Cinderella, Career Gal

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We all, it seems, love Cinderella. Look how many zillions of dollars Disney has made repackaging the theme of pretty-but-unusual-girl-gets-lucky: handsome prince marries a sea creature (The Little Mermaid), handsome prince marries maiden who's been dozing for a hundred years (Sleeping Beauty), newly handsome prince marries bookworm with eccentric dad (Beauty and the Beast). Funny, though: the curtain falls at the wedding. The implicit message is that the chase is more exciting than the prize.

Think back to those fairy-tale pictures of the virginal Diana swathed in white, riding away with her Prince Charles. Did it ever get any better, for her or for us, before a tragic death sanctified her? The whole messy pageant of the Windsors since Diana's appearance 20 years ago has been a relentless procession of what Disney knows to leave on the cutting-room floor.

Which brings us to Sophie Rhys-Jones. The last few weeks have been no fairy tale for Queen Elizabeth's newest daughter-in-law. She had her own public relations business before she married Prince Edward in 1999 to become H.R.H. the Countess of Wessex. She seemed perfect for the post-Diana media fishbowl--a p.r. executive with stage presence, delighted to be part of the Firm instead of throwing acid on it. Then Sophie fell for the oldest trick in the tabloid book.

Last month an investigative reporter pretended to be the aide of a "sheik" eager to pay a p.r. firm $340,000 to bring fame to his (fictional) new hotel in Dubai and invited Sophie's business partner Murray Harkin to some meetings. Harkin chatted about liking "the odd line of coke" and offered to set up dinner parties with very attractive male friends (he is gay). At the third meeting, Sophie came to clinch the deal.

She said nothing incendiary but did blab to the stranger about subjects best left for pillow talk: Conservative leader William Hague "sounds like a puppet," Tony Blair "doesn't understand the countryside," and "his wife is even worse," Blair's budget is "a load of pap." These are the standard opinions of well-bred Tories, and even the "sheik's" paper, the News of the World, took the deal when Buckingham Palace offered an on-the-record interview in exchange for the tapes. MY EDWARD IS NOT GAY, blared the headline (which, unbelievably, the Palace approved); we also learned that Sophie is fertile but would consider medical treatment if needed. Thanks so much for sharing. Then after rivals printed distorted bits of the tapes, the News of the World disgorged them anyway.

Harkin quit the firm and left the country. Sophie resigned her position for now. The truly serious revelation in the tapes was how keenly Sophie grasped that her title was a business magnet. The Queen gave her and Edward (whose career as a film producer has focused on royal subjects, which at first he had hoped to avoid) her "full support" in pursuing careers but also set up a review to make sure that "royal and business interests do not conflict."

The problem for the Windsors is not this particular brouhaha but the cumulative effect of many. In 1984, 77% of British adults thought the country would be worse off without the monarchy, with 16% indifferent. Now 43% think it would be worse off, with 41% indifferent. From deference to indifference in one generation is a dangerous trend. And Prince William has not even had his first (public) girlfriend yet.