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Saturday, 7 July, 2001, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
The rise of Camilla

By Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

The friendship between The Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles, which has endured for 30 years, has been a roller-coaster ride of on-off romance, divorce, death and illicit love.

Recent events, though, such as their first public kiss and Camilla's formal introduction to The Queen, seem to show that the both the Royal Family and the British people are slowly coming to terms with what Prince Charles has called the "non-negotiable" part of his life.

Even so, Camilla has resolutely kept herself to herself.

The young Camilla Shand, who came out as a debutante in 1965 was, according to a friend, "very fanciable". Slim and blonde, with an earthy sense of humour, she first met Prince Charles at a polo match in 1971.

Camilla looking glamorous
People who meet Camilla comment on her good looks
The following year, while she and Charles danced at a London nightclub, it is claimed Camilla told him: "My great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather's mistress so how about it?"

The pair dated for a time but after Charles decided to concentrate on a naval career, Camilla married Major Andrew Parker-Bowles. Even so, the two remained close. Camilla was official escort to the Prince during the Zimbabwean independence celebrations in 1980.

She arrived looking petite, slim and pretty

Linda Edwards, National Osteoporosis Society
Their well-documented romance was rekindled in 1986. Diana, Princess of Wales, said: "There were three in the marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

Today, following the traumas of her own and Charles's divorces and Diana's death, Camilla finds herself on the verge of being accepted as never before.

Those who meet her are immediately struck by her looks. Linda Edwards, Director of the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS), says: "I was taken aback when I first met her. She arrived looking petite, very slim and quite pretty."

Mrs Parker Bowles offered her services to the NOS in 1994 after her mother's death from the disease, which causes bones to become extremely brittle.

"She was unsure at first," adds Linda Edwards, "but Camilla is the most active of our patrons. She has taken trouble to understand the disease and has raised in the region of 250,000 for the charity.

"It is a joy to us to see her receiving better treatment from the press."

Charles and Camilla together in public for the first time
Charles and Camilla together in public for the first time
That better treatment has been hard won. The Prince of Wales's advisers, notably his deputy private secretary Mark Boland, have worked vigorously on Camilla's behalf to ensure favourable coverage from British newspapers.

Besides last year's meeting with The Queen, their greatest coup came in January 1999 when Charles and Camilla were photographed together for the first time as they left the Ritz Hotel in London, where they had attended a birthday party for Camilla's sister Annabel.

Although two-thirds of people want them to marry, four out of five don't want a Queen Camilla

Bob Houston, Royalty Magazine
So many flashguns went off that television news programmes were prevented from using the footage because of its possible effect on people with epilepsy.

But, even with the media more supportive, Camilla finds the British public still uncertain about what her role should be. Recent polls have given a mixed picture of her popularity.

Bob Houston, editor of Royalty Magazine, says: "There's a real dilemma here. Although two-thirds of people want the couple to marry, what sticks in the craw is that four out of five people don't want a Queen Camilla."

Charles and Camilla have played down any talk of marriage and theirs is a cosy relationship. Indeed, they called each other Fred and Gladys. They dine together often and Camilla, who only lives half an hour away, stays at Highgrove two or three nights a week.

Camilla in hunting rig
Camilla's life extends beyond the Hunt
She is said to have overcome one of the greatest hurdles by being accepted by Princes William and Harry. According to Bob Houston, Camilla is not the only one to benefit.

"Prince Charles's position as a father is more to the forefront," he says. "He's no longer just seen as a royal sperm bank."

For Camilla, such acceptance has come late in the day and there are no guarantees as to what lies ahead.

But, for the woman who has in the past suffered such indignities as being labelled the "Rottweiler" and having bread rolls thrown at her by Diana fans, to have come this far down the Highgrove path without facing further hostility must in itself count as a significant achievement.

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