September 30, 1996 12:00 PM

FOR MUCH OF THE PAST DECADE, the Windsors have set the standard for flabbergasting royal headlines. Now, with Buckingham Palace enjoying an unsteady calm for the moment, Monaco’s Grimaldis have stepped into the breach. On Sept. 16, Princess Stephanie, 31, filed for divorce from her bodyguard turned husband, Daniel Ducruet, 31, two weeks after European magazines published pictures of him frolicking vigorously with one Fili Houteman, a stripper whose résumé includes the title Miss Bare Breasts of Belgium 1995. Still, by the time of the announcement, I’affaire Ducruet had already given way to an even more baffling minidrama: the startling change in appearance of Princess Caroline, 39. Photographed by a paparazzo outside her home in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France on Sept. 7, the normally glamorous, Chanel-clad beauty was, inexplicably, utterly bald.

Naturally, the sight sent the tabs into overdrive. “Caroline plays a skinhead!” blared the popular newspaper France-Soir, which dubbed the Grimaldis’ latest travails “Apocalypse Monaco.” The Sun, a London tabloid, adopted a macabre tone: “She looks more like a concentration camp victim than the woman widely regarded as one of the [world’s] most beautiful.” While no official statement was issued by the Palace, rumors swirled that Caroline’s condition was a result of everything from cancer to scabies to a misguided attempt at a daring new hairdo. “These are very private family affairs,” said Isabelle Peters, a spokeswoman for the Monaco Press Center, long a mouthpiece for the Grimaldis. “I think it is very unfortunate that the Palace does not make some sort of statement to quiet the rumors, but that’s their policy.” But last week, Prince Albert, 38, while remaining vague, did shed some light on Caroline’s condition. “It’s a skin problem, a dermatology thing,” he told a PEOPLE reporter. “It’s nothing serious, and her hair will grow back. Other than that, she’s fine.”

And the rest, so far, is silence. Given what’s known about Caroline’s condition—her baldness was sudden (in photographs, she appears to have had her own hair as recently as the end of August) and complete—there are a number of explanations possible (see box, page 73). Whatever the case, there is no doubt Caroline has endured a stressful year, even by Grimaldi standards. In January she broke up with her beau of five years, French actor Vincent Lindon, 37, whom many Monegasques considered more down-to-earth than Caroline’s two husbands (in 1980, she divorced boulevardier Philippe Junot; in 1990, real estate developer Stefano Casiraghi, father of her three children—Andrea, now 12, Charlotte, 10, and Pierre, 9—died in a powerboat accident). But Lindon was reportedly unable—or unwilling—to blend into Caroline’s high-society world. “Vincent wanted an upside-down fairy tale in which the princess is turned into a shepherdess,” said Paris Match. He is now involved with 27-year-old French actress Sandrine Kiberlain.

Caroline herself seems to have found comfort with a prince—albeit a married one. Shortly after splitting from Lindon, she traveled to Thailand and Burma with longtime friend Prince Ernst of Hanover, a German cousin to Queen Elizabeth and Spain’s Queen Sofia. When rumors grew that the two were romantically involved, Caroline felt forced to put out a statement last spring saying that they had indeed taken a cultural trip together but that “there [was] nothing” between them.

Prior to the trip, though, the couple had been spotted strolling together with her children in New York City. Also, according to the Daily Mail, Caroline has several times checked into a hotel in London, where Ernst, 42, shares a mansion purportedly worth $6 million with his Swiss-born wife, Chantal, and two sons Ernst, 13, and Christian, 11. “Let’s put it this way,” says Daily Express columnist Ross Benson, a friend of Ernst’s. “Everyone has been absolutely convinced for some time that their friendship appears to have overstepped the boundaries of propriety.”

The two were seen shopping together as recently as Sept. 5 in Saint-Rémy—Caroline, presumably already hairless, wore a turban—but have never been involved in public displays of affection. Of course, the princess, who through the years has successfully sued several European tabs for libel, is only too aware of the press’s watchful eye. “You don’t get used to people looking at you all the time,” she told October’s Harper’s Bazaar, in which she appears in good health on the cover. “It’s difficult, because I always realize I haven’t chosen it…. I was never given the chance—or circumstances never allowed me—to say, ‘Stop, I want to get out of this; this is not what I wanted.’ ” Still, says one paparazzo who follows the Grimaldis, “Caroline certainly wouldn’t put herself in a compromising position. She is not as stupid as Daniel Ducruet.”

