November 21, 2005 12:00 PM

For São Paulo’s young elite, the lush grounds of the Brazilian city’s Oscar Americano Foundation museum make for a fairy-tale wedding locale: rustic terraces, twinkling lights and jacaranda trees. But last month, when one prospective groom and his trim, ponytailed bride-to-be checked out the place, they didn’t seem particularly giddy. No nuzzling, no cuddling. “They were all business,” said one observer.

As she finalizes plans for her Dec. 3 wedding to Brazilian horseman Alvaro “Doda” Affonso de Miranda Neto, 32, Athina Roussel finally has a chance to shed her poor-little-rich-girl image. The granddaughter of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis—who famously had an affair with opera singer Maria Callas and later wed Jackie Kennedy—Athina was just 3 when her mother, Christina, was found dead in a bathtub at 37 after a long battle with drugs and depression. Now Athina seems poised to put that tragic legacy behind her. “She’s intelligent and mature,” says one insider. “She has a strong personality and knows what she wants.”

Indeed. With her Jan. 29 birthday around the corner, she has already weathered (and won) a bitter struggle with her father for control of her $800 million personal inheritance.

Now she’s girding for a court fight to take control of Onassis’s $1 billion charitable foundation (see box).

But the looming battle isn’t distracting her from planning for her big day. “The preparations for the wedding are going well. We’re very excited,” Doda told Brazil’s Caras magazine last month. While most details are being kept under wraps, São Paulo is abuzz with rumors about the upcoming civil ceremony, speculating on who will design her gown, bake her cake and handle the floral arrangements. One detail, though, is set: One prominent member of the formal wedding party will be Doda’s 5-year-old daughter Viviane from a relationship with model Sibele Dorsa.

At the center of the hubbub is Athina, who has lately been a regular at Sao Paulo’s VIP Kyron spa—known for its $115 antistress baths. But those who know her say she can handle pre-wedding jitters. A shy child, Athina today is likely to be seen zipping around in her SUV (tailed by her security contingent) doing her own grocery shopping or perusing $1,000 cashmere robes at a shop called Trousseau. “She’s a healthy young woman, physically and psychologically,” says a friend. “She lives in that world of jet-set travel, limousines and bodyguards, but that’s not what counts for her. She likes simple things—jeans, tennis, horses. And of course, Doda.”

That would be her chiseled 6’2″ Brazilian fiancé, the son of a businessman and his horse-breeder wife. Given the size of Athina’s fortune, some have questioned Doda’s intentions, but he himself has professed sincerity. “I love her with all my heart,” he said in ’03. Even some early skeptics are now convinced their three-year romance is the real thing. “Everybody thought he was just a gold digger, but I’m less inclined to believe that now,” says one acquaintance. “She’s crazy about him, but I think he’s also sincerely fond of her. She’s stronger and more genuine than the women he’s known.” The two, who share an $8 million penthouse condo overlooking Sao Paulo’s equivalent of Central Park, prefer watching DVDs at home to club hopping. When they do go out, it’s often to trendy Nakombi for sushi, where Athina has the Romeo and Juliet rolls. “They’re very discreet. They don’t kiss,” says owner Paulo Barossi. “She’s reserved, not arrogant. Sweet, low profile.”

That Athina has achieved any semblance of normality seems a miracle, given her tumultuous childhood. After her mother’s death, Athina was raised in Switzerland, along with three step-siblings, by her father, businessman Thierry Roussel, now 52, and his wife, Gaby, whom friends credit with providing a stable, loving home. The love of Doda, a mid-ranked show jumper who has earned two Olympic bronze medals, seems to have given her a focus. The two are “a good match,” said Doda’s mother, Beth Miranda. “She’s levelheaded. And they’re both dedicated to riding horses.”

Today, aside from her wedding plans, Athina has her sights set on riding for the Greek Olympic team in ’08. “She wants to be known as a show-jumping champion rather than a poor little rich girl, and you can’t help but respect her for that,” says an acquaintance. As for Doda, he seems to have plans of his own. “For now [Athina and I] want to spend more time with Viviane,” he said last month. “Later we will give her a brother or sister.”

Susan Schindehette. Linda Trischitta, Elizabeth Johnson and Ciara O’Sullivan in São Paulo and Toula Vlahou in Athens

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