Unquestionably, Prince William‘s 16th-birthday celebration on June 21 was a more subdued affair than his 15th. Last year, two months before her death, his mother surprised him with a cake decorated with topless female figurines; this time the future King of England spent the big day on a quiet holiday in Scotland with school chums. But don’t let the low-key observance fool you. Diana’s shy, fair-haired boy is not “16 going on 35,” as Brian Hoey, author of 13 books on the royal family, once described Prince Charles. At Balmoral on Easter, William and his dad guffawed merrily as brother Harry, 13, took the wheel of Charles’s Range Rover and zoomed up an icy incline the royal bodyguards had declared impassable. A few weeks later—in a move that would have delighted Diana—Charles took his sons to a London performance by cross-dressing comic Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everage. When Dame Edna suggested to the audience that the royal boys might enjoy donning drag themselves, all three princes collapsed in laughter.
Indeed, with the one-year anniversary of Diana’s Aug. 31 death approaching, William’s grief is giving way to good times. An excellent student, he ended his spring exams at tony Eton on June 11—after clocking the school’s best times since 1987 in the 50-and 100-meter junior freestyle swims. (The initials W.O.W. on his track suit stand for William of Wales.) On July 5, he and Harry will likely schmooze with the Spice Girls and All Saints (his current fave band) at Charles’s annual Prince’s Trust concert in London. And William will spend most of the summer happily holed up at Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish estate. As avid a country sportsman as his father, he’ll be “shooting anything that moves, fishing in the icy river Dee, having what passes for a picnic with footmen serving him,” says Hoey. “Nothing changes up there.”
Not so William himself. As his sorrow eases, the young prince is learning to forge a relationship with the press he so abhors. The week before his birthday, in a gesture widely seen as a reward to the British media for showing restraint in pursuit of details about his personal life, he agreed to answer written questions posed to him by the British Press Association’s Peter Archer. His responses were hardly soul-baring, but there were revelations. He shares the royals’ love of horses. He likes computer games, fast food, techno music and “modern” clothes that he buys himself. (He feels comfortable even in the very unmodern swallowtail coat, starched collar and striped trousers that are the uniform at Eton, which he also professes to like.) He loves to read, particularly action-adventure fiction and nonfiction; he also likes action movies. And he confessed that he’d love to go on an African safari, as his dad and brother got to do last year on their trip to South Africa. He even admitted to a couple of dislikes: the glare of the public spotlight and the adulation of teenage girls.
“He comes across quite sympathetically, as thoughtful and sensitive with an artistic flair,” says Archer, who was allowed to peruse palace archives for personal nuggets as well. (When he was hit in the head by a golf club at age 7, Archer discovered, Wills, as he was then known, was very brave and didn’t cry.)
At Highgrove, Charles’s country home, William reportedly occupies a honey-colored suite overlooking lush gardens; he has chosen family photos and a poster of his current object of affection, Christie Brinkley, to adorn the walls. (“The days of Cindy Crawford and Pamela Anderson have gone,” says Archer.) At school he excels at English, enjoys silver-working (“He’s very clever with his hands,” says Richard Kay, a former Diana confidant) and cuts a dashing figure on the soccer fields, the tennis courts and—of course—in the pool. He also loves water polo, rugby and team clay-pigeon shooting. “He has had many experiences the average-lad would recognize,” says Archer.
Still, let’s face it—the fact that he’s 6’1″, has his mom’s sapphire eyes and is constantly trailed by bodyguards sets him apart from the average kid. “William’s shoes are always so shiny, his trousers well-pressed,” marvels an Eton bookshop owner. “He looks different from the others.”
That, of course, is old news to the world’s teenage girls, who long ago placed the reluctant charmer right up there with Leonardo DiCaprio. (“It’s something about his eyes that just makes me weird,” explains Diana Araujo, 13, of Little Egg Harbor, N.J., founder of one of the 22-odd Web pages in the prince’s honor.) In Vancouver with Charles and Harry in March, William was besieged by frenzied girls proposing marriage. “He has replaced his mother as the royal star,” says royals author Judy Wade—and he’s not sure he likes it. “William has a hard time with public exposure, let alone being a teenagers’ pinup,” says Archer.
So, apparently, do his schoolmates. At Eton, where William occupies an ordinary single room at Manor House, an ivy-covered residence housing 50 students, he takes ribbing for his teen-dream status (the 100 Valentine’s Day cards he reportedly received this year didn’t help). “They wolf-whistle at him, which he loathes,” says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. Yet he has a tight set of friends, and even the merest of acquaintances wouldn’t dream of “talking about him [to outsiders], not even to their parents,” says one Eton dad. Thus, while it seems likely Diana’s boy didn’t reach sweet 16 without having been kissed—royal watchers say he has dated at least two girls—the heart-pounding details won’t be forthcoming. (And sorry, commoners: The lucky two were “upper class, very much so,” says Richard Kay.)
