"Animals are the traditional circus," she tells PEOPLE in a rare interview
Credit: Pacific Coast News

Princess Stephanie is a mom, a royal, the daughter of Princess Grace – and a passionate circus fan.

“There’s no recipe for transmitting the love of circus,” she told PEOPLE exclusively during the celebrations in Monaco this week of the 40th anniversary of the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival.

“I think it’s in you, in your genes,” says Stephanie, 50. “I got it from my father [Prince Rainier III] and fortunately my daughter has it in hers.”

And the animal lover, who adopted two retired circus elephants, is unequivocal in her support of animals as circus performers.

“I think all the acts we have this year are superb, but today, it’s important to support animal acts,” she says. “Animals are the traditional circus. It’s what people remember from their childhood.

“You ask people, ‘What is the circus?’ They’ll say, ‘Animals, clowns and acrobats!’ That’s what people want. If you say you don’t have animals, they walk away.”

At the festival’s gala on Tuesday night, Stephanie’s big brother Prince Albert II presented her with a surprise award following the show’s finale.

Stepping out of the Royal Box, in which he was joined by their older sister, Princess Caroline, Caroline’s son Pierre Casiraghi and Stephanie’s children Pauline and Louis Ducruet, Albert addressed the crowd.

Noting that although there was no competition at this year’s anniversary festival, he said he was presenting the only “Clown d’Or” (Golden Clown) “to my sister, la Princesse Stephanie.” (Visibly moved, she was carried away behind the curtain by circus performers!)

“Circus is what real life should be like,” Stephanie told PEOPLE before the gala. “It’s sincerity, feeling, emotions. All real. There are no lies in circus. There are artists working together to give a smile. It’s a world where people help one another. It’s the only show where a family, everyone from children to their grandmothers, can sit together and all be entertained by the same thing.

“Circus is the magic you should show your children.”

Stephanie was just 9 when her monarch father decided to start the festival. But that wasn’t her first time under a big top.

Throughout her childhood, “Dad would take me to every circus, small or large, which came along the coast. He dreamed of being a circus director and then by creating this festival, he became the director of the most beautiful circus in the world.”

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From its debut on a field beside the Mediterranean Sea under borrowed canvas, to today’s state-of-the-art, 3,800-seat tent, the Monte Carlo Festival is designed ” to share what circus is doing,” says Stephanie. My Dad created this showcase.”

And the family connection to the festival remains strong: “It is still emotional for me, because this was his tent,” she says.

As for the prospect of her daughter Pauline, 21, someday taking over? of the festival, her mom says, “Pauline is still very young,” adding playfully, “I’ll still be around here a few more years!”