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Edward and Sophie Part One: The Prince, the PR girl and a game of tennis ...let the love match begin.

THE players were drifting out into the bright September evening, leaving the Prince shattered but happy. He had just spent 12 hours scampering like a maniac around a high-walled Real Tennis court as the star of his very own summer challenge. Unlike his previous fundraising effort, the It's A Royal Knockout public relations fiasco, this tightly-controlled event had been a complete success.

He was freshly-showered and changed into his young fogey's outfit of blue blazer, neatly-pressed chinos and moccasins when she came bouncing up, the engaging blonde PR executive who had buzzed around him all day.

Later, the Queen, by way of a backhanded compliment, would remark to the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret that you wouldn't notice this girl in a crowd. On this day, though, there was no way Wonderbra-enhanced Sophie Rhys-Jones was not going to make a lasting impression. With a borrowed wooden racket in hand, she fixed him with her bright blue eyes, cocked her highlighted blonde head to one side, grinned invitingly and said: "I'd love to have a hit."

In terms of come-ons, it was not as sexy as Camilla Parker Bowles's to Prince Charles when she informed him at their first meeting that two of their ancestors were lovers, "so how about it?" But according to one observer at the Royal Berkshire Tennis Court at Holyport near Windsor that late summer of 1993, it was obvious Sophie's mind was on more than just a run around the court.

At the time, Prince Edward, youngest and most pampered of the Queen's children, hardly knew Sophie, the Sloaney, much-travelled Kent girl whose father works for a company selling tyres in eastern Europe. She was not one of the listed competitors who had taken to the blue and yellow court with the Prince that day. Sophie (in royal parlance, a commoner) wasn't important enough for a "real" match with the principal boy. So she stuck around longer than would have been expected, and then made her move. "In PR terms, it was coming up to match point and she wasn't going to throw it away," says the observer. "She had made herself indispensable in the run-up to the tournament and on the day. She helped make it go smoothly. Then, when it was over, she chose her moment to saunter up to the Prince and ask if he would go on court with her."

Seizing his chance to impress a pretty young thing, he was happy to put on his whites again and show Sophie some of the gentler groundstrokes of the hard-ball game popularised by Henry V111. "It wasn't just one-way traffic," remembers the observer. "She had caught his eye. She is quite sporty and was mad keen to have a go."

T ENACIOUS Sophie had been a devil with a hockey stick at school, and in her 20s had become a competent skier, sailor and windsurfer. But the Prince soon found out that, like most beginners, she was endearingly hopeless within the daunting confines of a real tennis court. "She is short, with pit-pony calves, and lacks the natural co-ordination you need to be good at racket games," says the observer. "Edward was patient and helpful. He was obviously tired, but he seemed to relish the role of master, and she the pupil. He was more gentle with her than he had been with competitors during the day, dollying over a few easy balls, much to her delight."

Looking back, says the observer, this was more than mere gallantry, and proof that he was quite taken with Sophie. "He is by nature quite a shy man but he seemed to blossom in her company."

Most of the players and spectators who had attended the charity event, with celebrities including Capital Radio DJ Neil "Doctor" Fox, former England cricket captain Sir Colin Cowdrey, Blue Peter presenter John Leslie and tennis star Annabel Croft, had already gone home. Had they stayed, they would have seen not just a lacklustre attempt at what is also known as Royal Tennis, but the sure beginning of an on-off love match in which Sophie will at last win his hand when they marry at St George's Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle on June 19.

Among others present the day Ed (as his closest friends call him) first played Sophie was Sally Jones, a journalist and at that time the Real Tennis ladies' world champion. She recalls: "Although there was only a slight hint of the future romance at that stage, the two worked closely together and Prince Edward, already running himself ragged to make the event a success, seemed even more animated in Sophie's company. She was not at all intimidated by her royal client, and seemed her normal, open, down-to-earth self, apart from a couple of times when I noticed her giving him a lingering glance." Edward was doubly pleased with the result. The event raised more than pounds 25,000 for the Lord's Taverners and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, and Sophie had been there to help him avoid potentially embarrassing moments which would have fed ammunition to those who liked to portray him as a petulant sissy.

