By Tom Gliatto
Updated June 01, 1998 12:00 PM

Last summer, NBC Today coanchor Matt Lauer had friends intrigued and delighted with his ardor for Annette Roque, a Dutch model he had met on a blind date. “He sounded very much in love,” says ABC News correspondent and former Today colleague Elizabeth Vargas. “It was clear she was different from anyone else he has ever gone out with.” The only problem for Lauer’s pals was meeting Roque (professional name: Jade). She always seemed to be off on a shoot and not on the arm of Lauer, the Prince Charming of morning newscasters. “We teased Matt,” says Vargas. “We’d say, ‘This woman is a phantom. She doesn’t exist.’ ”

But she does, of course, and on her finger the 32-year-old Roque now sports a very real engagement ring set with a pear-shaped diamond. Lauer, 40, who brought Roque with him during Today’s recent five-country “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” tour, popped the question in Venice on April 28. Lauer has declined to talk about the engagement, but those close to the couple were happy to gush. “Annette is a sweetheart,” says Lauer’s sister April Stone. “We are absolutely thrilled.” Adds Vargas: “Matt picked the most romantic setting in the world. He would think of that.”

Part Indonesian, Roque has “perfect exotic looks,” says Patrick Lemire, the French modeling agent who gave Roque her break when she left Amsterdam for Paris nine years ago. A familiar face in European cosmetics ads by the time she relocated to New York City, Roque has appeared in J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret catalogs, among other assignments. Marriage to a star, says Today entertainment reporter Jill Rappaport, won’t faze her. “She’s busy with her schedule,” says Rappaport. “She goes all over the world.”

For now, at least. According to Lemire, Roque is at heart a homebody. “She’s unpretentious and with her feet firmly on the ground,” he says, “a typical Dutch trait.” What makes her special, adds Rappaport, is her warmth. She recalls the couple’s visit to her home in the Hamptons last year, when Roque, an equestrian like Rappaport, “went running into the barn to see the horses and kissed their noses.” Certainly Lauer wasn’t looking for a jetsetter. “He really wanted to marry and have kids,” says ABC’s Vargas.

Through a mutual friend, freelance stylist Maria Santoro, Lauer and Roque met last July. “They had a drink, he got her number, and that was it,” says someone who knows the couple. “There was definitely a connection.” Eight months later, the highly eligible Lauer—whose history includes a seven-year marriage (to television producer Nancy Alspaugh) and a canceled engagement (to TV reporter Kristen Gesswein)—told Larry King on March 10 that he was “extremely committed and spoken for.” Lauer even bet the skeptical, oft-married talk show host $5,000 that the relationship would lead to the altar. “We’ll look at each other one day and say boom,” said Lauer. “And it’ll happen quickly.”

And quietly. “Matt is a private person,” says Rappaport, “and so is Annette.” When he broke the news to coworkers, says weatherman Al Roker, “Matt pulled each one of us aside and said, ‘I want to share something with you that I’m very happy about.’ ” Though a date has been set, Roker says, “If I told ya, I’d have to kill ya.” On that day, at any rate, Lauer’s friends will all get to see his phantom bride. “Hey, I don’t know her,” says Boston Globe political cartoonist Paul Szep, a Lauer buddy for some 20 years. “But Matt’s absolutely ecstatic. So in my book she’s terrific.”

Tom Gliatto

Sue Miller in New York City and Isabel Conway in Amsterdam