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Royal Roadshow

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Arran Skinner, for one, was impressed. A native of Scotland studying at the New York Academy of Art in Manhattan, he was drawing in one, of the school’s classrooms when Prince Charles’s beloved, Camilla Parker Bowles, suddenly walked in and started chatting with him. When Skinner, 23, expressed enthusiasm about the London art school that she and the prince are pushing for, Mrs. P.B., as Charles’s handlers call her, took his address. “I like that she’s not out trying to save dying children,” says the starstruck student. “She’s doing something she’s interested in.”

Score one for the prince’s spinmeisters. For if, as royal watchers believe, Parker Bowles’s five-day sojourn in New York City last month was not the family holiday it was billed as but a well-orchestrated up-with-Camilla offensive, the student’s thumbs-up was right on target.

Two years after Princess Diana’s death put Charles’s relationship with his love of the past 28 years back under wraps, Camilla’s image makeover has moved into high gear. Following a carefully choreographed photo op outside London’s Ritz hotel last January—the first time the prince and his paramour had been photographed alone together since the early ’70s—the pair have attended the theater à deux, entertained at Buckingham Palace (while Her Majesty was away), even cruised the Mediterranean—reportedly at Prince William‘s suggestion-with their respective offspring: William, 17, and Prince Harry, 15, and Tom, 24, and Laura Parker Bowles, 21.

Camilla’s meet-the-New York-glitterati trip, for which Charles’s aide Mark Bolland served as planner and escort, was the latest step—”unquestionably the next stage in the high-precision ‘coming out’ of Mrs. Parker Bowles as the Prince of Wales’s companion,” declared royals columnist Richard Kay in Britain’s Daily Mail. Explains Peter Archer, royals correspondent for the British Press Association: “America is once removed, so it’s a testing ground for public opinion.”

A testing ground that Charles, knowing the adoration of its occupants for Diana, hasn’t dared set foot in since her August ’97 death. But Camilla displayed no such trepidation. Arriving Sept. 19 via Concorde—the $10,000 fare courtesy of Charles—she then flew by private jet to the East Hampton home of financier Scott Bessent, 37, a friend of the prince’s. There she displayed the gung ho spirit Charles so admires, venturing into the sea for a bit of bodysurfing. “She was very brave. It was post-Hurricane Floyd, and the current was still strong,” reports Bessent. His neighbors paid her no mind. “We didn’t know she was here, and it wouldn’t have mattered if we had,” says author Steven Gaines, a longtime resident. “The Hamptons are full of mistresses.”

This one headed for Manhattan on Sept. 21, checking into a $750-per-night suite at Diana’s favorite Manhattan hotel, the opulent Carlyle. Looking particularly smart in a succession of well-cut pastel suits and snappy spectator pumps, Camilla toured art galleries with philanthropist Eileen Guggenheim, took in Cabaret on Broadway and trolled the shops. “She looked very nice, more considered and groomed” than in the past, says Kate Reardon, fashion columnist for Britain’s The Times. “At home in Wiltshire she still wears her jeans and wellies. But she was aware people would be watching.”

They liked what they saw. At a cocktail party for British interior designer Robert Kime, Camilla chatted easily with such guests as decorator Mario Buatta, who declares the woman Diana dubbed the Rottweiler “much prettier in person.” Tycoon-about-town Mort Zuckerman, who joined Barbara Walters, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Oscar de la Renta at a luncheon for Parker Bowles held by society doyenne Brooke Astor, recalled having met Camilla’s “predecessor, and I found Camilla much easier to talk to.” And De la Renta, denying reports that he has been tapped to spiff up her wardrobe, found her “charming and intelligent,” he says. “I don’t understand why people always want to make her over. I think she looks great.”

Even the British tabloids largely refrained from sniping—a fact a certain former Windsor wife couldn’t help but notice. “If Diana or I had gone to New York, had a makeover [as some papers claimed Camilla did] and bought American clothes, we would never have been allowed,” says the Duchess of York. “It shows how the goalposts have widened since Diana’s death.”

And how the British have warmed toward Charles. In an opinion poll taken in June, 59 percent of respondents thought he could marry Camilla and still become King—up from just 28 percent right after Diana’s death.”

For both the prince and the woman whose “great achievement is to love me,” as he once told her, it must seem high time. Charles was smitten by Camilla Shand, the flirtatious, outdoorsy daughter of aristocrats, almost from the moment they met at a Windsor polo match in 1971. They dated, but she was already besotted with dashing army officer Andrew Parker Bowles; by the time Charles returned from a six-month stint at sea with the Royal Navy, Andrew and Camilla were engaged. Yet Charles never forgot her. Camilla’s union with Andrew was reportedly rocky, and she and Charles resumed the intermittent romance that ultimately contributed to the demise of both their marriages.

Those who know her say Camilla’s enduring appeal to Charles is no mystery. Not only do they share interests from painting to shooting, “she has lovely shoulders and a lovely cleavage…which the prince goes for in a big way,” banker Broderick Munro-Wilson, an old friend of hers, told Britain’s The Mirror. Camilla’s once nondescript style has evolved into tailored chic—suits by Tomasz Starzewski or Valentino are favorites—while that much-maligned coif (the Evening Standard called it “a hay field”) looks sleeker than it once did. “Her hair color is warmer and softer now,” says celeb colorist Jo Hansford, who ministers to Camilla at her London salon. “We all need a little softening as we go.”

And go she does. “If she has a problem,” says Munro-Wilson, “she is more likely to go for a gallop on a horse than see a therapist.”

The great-granddaughter of Alice Keppel, a lover of Edward VII’s, Camilla seems to feel that Charles is her destiny. She has long harbored an “almost obsessional ambition to recreate in her own life what [Keppel] did in hers,” Richard Kay recently wrote in the Daily Mail. A portrait of Keppel, in fact, dominates the drawing room of Ray Mill, Camilla’s Wiltshire home.

Whether this royal mistress will go Alice one better and marry her prince, however, remains to be seen. These days, Camilla and Charles enjoy a comfortable routine, spending at least three nights a week together at St. James’s Palace or at his country home, Highgrove. William and Harry are said to accept her and are fond of her children, Tom, a public-relations executive, and Laura, a college student. “Once, the British people loved to hate Camilla,” says the British Press Association’s Archer. “Now the majority say, ‘Live and let live.’ ”

The one who matters most, however, has yet to say anything of the kind. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth has never formally met Camilla. Royalty experts explain that the Queen, as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, cannot appear to condone extramarital affairs and divorce. “Camilla is actually the Queen’s sort of woman,” says one longtime royal watcher. “They are peas in a pod: calm and unfussed, with a rather ironic sense of humor.” Eventually, predicts Archer, Camilla “will be accepted not just by the public but by the Church of England [and the Queen].”

But don’t set aside time for a wedding. “Camilla on the palace balcony,” Archer says, “is a long, long way off.”

Kim Hubbard

Nina Biddle and Simon Perry in London and Diane Clehane, Sue Miller and Michael Sommers in New York City