SOPHIE first met Edward in 1992, when their paths briefly crossed while she was working at Capital Radio in London. Their first formal meeting was at a strategy session at Queen's Club to discuss the Real Tennis charity event. Sophie, who was helping organise the PR, was asked to stand in for a promotional photo with the Prince when former British number one tennis player Sue Barker dropped out at the last minute. Edward could easily have allowed himself to get upset about this. Even his friends say he can alternate between being warmly informal one moment and exasperatingly "Royal" the next. One says: "You have to test the water very carefully with Edward. You never know if you're going to get a warm smile and a slap on the back or the frozen stare. He doesn't set out to try to intimidate people with his status but he can be very stiff at times." On this particular day, however, Edward was happy to have an unknown blonde substituted for a famous one. "Delighted," he told Sophie's relieved boss Brian MacLaurin, who was organising the publicity and who had chosen Sophie as a stand-in. "It's not a problem."

The picture was taken when they barely knew each other. Sophie is half leaning into Edward, suggesting she was not in the least inhibited by his royal status. It remained their most intimate photo until they became engaged. Sally Jones met Sophie before the tennis event, and was immediately impressed. "I was struck by her strong-mindedness and determination as she quietly but confidently argued her case over the best way to promote the event." Sophie's ability as a deft, controlling player of the media game soon showed itself. Sally says: "It was she who insisted that only two or three newspapers and magazines should be given coverage of the day's play, and she then spent hours making sure that the chosen few journalists allowed access should get the pictures and interviews they needed to provide positive coverage."

Edward was clearly captivated but, ever- cautious, didn't rush in. Only after the official business had been tied up did he telephone Sophie at home. They talked of the challenge, and then Edward suggested an evening out comprising another game and, afterwards, something to eat at Buckingham Palace.

That first date was at Queen's Club, and the Prince was gentle on his new admirer. He told her she should dispense with "Sir" and call him Edward. In return, she pleased him by saying she planned to take lessons in the complex game. Then it was back to Edward's second-floor suite at the palace for a bottle of his favourite wine, chilled white German. In the early weeks, their relationship was sealed on court and in visits to the theatre, including a performance of Phantom of the Opera. When Sophie first met the Queen at Windsor she had the good sense not to say too much at dinner. She has told friends the only recollection she has was of the Queen rushing to the window to catch sight of a passing Concorde. This uneventful occasion was the first of many weekends spent with the Royal Family which, all observers agree, Sophie has handled with a skill not possessed by her predecessors Diana and Fergie.

It was three months before Edward and Sophie's relationship hit the newspapers. But early predictions that they would be engaged on Edward's 30th birthday and married the following summer proved wide of the mark. When the news first broke, Edward made few friends among Fleet Street editors when he laid down the law: "I am taking the unusual step of writing to you directly in the hope of stopping your reporters and photographers from destroying that part of my life that I am entitled to regard as private, and, more important, Sophie's life. We are not planning to get married, we only met each other in the past few months, but we are good friends. If this situation changes we will let you know in the proper and formal manner."

In the intervening period, Edward has stuck by his word. Every time there was speculation that the couple would marry, he stubbornly delayed the wedding even further (without, apparently, ever letting Sophie in on his reasoning.) As he admitted when they announced their engagement, when he proposed he took Sophie completely by surprise. "The trouble is, everybody always speculating made it very difficult," he said. "Every time there was another round of speculation I had to go very quiet again." For Sophie's part, when the ring was at last on her finger, she was at pains to stress two things; that they had not lived together, and that she had never given him any "marry me or else" ultimatum. Of the former claim, friends are sceptical. One says: "As far as it's possible to know, we have assumed that Edward and Sophie have had a sexual relationship for several years. Like most couples, they are not so indiscreet that they talk about their sex life in public. But it is hardly a secret that after they went out for the evening, she would accompany him back to his flat at Buckingham Palace. Eventually she was given her own pass to the Palace and could come and go as she pleased."

