Of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier’s three children, their youngest — Princess Stéphanie, who turns 52 today — has earned a reputation as a passionate animal advocate, mother and early champion of AIDS research. But her life took a tragic turn at a young age, when her mother was killed in a car accident when Stéphanie was just 17 years old (she was also in the car). In the decades since, she has experienced a series of dramatic highs and lows. In honor of her 52nd birthday (today!), here are five of the most notable:
1. She married her former bodyguard.
In 1995 Stéphanie married Daniel Ducret, her former bodyguard. Ducret was a member of Monaco’s police force when he first met the royal in 1988, but by the time the two were romantically involved, he was running a seafood-distributing business. “The first time we met…we exchanged a glance, and we couldn’t stop looking at each other,” Ducret told PEOPLE back in 1992. He was a controversial choice for the young royal: Not only was he divorced, he was also already a father to a son.
The couple had two children, Louis and Pauline, before they married in 1995. The marriage, however, was short-lived: They divorced the following year after photos surfaced of Ducret in a comprising position with a stripper. At the time of their 1996 divorce, French newspaper France-Soir wrote of Stéphanie’s father: “Rainier won’t shed a tear.”
2. She worked as a model and a singer.
After recovering from the injuries she sustained in the car crash that killed her mother in 1982, Stéphanie floated from job to job, working as an apprentice for Dior, designing a line of bathing suits and posing for magazine covers.
One of her earliest pursuits was working as a fashion model, with appearances in Vogue and Vanity Fair in the mid-’80s. She then turned her attention to music, and her first single, “Ouragan” — called “Irresistible” in English — was released in 1986, and was a hit: It sold around 5 million copies.
Her first album, Besoin, contained her second single, “Flash,” which sold more than 2.5 million copies. Her music career, however, didn’t last: Her second album, released in 1991, was a flop.
3. She had all three of her children out of wedlock.
When she announced her first pregnancy with Ducret in 1992, the Monégasque palace refused to comment or even acknowledge the impending arrival. At the time, a palace source told PEOPLE, “There will be no official statement [about the pregnancy].”
The couple welcomed son Louis, in November 1992, and then daughter Pauline in May 1994. Two years after divorcing Ducret, Stéphanie gave birth to her third child and second daughter, Camille. This pregnancy was very much under wraps: Neither Stéphanie nor the palace would confirm she was expecting. When Camille was born, her father’s name was not identified on her birth certificate. However, it was suspected that it was Jean-Raymond Gottlieb, which was essentially proven by Camille’s use of his last name.
4. She ran away with the circus.
In 2001, Stéphanie started seeing Franco Knie, a married elephant trainer whom she met at Monte Carlo’s annual International Circus Festival. Shortly after, Stéphanie and her three children began to travel with Knies and his circus, with daughter Pauline even participating in some of the acts. Though that relationship only lasted a year, it wasn’t the end of Stéphanie’s love affair with the circus — or those involved. She went on to marry Adans Lopez Peres, a Portuguese acrobat who worked in Knies’s troupe, in 2003.
She and Peres divorced after a year in 2004, though the circus remains a passion in her life today.
5. The fatal car crash that changed her life.
Throughout the ups and downs, one moment stands out in Stéphanie’s life for its unparalleled level of tragedy: The car accident that left her injured and killed her mother, Princess Grace. On September 13, 1982, mother and daughter were driving back to Monaco (with Grace at the wheel) from their country house Roc Agel, in France, when their car fell off a cliff on the side of the road. Grace was killed within hours of the accident, and Stéphanie was left with serious injuries, including a hairline fracture of a neck vertebra. It took her nearly a year to recover, and she wasn’t able to attend her mother’s funeral, as she was still in the hospital.
The accident that killed her mother continued to haunt Stéphanie in the years that followed. Rumors swirled about exactly who was behind the wheel — rumors she later addressed in an interview with her mother’s biographer.
“It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been starting to cope with it,” she told author Jeffrey Robinson, who wrote the biography Rainier nd Grace: An Intimate Portrait. “I still can’t go down that road, even if someone else is driving. I always ask them to take the other road.
“There was a lot of pressure on me because everyone was saying that I had been driving the car, that it was all my fault, that I’d killed my mother. It’s not easy when you’re 17 to live with that.”
Today, she is more at peace with her guilt for surviving while her mother died.
“After I got over my anger, got past the sense of injustice that was inside me, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I said, ‘Wait! Logically, you should have died too,’ ” she told France’s Point de Vue in October 2015. “If I was kept alive it was for a reason. You have a place in this world. You have to find it.”