The privacy William enjoys at Eton, in fact, has been an incalculable source of solace during the past 10 months—undoubtedly the most difficult of his life. “The press is just never around anymore,” says a local. Also at Eton is Dr. Andrew Gailey, 42, the kindly housemaster who helped him through his parents’ divorce and who continues to offer a compassionate ear. And if Gailey can’t help, William knows that former Prime Minister John Major, his legal guardian, is just a phone call away. “It’s a good idea to have someone to sound off to sometimes,” says a source—especially since psychotherapy, Diana’s favorite healing aid, isn’t a Palace tradition. “Professional help?” splutters one insider. “Good gracious, no!”
Instead, primary credit for the prince’s seeming equanimity these days goes to his family. He and Harry—who, despite past academic difficulties, passed Eton’s entrance exam and will join his brother there next fall—”see each other often,” says Majesty’s Seward. “They get along well.” Charles, beyond bringing the boys’ beloved former companion Tiggy Legge-Bourke, 33, back into the fold, is more openly affectionate, and his schedule now incorporates trips with his sons. (On June 26, Charles and Harry were scheduled to take in a World Cup match in Paris.) Cousin Peter Phillips, 20, Princess Anne’s son and a university student, serves as a sporty, down-to-earth role model, while Peter’s bubbly sister Zara, 17, “loves to tease William and make him blush, which he does easily,” says Hoey. “She has a wonderful ability to deflate egos.” Even dour Prince Philip—known for his failings as a father to Charles—has risen to the occasion. He takes William on duck-shooting expeditions, where they discuss “family matters, as well as the future,” Kay reported in the Daily Mail.
One notable absence in William’s life, however, is the Spencer clan. Despite Earl Spencer’s elegiac promise to look after his sister’s boys, Diana’s family has had minimal influence—though perhaps not by choice. Soon after Diana’s death, William and Harry turned down Lady Sarah McCorquodale’s offer to spend two weeks this summer with her family in Cornwall, and lately there have been press reports that when Sarah and her sister Lady Jane Fellowes, 41, phone the princes, their calls are returned by Legge-Bourke. As for the earl, 34, he continues to reside primarily in Cape Town, so “the geography keeps them apart,” says Seward.
Still, Charles and the boys may see their uncle when they make their first visit to Diana’s burial site at Althorp this week, before the museum there opens on July 1. (They sent flowers to her grave on Mother’s Day.) But the two families will remember Diana separately on the anniversary of her death: the Spencers at Althorp, the Windsors at Balmoral with Prime Minister Tony Blair and wife Cherie. Says a friend of Diana’s: “William lives in his father’s world now.”
So much so that royal watchers believe William and Harry may finally meet, for the first time, the love of their father’s life, Camilla Parker Bowles. “It’s got to happen sooner or later, and Charles’s 50th birthday in November would be the obvious opportunity,” says Archer. Judging from William’s reaction to the idea when Charles broached it earlier this year, the meeting might actually go well. “He said, ‘Whatever makes you happy, Papa,’ ” Richard Kay reported in the Daily Mail.
In the meantime, William will follow a familiar routine. In September he will return to Eton to study geography, biology and art history. (“He could prove to be the most intellectual royal this century,” says Archer.) For vacations and the occasional weekend, he will repair to Highgrove or to St. James’s Palace, where his suite is furnished with reminders of Diana: the carpet, TV and kilim wall hanging—one of her last gifts to him—are all from her Kensington Palace apartment. (He and Harry were allowed to select any of their mother’s personal belongings; William especially treasures her Carrier “Tank” watch.)
But William’s cocooned life can’t last forever. The British press, predicts royals expert James Whitaker, will stop respecting his privacy “the day he appears with a gorgeous blonde on his arm.” The media have already reported that a group of upper-class British women known as the Marden’s Club (“They decide which [girls] are suitable for the scions of aristocracy,” explains Hoey) is on the lookout for a girl-who-could-be-queen. And the Palace recently harrumphed over a romance-related press transgression: When the Mail on Sunday reported that any girl William likes is vetted and then invited to tea, officials complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the piece was “grossly intrusive” and inaccurate.
In time, duty too will call. After Eton, William will likely attend Cambridge University, as his father did, and then perhaps go on to postgrad studies before joining the military. Says Seward: “He doesn’t like the idea of being pushed into anything. I know Diana was quite keen on him going to Harvard, like a lot of European princes do.” (In his answers to the Press Association, he said he has not decided where he wants to study next.) William is also being schooled in the ways of a future monarch. He regularly visits his grandmother at Windsor Castle, across the Thames from Eton. And she has come to see him at school (one visit was in February to watch him in a school production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest). “The Queen is determined there will be no mistakes with his upbringing or career development,” says Hoey. “He’s the hope for the future.”
Diana, of course, dreamed of nothing less for her son. “She always used to say she wanted William to be happy, and it’s quite clear she wanted him to be king,” says Archer. It’s a tall order, one that the prince she married has yet to pull off. But one that the prince she gave birth to just might.
Nina Biddle and Simon Perry in London and J. Jennings Moss in New York City