THE Queen, it is said, gave her tacit permission to the couple living together, anxious that Edward and Sophie should be sure about each other and avoid the marital disasters of her older children. Sophie has had considerable help in easing into the Royal life, spending weekends at Windsor Castle and holidays at Sandringham, Balmoral and aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia before it left royal service. Sarah Ferguson and the then Lady Diana Spencer had unlimited access to the royal homes only after their engagements. Having recently turned 34, Sophie's age and emotional maturity are big advantages. Diana was a naive girl of 20, and Fergie a flighty 26 when they joined the royal fold.

Of the second assertion (the often-made claim that she issued him with a number of ultimatums) there is more doubt. Would she dare lay it on the line, in case she drove away Britain's most eligible bachelor? Close friends believe that, as a canny PR player, she preferred to bite her lip. One says: "I don't think she would have dared make such a demand on him. She has walked on eggshells on a number of occasions. Giving him an ultimatum may have forced the issue and rebounded on her."

Those closest to the couple know that, because she has waited so long, Sophie had to endure many lonely hours fearing that she was about to become that unenviable minor celebrity, a former royal girlfriend. One such crisis of confidence came two years ago when she moved out of her rented flat in Vereker Road and into Colherne Court in Earl's Court, West London, to share with a friend. It was the same block in which Diana Spencer lived when she was engaged. But Sophie was by then more than three years into the relationship and beginning to doubt if the Prince would ever get down on one knee.

A friend says: "Sophie was hosting a PR party for Searcy's, the caterers, at around the same time as she was moving flats. Edward was nowhere to be seen. He wasn't at the party. She was crushed, because here she was, a single girl in her 30s, hoping she would get engaged and then finding herself moving from one bachelor-girl flat to another. When I saw her at that party she was at her lowest ebb. She looked red-eyed, worn out and dumpy. At that point she had very serious doubts. But I had to admire her. She put on a brave face and coped well."

As recently as last summer rumours began to circulate that the two had split up. Friends reported a deepening chill between them. Sophie was convinced Edward was losing interest and that the heat was going out of the relationship. So distraught was she that she sobbed to friends that she feared it was all off and that he might even have found someone else. They assured her that because he leads such a public life, it would be impossible for him to stray without it being made public.

Weeks later the relationship was back on, although Sophie was furious at reports that she was not at Sandringham, the assumption being that the couple were no longer an item. One friend says: "She resented the loss of face and the implication that he'd jilted her, because she quietly relished her position as Edward's steady girlfriend and all the excitement, privileges and A-list invitations that went with it. It obviously means a lot to her, as it would to any girl being courted by a prince. Whether things were good or bad, she would always bring him up in conversation. She would say `I miss my boyfriend.' That was how she liked to refer to him. Last summer she looked dreadful. She has a tendency to put on weight when things are not going well. They were going through a very morose time and she wondered where the relationship was going. The worry was that she had lost her prize."

Always at the forefront of Edward's mind was the fact that the marriages of all three of his elder siblings had wilted in the public glare. Right from the start he was determined to call the shots and not surrender to pressure. Edward was acutely aware that as he got to know Sophie better and his feelings for her grew, the marriages of Charles and Andrew were falling apart in spectacular fashion. He once told a former university friend: "I'm not going to make the mistakes my brothers and sister made. I simply can't." As a measure of what a snail's-pace romance it has been, by the time Edward and Sophie exchange vows, they will have been together longer than Fergie and Andrew were married.

His determination that no one would force his hand made the thin-skinned Prince increasingly touchy. When writer Andrew Duncan of the Radio Times asked him about his plans, he responded angrily: "If you shut up, mind your own business and let me do it when I want, it is much more likely to happen." But this can also be read as strength of character. Edward knew that a happy union was just the sort of PR the beleaguered House of Windsor needed after the body blows of the 1990s. But he has always been determined that, as he indicated to Andrew Duncan, he would marry if and when he chose.

