Athina Onassis: Love me, love my billions

Today, the only scion of the fabled Greek shipping dynasty will walk down the aisle. But can Athina Onassis shake off the family jinx and finally find happiness?
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When Athina Onassis was a little girl, she had her own zoo, her dolls were dressed by Chanel and her first pram was a miniature Ferrari Testarossa. At 13, she was centre of an alleged kidnapping plot, involving mysterious men with links to the Israeli security services tailing her car through Swiss mountain resorts. Before she was allowed to go to sleep, bodyguards would check beneath her bed.

"I have tried to give her as ordinary a childhood as I can," her father, the Swiss pharmaceutical heir Thierry Roussel, has said. Even given Athina's position as heir to the Onassis billions, it is not an entirely convincing claim. And when she gets married at the £40,000-a-day Luisa and Oscar Americano charitable foundation in Sao Paolo today, it will be no ordinary wedding.

Little has been said about the nuptials officially. Yet Brazil's gossip magazines have filled the silence. Jennifer Lopez reportedly has been hired to sing at a cost of $1m (£577,000). There will be more than one security guard for every two guests (a ratio of 450 to 750), and 1,000 bottles of vintage champagne are on ice. The bride will wear a £40,000 pearl, lace and satin creation by Valentino - the designer who outfitted Jackie Kennedy for her wedding to Athina's grandfather, Aristotle Onassis.

But the most intriguing aspect of the event may turn out to be not the conspicuous consumption but the absence of her father. Roussel, it is said, refused to sign the invitations before they went out, and a friend close to the family claimed this week that neither he nor his Swedish wife, the former model Gaby Landhage, had been invited.

The so-called society wedding of the century risks being overshadowed by a feud that seems all too familiar to those who have followed the family's fortunes. For the third generation running, the words "gold-digger", "Onassis" and "marriage" are being whispered by some.

Nor is it just her choice of groom - an Olympic medal-winning Brazilian showjumper, Alvaro Alfonso de Miranda Neto - that is causing ructions. Athina is already rich beyond belief: on her 18th birthday, she inherited a fortune estimated at £2.5bn, including the Aegean island of Skorpios, the Metro-pole Hotel in Monte Carlo, 217 bank accounts, the Onassis shipping fleet and enough blue chip shares to float (or sink) a stock exchange.

On her 21st birthday next month, however, she stands to gain control of the other half of her mother's bequest, the charity fund named after her uncle Alexander. Such a prospect appears to have horrified the aged Greek trustees who control the fund in Athens.

These "greybeards", as they are nicknamed, have vowed never to hand over power to someone who - like Athina - does not speak Greek. Not for the first time, an essentially family drama is likely to be played out in front of a judge. So labyrinthine are the disputes that they make the legal convolutions in Bleak House look like a half-hour episode of The People's Court.

How did it happen? As good a place as any to begin is 20 October 1968. On that day, on Skorpios, Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis - uniting Greek wealth and the nearest thing America had to aristocracy.

The omens were not good for a long-term love match. Onassis had a reputation as a philanderer: his first wife had divorced the shipping magnate after finding him in bed with the opera singer Maria Callas. Sections of the press sniffed at his reputation as a businessman while simultaneously suggesting that Kennedy was in it for the money. A £1.5m diamond engagement ring added fuel to the fire.

None of this might have mattered to Jackie. Fears for the safety of her children made moving to a deserted Greek island appealing. The reality, however, proved less comforting. Onassis detested his wife's extravagance. When his son, Alexander, died in a plane crash he became depressed and contemplated divorce before he died of cancer in 1975.

Perhaps if Alexander had been around to share, things would have been different. But Aristotle's daughter, Christina, seemed singularly unsuited to carrying the Onassis flame alone. In 1984,she married her fourth husband, Roussel, which led to more accusations of gold-digging. Roussel's reputation as a playboy preceded him and he seemed to mesmerise the vulnerable Christina.

She paid him a £22m dowry, yet he taunted her about her weight (her nickname was "thunder thighs" or the "the Greek tanker"). He also encouraged her to buy a bigger private jet and spent a fortune on property.