Ducruet has not, in fact, behaved with the prudence one would expect of a young man with an eye to the future. Somehow his escapade with Houteman was not only photographed but videotaped, and a 90-minute version is being hawked just across the Italian border in Ventimiglia. (Ducruet has claimed that the whole incident was a setup; by whom he hasn’t said.) But Houteman, 24, who has been selling her story to the press, claims he never played hard to get. “I told him I was just a stripper,” she said in the French gossip magazine Void “He answered that he’d be proud to hold my hand in the street. He called me his little corner of blue sky.”

When Stephanie and Ducruet met in 1988, she could have been Exhibit A in a book called Smart Princesses, Dumb Choices. She went through men (race-car driver Paul Belmondo, actor Anthony Delon, record producer Ron Bloom, actor Rob Lowe and twice-divorced disco owner Mario Oliver) faster than she went through alleged careers (model, singer, bathing suit designer). Ducruet, a tattooed tough and Monaco cop whom the Palace appointed Stephanie’s bodyguard, seemed like another bad bet: The couple had two children, Louis, now 3, and Pauline, 2, before Rainier would sanction the marriage, which occurred in July 1995. This despite the fact that Ducruet had, a few months before Louis’s birth, fathered a child with another woman. Yet Monegasques say Stephanie seemed happy in her marriage. In photographs with Ducruet she was, almost always, smiling. “The [bad] things that have been said about Daniel are astonishing,” Stephanie told PEOPLE in 1992. “Now my family life comes before everything.”

Rainier, who had welcomed Ducruet only warily, must have relished the alacrity with which his daughter gave him the boot. On Sept. 14, Ducruet, who was hiding from the media at a Moroccan hotel, returned to Monaco. After two meetings with her husband, Stephanie, conforming to royal protocol, wrote a letter to her father on Sept. 16 formally requesting the divorce, which is expected to be approved in five weeks. Soon to be persona non grata at royal functions, Ducruet, under Monaco’s séparation de biens rule, most likely will leave the marriage with what he brought into it: in other words, not much. Stephanie’s lawyer, Thierry Lacoste, denies reports that Ducruet will receive $3,000 per month in alimony. For the time being, the excised Ducruet will have to rely on income from a small Monte Carlo security company that he co-owns with his brother Alain. A prenuptial agreement drawn up at Rainier’s insistence strips Ducruet of any custodial rights to the children. “Rainier,” said France-Soir, “won’t shed a tear.”

Though Lacoste reported that the Princess was “very affected” by her husband’s betrayal, his client looked “almost serene,” according to Le Parisien, on the day her split from Ducruet was announced. Busying herself at the Replay Store and Replay Cafe—the sportswear boutique with an adjoining restaurant that she and Ducruet had planned to open officially in Monaco on Sept. 27—the princess has yet to set a new date for its debut, and the continued partnership is doubtful. “It is unfortunate that this happened,” says Prince Albert, “but it will take its course.”

The impending divorce has already fueled speculation concerning a bigger question. Caroline is bald, Stephanie’s marriage is over, Prince Rainier, 73, had heart bypass surgery two years ago and is rumored to be in poor health. Next Jan. 8 will mark the 700th anniversary of Grimaldi rule, and huge celebrations are planned throughout the year. Might now be a good time for Rainier to abdicate in favor of his son? “Only my father has any idea when that might occur,” says Albert, who has also been fending off rumors that he must get married soon to appear more suitable for the job. “At the moment, there’s nothing on the cards for either my marriage or my taking over the reins of the principality.”

Given what the Grimaldis have survived in 700 years—plague, the French Revolution, Philippe Junot—it’s a good bet they’ll get through this too. Albert has no doubt. “This will pass,” he says, “and we will make it as a family to the anniversary celebrations.”



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