Not all approaches on the subject were dealt with so brutally. Sally Jones recalls when a tipsy femme fatale confronted him at a formal dinner with the words: "No wonder you're taking your time getting hitched. Your family haven't much of a marital track record, have they?" Instead of biting her head off, Edward smiled: "Just shows you can't be too careful, can you?" Only a raised eyebrow to his private secretary Lt Col Sean O'Dwyer was a signal to extricate him from a sticky situation.

AS her own celebrity grew, Sophie began to relish the limelight. Once, during a relaxed girly dinner, she joked about the price of increasing fame, convinced that a car advert featuring a young blonde woman being waved on by a policeman at Buckingham Palace was a humorous reference to her relationship with the Prince.

With her short, sleek haircut and oval face, Sophie bears more than a passing resemblance to TV presenter Jill Dando. Despite being around six inches shorter, she is often mistaken for her in the street. When they met at a party the two giggled over the comparisons, Sophie telling Jill she would relish the extra height. They have become good friends and regularly lunch together.

Though Sophie may never have laid their relationship on the line, as it meandered on Edward was frequently reminded he was ruining her prospects of a conventional married life if he refused to propose. His plain-speaking father the Duke of Edinburgh twice spelled this out, first around two years ago and then again last summer. Even those closest to Edward have been convinced at times that there would be no wedding. Among them was Lt Col O'Dwyer, formerly the Duchess of York's private secretary. Part of his job is to deal with correspondence and keep Edward's diary. He also now handles Sophie's social diary.

Lt Col O'Dwyer is one of the Palace old guard, not afraid to voice an opinion, even one his master might not like to hear. He also regularly thrashes Edward on the tennis court, much to the younger man's frustration.

One of Sophie's circle says: "Sean has said before that Sophie and Edward's marriage wouldn't happen. He had long believed the relationship wouldn't come to anything.

"He felt perhaps that a real Royal from some corner of Europe would come along and sweep Edward off his feet. That seemed to be a view that a lot of people held."

Another friend was even more blunt: "Sean O'Dwyer told me around six months ago that he thought it increasingly unlikely that the Prince would marry Sophie because the affair had meandered on aimlessly for too long."

Some predict that, after the big day, Sean and Sophie's mutual concern for Edward's welfare may take them in different directions. One says: "She will see him doing a lot of things for Edward that she would like to do. She won't want to be beholden to him a lot of the time."

Several of the more conservative courtiers had also been especially upset when they witnessed Edward's casual treatment of a friend. She had given the Prince hours of unpaid help on several projects but when she asked for a favour to publicise a charity event she was organising, he virtually ignored her.

ANOTHER aspect of the Prince's character which upsets those around him is his habit of assuming, Royal fashion, that everything is paid for. One close associate says: "He is so used to a lot of attention and support because of who he is, so he can't understand the idea of reciprocal favours. No matter how short of funds they may be, he nearly always lets his friends pick up the tab when they go out to theatres and restaurants. He rarely has to put his hand in his pocket and maybe assumes that a lot of the outings are freebies."

When they have a quiet night in, Edward and Sophie like nothing better than supper in front of the TV at Buckingham Palace. EastEnders is a mutual favourite. A friend says: "Not many people realise that both of them have less than perfect eyesight, but prefer not to be seen too often in public wearing glasses. In private, they wear them nearly all the time."

Some of Edward's unworldliness comes through in the gifts he has chosen for his loved one. Until he finally got it right with a pounds 105,000 diamond engagement ring, Edward's love tokens were hardly the stuff of princely fairytales. Among the mundane presents Sophie has received from him are a suitcase, a silver framed photo of him while he was in the marines, and an engraved letter opener. Edward showed his generosity in other ways for which Sophie will forever be grateful. When she first lunched with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, for example, he warned her that the Royal Family are always highly amused when unschooled guests are given water in a crystal bowl when the fruit is served, and don't know what to do with it. It's for washing your hands, he explained, not for cleaning the fruit.