Athina was born in January 1985. Yet during his three-year marriage to Christina, Roussel refused to give up his three mistresses, fathering two children by Landhage, whom he would later marry. When Thierry and Christina divorced in 1987, he walked away with a £73m settlement. She even tried to offer him a further £10m if he would give his sperm to provide her with another child.

It never happened. Christina died in 1988 - a heart attack in the bath in Buenos Aires following a liposuction operation, which may have been drug-induced. Once again the family wealth devolved on a single person: three-year-old Athina.

It was left to Roussel and his new wife, Landhage, to bring Athina up in Switzerland - a duty for which he was paid more than a million a year. Under the terms of Christina's will, however, the money was controlled by a panel of mainly Greek trustees.

As the years went by, conflict was almost inevitable. The Greek trustees were critical of the way Roussel handled parts of their fortune that he had been allowed to invest, claiming that he had lost millions in unwise speculation. Claim followed counter-claim: there have been at least 95 legal actions between Roussel and the trustees.

At one point, he went to court to claim control over the money, insisting that the Greek "greybeards" were attempting to kidnap his daughter. More plausibly (as much as anything in this twisted tale is truly plausible), they claimed they were simply monitoring her to confirm that she was satisfying the terms of a life-insurance policy.

Later, the 13-year-old Athina appeared in court to claim that she had "great abhorrence for everything that is Greek" and that she wished to break with the trustees. Roussel could claim a victory of sort when the courts eventually appointed the accounting firm KPMG to administer the inheritance.

But at what emotional cost? The moniker "poor little rich girl" stuck to Athina like a barnacle on one of her grandfather's tankers. As a teenager, she even considered giving all the money away when she inherited: "If I burn the money, there will be no problem. No money, no problem." The relationship between father and daughter seems to have been permanently damaged, too. Last year, he finally renounced all claim to managing the Onassis fortune: but only after he received a settlement of £53m.

This, then, is the kindling that has helped make today's wedding such a potentially combustible event. The spark that may light it, however, is the groom. Athina met Miranda at the Nelson Pessoa riding academy in 2002. Horse-mad since childhood, Athina was trying to reach the standard required to ride in the 2006 Olympics. Mirandawas her instructor when their affair began. Shortly afterwards, she left school.

There is no one more moral than a rake who becomes a father to a daughter: Thierry Roussel was said to have been apoplectic, dismayed by his daughter's refusal to go to university and disapproving of the fact that Miranda was 12 years older than her and a divorcé with a six-year-old daughter by his ex-wife, the former model Sibele Dorsa.

You do not have to be Dr Anthony Clare to wonder whether there isn't a pattern. Miranda's motives - love, money or a mixture of the two? - have been questioned just as Thierry's were. But the disturbing parallels do not stop there. Since beginning her relationship with the rider, there have been reports that Athina has had breast and buttock implants at her fiancé's request and that she has become blonder.

Some observers have wondered whether it is not just a morality tale about money that is being played out across the generations, but a self-destructive psychological drama.

"Athina is the third generation of Onassis woman to marry young, and to an older man," Alexis Mantheakis, a former spokesman for the family told one interviewer.

Others have pointed out that Athina seems genuinely happy in her relationship and the relative normality it offers. She is said to like simple Brazilian barbecues, eating Japanese food, watching DVDs and shopping amongst the hoi polloi - all ordinary pleasures but worth their weight in gold to a poor little rich girl. Since she met Miranda, she has also found some kind of accommodation with her Greek ancestry. Not only has she renewed her Greek passport, but she has joined an Athenian riding school and stated her wish to ride for the country of her grandfather's birth at the Olympics, although whether that will be enough to satisfy the "greybeards" is another matter.

Perhaps in January, when Athina reaches her maturity and takes complete control of her own financial destiny, things will become clearer. But somehow you doubt it. In the meantime, in this most imponderable of weddings. at least one thing is simple. The couple don't want presents, suggesting instead donations to charity. "We did this," says Miranda, "to show people there is a better place for their money. Besides which, it's so much classier than a toaster or a set of fish knives."