December 02, 2002 12:00 PM

How can Chelsea Clinton tell she’s not in Washington, D.C., anymore? She shows up for a gala on Oct. 14 at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum honoring the late fashion designer Gianni Versace, and the flashbulbs pop, and socialites queue for air kisses. Escorted by her Rhodes Scholar boyfriend Ian Klaus, and flanked for much of the evening by the pair of unlikely chums she has made in a year of jetsetting around the Continent—Madonna and Donatella Versace—Clinton swanned through the throng with the greatest of ease. Not bad for a 22-year-old grad student who grew up media-shy in the White House fishbowl. “She looked beautiful,” says a fellow partygoer. “Very comfortable in that kind of company.”

So much for sophomore slump. As she starts her second and final year of study for a master’s in international relations at Oxford, Clinton has buried her old image as the bookish child of ferociously protective parents. Since unveiling a sleek new look at Versace’s Paris couture show last January, the former First Daughter is reveling in her freedom with a giddy grand tour, canoodling in Venice one day, riding horses in Ireland the next. “She’s becoming her own person,” says Jane magazine editor-in-chief Jane Pratt, a witness to Clinton’s Paris triumph, “not just the daughter of Hillary and Bill.”

And what better way to declare independence than by moving out of the dorms? Last year Clinton lodged at University College, her father’s Oxford alma mater when he was a Rhodes Scholar, from 1968 to 1969. This year she and Klaus, 24, who is studying English and history at Jesus College, rented flats a few blocks apart in North Oxford.

Since meeting the Marin County, Calif.-bred son of exercise-equipment mogul Robin Klaus and his wife, Patricia, a horse breeder, last fall, Clinton has been besotted. “We’re in love,” she told PEOPLE in June. The pair have become London nightlife fixtures, hanging out with the likes of Bono and Boy George. Perhaps not surprisingly, Clinton’s coming out has been accompanied by a little acting out—in May a tipsy-looking Chelsea was photographed outside London’s Embassy nightclub. “She was supposed to be the good girl,” says Pratt. “This is her version of rebellion.” Not everyone approves: “I’m sure she thinks it is very sophisticated,” sniffs one Washington hostess.

What no one doubts is the depth of her feeling for Klaus. “There’s a lot of under-the-table handholding,” says a former White House staffer. In August the pair shared an apartment in New York City and hit trendy night spots together, which didn’t go unnoticed by Senator Clinton. On Oct. 23 Hillary said jokingly that she attended a Democratic fund-raiser at Lotus, a chic Manhattan boîte, because “I wanted to see where my daughter has spent a lot of time.”

Klaus, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis whose family is far wealthier than his girlfriend’s, appears undaunted by Bill and Hill, vacationing with them in the Dominican Republic last spring and on Martha’s Vineyard in August for the former President’s 56th birthday. There he and Bill spent an afternoon golfing. “Chelsea is very careful to understand that he’s not been part of this world before, with all the media attention,” says a friend. “And he’s supportive of her in that world.”

Now that the young couple are back in England, there won’t be as much time for high-profile fun. After completing a 30,000-word thesis by March (topic yet to be declared), Clinton may have to take a grueling oral exam known as a viva voce. What will she do for an encore? Anything she sets her mind to, friends predict. “She has been in full bloom ever since I met her,” says G. Neel Lattimore, a former press aide to Hillary Clinton. “This is a young woman with amazing beauty and staying power.”

J.D. Heyman

Pete Norman in London, Caris Davis in Oxford, Robin Micheli in Rome, Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., and Elizabeth Cobb and Liza Hamm in New York City

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