Though Sophie and Edward are careful to observe manners and protocol in front of his family, outside Royal circles friends say they are like any other young couple when they let their hair down, although there is nothing "touchy-feely" about them.

One says: "In private, they tease one another mercilessly and roar at each other's jokes. Neither is given to soppy nicknames. They tend to express affection through shared allusions, nudges and giggles, rather than romantic canoodlings.

"Prince Edward often tries to hide his natural high spirits in public and portray himself as duller and less original than he really is to keep his private life more private. It was a matter of pride to him that during his time at Cambridge University he had at least two girlfriends the public never knew about. And in the early 90s he even made light of rumours that he might be gay because this took the heat off his current love-interest."

WITH her own PR background and strong desire to control the media rather than be manipulated by it, Sophie, too, has always been well aware of the value of an unguarded photo of her and Edward having a quiet kiss and cuddle. "So she was incredibly discreet in public," the friend says, "rarely coming close enough to him for them even to be pictured in the same shot."

Those who have known Sophie a long time say that although she is largely unspoilt by all the attention, she has taken on a few "Royal" airs. One says: "In the early days at functions you would find her mucking in and doing the washing up. You would never see that now. She is one of the glitterati. Her outfits, her make-up and her friends have all changed. It's an attitude. Her expectations are higher. For a long time she has been very focused on the fact that she had a good chance of becoming royalty. She used to write effusive thank-you letters, but that has stopped. Maybe she just doesn't have time. She has also taken on the rather Royal, slow, gentle smile. And she is often late. He is always punctual and considerate. He is also more attentive towards his guests. He likes to set his own agenda. He won't be rushed into anything. He will do things as he wants to. Sophie is a man's woman. Quite frankly, in female company, she is rather dull."

Despite his apparent Royal stiffness, Prince Edward is able to show spontaneity and affection in public, if not with Sophie. Sally Jones recalls: "During a Lord's Taverners cricket match, Prince Edward greeted us warmly when my husband and I arrived with our two toddlers. Our daughter Madeline, 10 months old, crawled towards him with her face covered in chocolate, pulled herself up his immaculately-creased trouser leg and began wiping her mouth on his knee. Instead of recoiling in disgust, he laughed, picked her up and began chatting as though they were old friends, totally winning over both children and proving that when he and Sophie start a family he will be a far more demonstrative, hands-on father than the previous generation of royal parents."

When they announced their engagement, the couple burst out laughing when askedabout the prospect of starting a family. Edward said: "Well, please, let's go through the first stage." Sophie had other more pressing matters on her mind. She later told friends she was unhappy about how "hippy" she looked in her grey Thomasz Starzewski suit and planned to lose a stone before the wedding. "It won't be a problem for her," said one friend. "Her weight fluctuates with her state of mind. She put on the extra stone when she didn't know if Edward would propose. Now the date is set she is ecstatic and you can expect the pounds to fall away."

While Edward has suffered several stop- starts in his working life (his TV production company Ardent has lost pounds 1.5 million in its first five years), in Sophie's case being a Prince's girlfriend has helped her carve out a big-money PR career. When her royal connections were first established, Sophie began to handle the classier charity accounts with Brian MacLaurin's agency. Two years ago she teamed up with business partner Murray Harkin to launch her own R-JH public relations company, which employs eight people at its Mayfair offices and has made profits of pounds 400,000 a year, putting chairman Sophie in the pounds 100,000-pounds 200,000 salary bracket. That makes her almost a match for Edward, who pays himself pounds 119,125 from Ardent. Sophie's clients reflect the glossy world in which she now moves. Among them are celebrity magazine OK!, the Lanesborough Hotel, Mayfair designers Thomas Goode and The Lady Apsley School for Butlers.

