who also worked as a school teacher before moving to Monaco. The statement Wednesday did not indicate a planned wedding date but put to rest months of speculation that the two longtime companions would tie the knot.
Albert met the willowy blonde Wittstock in 2000 when she traveled to Monaco for a swimming competition, said Laetitia Pierrat, a palace spokeswoman. Wittstock swam for South Africa at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, though won no medals. In the All Africa Games the year before, she won gold in the 100-meter freestyle.
Since 2006, Wittstock has lived in the principality, Pierrat said.
It will be the first marriage of a reigning prince since Hollywood actress Grace Kelly married Albert's father, Prince Rainier III, to massive hoopla in 1956. Princess Grace died in a car accident in 1982, casting a pall of tragedy over the family. She remains a style icon to this day — London's Victoria & Albert Museum for art and design has a current exhibition on her.
According to protocol, royal couples must wait at least six months between the announcement of the engagement and the wedding day, Pierrat said.
She demurred when asked whether Wittstock might be pregnant. "Honestly, I don't think so," she said, adding she wasn't privy to such matters but if Wittstock were, a formal announcement would probably have been made.
Royal watchers reveled at the news.
"It's been 30 years since Grace died, 30 years they've been waiting for a first lady, a princess, a dream beauty, glam. And voila!" said Colombe Pringle, executive editor of the French celebrity magazine "Point de Vue," which often covers Albert's private life.
Albert took the throne in July 2005 after the death of his straight-laced father, who built the sleepy Mediterranean port into a tax haven for the rich and a glittering financial center.
That same year, Albert acknowledged that he had fathered a boy, Alexandre, out of wedlock by a former flight attendant. The following year, he acknowledged an American daughter, Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, now a teenager, born to a California woman. Neither can assume the throne because they were born out of wedlock.
While his father's reign was defined by his marriage to Princess Grace, Albert was known for being a longtime bachelor — so much so that Parliament in 2002 changed the constitution to allow one of his sisters' sons to take the throne if he never produces a legitimate heir.
Albert is the second of Rainier and Grace's three children. He has an older sister, Princess Caroline, whose son Andrea is technically second in line to the throne if Albert produces no heirs, and younger sister Princess Stephanie. His sisters' rocky love lives have long been the stuff of tabloids and royal watchers.
Pringle suggested that Albert's advancing age, and the long time since his mother's passing, meant that the time was right for him to give up bachelorhood.
"He's 50-something. It's time," she said.
She said Wittstock has spent their years together preparing for the stress and responsibilities of being a princess.
"She has learned a lot, she has done a good personal job to fit with her job, there are many years of learning there behind her," Pringle said. "Now it's a question of involvement and engagement in her new role. We'll see how she does."
The couple attended Sweden's royal wedding in Stockholm last weekend, which sparked new rumors of a possible union.
Still, Nancy Wilson, an editor at The Riviera Reporter based in nearby Nice, France, was not convinced that a wedding is "going to happen soon."
Wilson said the announcement may have been designed to appease those losing patience with Albert's bachelorhood or perhaps to boost his standing among entrenched interests in Monaco who had resisted his efforts to change tax and economic policies.
"He's tried to move the principality in a direction different from his father. It's not working," she said. "There is negative economic press around him, this is something to take the spotlight away."
Many subjects in Monaco want Albert, seen for years as a sort of freewheeling playboy, to settle down, get married and have children who can be heirs, said Wilson.
Wittstock "fits the bill, she is kind of a celebrity in her own right," Wilson said. "They have really sculpted her image almost to be a younger Grace Kelly."
"The Monegasques will be in excited. Who doesn't like a wedding?" she added. "An event like that in Monaco would just be huge."