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OUT; Charles and Camilla go public.

PRINCE Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles finally stepped into the limelight last night after more than 20 years.

Almost on the stroke of midnight they left the London Ritz Hotel together, signalling that their long- running affair is now official.

With the briefest touch on Camilla's elbow, Prince Charles let the waiting world know he loves her.

As the pair paced through the lobby of The Ritz towards the exit door, he fiddled nervously with an inside jacket pocket and his cuffs.

Camilla appeared more relaxed and chatted easily with royal aides and party guests.

Four steps before the door, Charles turned to Camilla's son Tom and said - perhaps ominously: "Watch out for those newspaper men."

As the couple stepped out into a barrage of flashguns, there were screams and whoops from the waiting crowd. One woman shouted: "Good on you Charlie."

Camilla, 51, smiled radiantly as she took centre stage before the world's media.

Not since the days of Diana had so many photographers, TV crews and reporters gathered to record a royal event.

The couple said their farewells to friends before stepping into the rear seats of a waiting chauffeur-driven car.

Earlier, Camilla had seemed nervous as she made her entrance at the hotel.

But the prince's mistress - often derided for her dress sense - looked elegant in a black cocktail dress and managed a smile as she stepped from her car.

Then, keeping her back to the Press, she swept majestically inside to the strains of Barbra Streisand's classic hit I Am A Woman In Love.

Charles - who arrived at the party much later than Camilla - had told aides he was tired of "sneaking around".

Eighteen months after Princess Diana's death, the couple had decided to go public rather than risk having a picture snatched by the paparazzi.

Over the last few weeks, they have taken significant steps towards making their relationship more "official".

They have travelled in the same car together to dinner parties and for drinks, and the 50-year-old heir to the throne has made it clear he wants their relationship to move on.

A source close to the prince said: "They have become sick and tired of sneaking around in the last few weeks, while they have been travelling together.

"The police have also become increasingly agitated about photographers.

"They are very relieved it's all ending. The prince believes that the pressure on them was becoming increasingly silly.

"They hope now they can be allowed to get on and lead ordinary lives.

"The prince has been mystified by the scale of interest in the first picture. He does not want someone to make millions out of him."

Charles warned he did not want the first photograph of him and Camilla to appear too intimate and he joked: "I'm not going to hold her hand or give her a kiss."

It was clearly a reference to the discomfort endured by Prince Edward on his recent engagement to PR girl Sophie Rhys- Jones.

Charles has been working for weeks on the plan for his first public appearance with Camilla. Last night's event, a party to celebrate the 50th birthday of her sister, Mrs Annabel Elliot, provided the perfect opportunity.

Unlike a royal event, the family party could not be seen as interfering with the prince's public duties or giving Camilla a royal platform.

Hundreds of photographers began gathering outside the 92-year-old Ritz Hotel from early morning yesterday.

The only photos the public has ever seen of Charles and Camilla together include a black and white shot of them face- to-face at a polo match in 1975, and a blurred photograph of them getting into a Range Rover at Balmoral in 1991.

But last night, outside the five-star, 128-room hotel on Arlington Street, off Piccadilly, the prince and his mistress finally gave the world the picture it had been waiting for.

Camilla had arrived early for the lavish gathering in the Marie Antoinette Suite - named after the queen consort of France's King Louis XVI.

Executive chef Giles Thompson had been booked to prepare a feast for 60 guests - all family and friends of the Elliot and Parker Bowles families.

The "star of the show" arrived in an R-reg Ford Mondeo estate, part of the royal fleet, with her daughter Laura and son Tom.

Laura, wearing a long black dress and lilac wrap, was seated next to her mother on the back seat of the car.

Camilla's arrival was over in less than a minute as she made her hasty exit from the car to the hotel door.

Pausing only to shake hands with the hotel manager, she left her daughter trailing as she sprung up the six steps.

Inside, she was warmly greeted by friends and accepted a glass of champagne before mingling with the other guests.

Prince Charles, who has been staying at Balmoral for the last week, did not turn up at the party untill almost 11pm as he was already committed to hosting a dinner at St James's Palace earlier in the evening.

By the time the party started, photographers, many of them standing on step- ladders, were three-deep on the pavement outside. Many members of the public had also gathered for the historic moment.

Timing was a major factor in the prince's plans.

The public hostility towards Camilla which followed the death of the Princess of Wales in 1997 was judged to have eased, and recent opinion polls show most people have accepted her relationship with Charles.

But there is another reason why it is so important for them to accelerate the campaign to have Camilla accepted as Charles' official companion.

He is only too aware that Prince Edward's wedding to Sophie is less than six months away.

If he plans to take Camilla along as his partner, they will have to be properly accepted long before then.

Neither couple can afford to have Charles and Camilla stealing the limelight from the bride and groom.

To achieve the right balance of attention at the wedding, Charles and Mrs Parker Bowles will have to be seen many times together in the next few months.

Even Charles's biographer Penny Junor was amazed by the degree of publicity last night's party generated.

She said: "This has almost become like the Holy Grail, the quest to get a photograph of these two together.

"The longer they stay away from the lens, the more chance there is some paparazzi guy will snatch a picture when they are unaware and make millions.

"By giving the picture to everyone who wants it, they take the value out of it and bring an end to the threat of being hunted down."

Ms Junor said the decision to go public would have been taken by the couple themselves and not by a spin doctor.

She added: "Charles has always kept his private life as his own business and would not listen to anyone else."
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Milne, Shaun
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jan 29, 1999
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