FRIENDS are optimistic they will make their marriage a success. Disc jockey Neil "Doctor" Fox, who worked with Sophie at Capital Radio, believes she has not put a foot wrong. "When she first started seeing him, there was a group of girls she would meet up with after work. It became difficult for her to mix as she used to. She had to keep it under wraps." He says Sophie had become more defensive. "Mates go out together and if anyone is going out with someone new you want to know all about him and what he's really like. That's particularly true if he's a Prince. She's obviously paranoid about saying anything because she is very discreet.

It's going to be a tough old job marrying into the Royal Family. She's stuck it out for a long time. They seem to have a modern relationship, pretty much living together before they got married. There's every chance that it will work. She's landed herself a good job. She's marrying the ultimate bachelor. It's not everyone's cup of tea but from the look of her she will make a go of it. She seems to have adapted to it really well." Sally Jones, too, is optimistic. She says: "Despite the the legions of pessimists convinced that Edward is destined to follow his ill-starred siblings in the marriage stakes, I am convinced he and Sophie can buck the royal trend. Having known them both for several years, I have always admired the way they have managed to remain resolutely low-profile and have obviously learned from the mistakes of other royal newcomers, particularly Diana and Fergie.

"I believe they will forge a happy, stable marriage, thanks to their maturity and good sense, plus the long apprenticeship Sophie has served as a princess-in-waiting."

For the PR girl who took the lead by asking if a Prince would like a hit on the tennis court, in the big match that matters she has played a blinder.

CAPTIONS: 1. COURTING COUPLE SOPHIE WAS GIRL FRIDAY FOR EDWARD'S REAL TENNIS TOURNAMENT AT HOLYPORT IN 1993, BUT IT WAS TO BE FIVE YEARS BEFORE A KISS SEALED THEIR ENGAGEMENT

2. COVER GIRL SOPHIE HAS BEEN A FAVOURITE SUBJECT FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS SINCE SHE WAS FIRST LINKED WITH PRINCE EDWARD, BUT THAT FIRST PUBLICITY SHOT AT THE REAL TENNIS CHARITY TOURNAMENT IN HOLYPORT REMAINED THEIR MOST INTIMATE PHOTO UNTIL THE ENGAGEMENT

3. JOINING THE FIRM THE OLDER ROYALS INCLUDING PRINCE PHILLIP AND PRINCESS MARGARET HAVE WELCOMED SOPHIE ALTHOUGH SOME OBSERVERS FEAR POST-WEDDING DISAGREEMENTS WITH EDWARD'S PRIVATE SECRETARY SEAN O'DWYER

FACING PAGE MAKING A NEW FRIEND AT THE POLO

4. IT'S OFFICIAL

AFTER A COURTSHIP LASTING MORE THAN FIVE YEARS

EDWARD AND SOPHIE FINALLY ANNOUNCED THEIR ENGAGEMENT ON JANUARY 6

5. COLD FRONT THE COURSE OF TRUE LOVE HAS NOT ALWAYS RUN SMOOTH AND THERE WERE TIMES WHEN SOPHIE FEARED EDWARD WOULD NEVER PROPOSE

6. SPORTING WIFE SOPHIE EXCELLED ON THE HOCKEY PITCH WHEN SHE WAS AT SCHOOL AND IS STILL A NATURAL WHEN IT COMES TO OUTDOOR PURSUITS SUCH AS SNOWBOARDING, WINDSURFING, HORSERIDING, HILLWALKING, WATERSKIING AND GOLF

7. DRESSED TO THRILL SOPHIE HAS ALWAYS BEEN FASTIDIOUS ABOUT HER APPEARANCE, EVEN RARELY WEARING HER SPECTACLES IN PUBLIC, BUT FRIENDS SAY HER WEIGHT CAN RISE AND FALL ERRATICALLY DEPENDING ON HER EMOTIONAL STATE
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 7, 1999
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