Profile: Sophie Rhys-Jones - At last a safe pair of hands

Emma Cook on the PR consultant who will rebrand a failing Firm - or so the Royal Family hopes
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The Independent Online
aise a glass and prepare a toast to the bride-to-be; by next Saturday afternoon the House of Windsor will have claimed Sophie Rhys-Jones as its own. And this time around, make no mistake, it's really got to last. She's in the Firm for good.

An awesome responsibility for any bride to bear. Less so, perhaps, for Sophie, the public relations angel who is so expert at handling tricky customers - but, let's face it, they don't come much trickier than her future in-laws.

Already, though, the Queen is reported to be deeply protective of her future daughter-in-law. Not surprising, really, when this vision of Home Counties stability could easily do more to rectify the palace's image than the media savvy of Saatchi's and Max Clifford combined.

Indeed, Sophie's marriage has the ring of a rebranding exercise about it. Somehow the business sense of such a union is far more apparent than the romance. She is the girl who worked her way up the PR ladder from being "Mr Blobby's Girl" to running her own public relations company, R-JH, based in Mayfair. Inevitably her clients are those that will savour her royal connections; the Lanesborough Hotel, Boodle and Dunthorne, and the exclusive china-ware company Thomas Goode (where, conveniently, she has part of her wedding list). The company's newest client is Comite Colbert, an association of French luxury brands, including Moet et Chandon and Chanel.

Meanwhile, her squeaky-clean reliability must be a joy to her future mother-in-law; no more mad fillies running off to psychics, blubbing on television, and getting their toes sucked by dodgy businessmen. "You wouldn't notice her in a crowd," the Queen was overheard telling the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. Which is the nearest you'll get to a royal commendation.

If Diana was the Queen of Hearts, then Sophie is the Princess of Presentation; poised, prepared and leaving nothing to chance, least of all her courtship with Edward, which dragged on for five years until they finally got engaged in January. When Edward announced it at a photocall, he pecked Sophie prudishly on the cheek, goaded on by photographers. The couple seemed about as sexy as yesterday's mashed potato.

Try as they might to appear chic and young - those polo-neck sweaters for the Royal Mail stamps just didn't quite do it - they invariably end up looking as racy as Richard and Judy.

The press are still keen to forge the Sophie/Diana comparison, although beyond English-rose complexion and sensible Sloaney suits there is little similarity between the two. In fact, she would like to play down the blonde, wholesome-tennis-player image: it is not as safe as it used to be. As one tabloid photographer says, "If she was about to step into Diana's shoes in terms of looks, I think she really changed her mind when Jill Dando died." Instead Sophie will stay smart yet low-key; instinctively inhabiting a temperate middle ground that Fergie and Diana could never have settled for.

Forget spontaneity and unchecked emotions: Sophie has opted for the sensible, power-broking alliance that is the best the Nineties can do by way of romance. She matches the team spirit of her contemporaries Ffion, Sarah (Gordon Brown's girlfriend) and, naturally, Cherie. Martin Townsend, editor of OK! magazine, says, "She's not a girl of extremes and that's essential to her character. She's a person who can cope." And without the aid, one suspects, of therapy, mediums or colonic irrigation, which is always a bonus.

In so many ways Sophie has won the heart of her prince and his parents not because of who she is, but who she isn't: charming but not as flirtatious as Diana, earthy but not as horsy as Fergie, better educated than both of them but not so that you'd ever really notice. She is unthreatening, a mixture of solid convention and media modernity.

Cast as the independent career woman, she will none the less promise to "obey" her husband when she makes her vows this Saturday. Diana once reportedly called her "little Miss Goody Two Shoes", and asked the Duchess of York, "Why is she getting such an easy ride? We were thrown to the wolves." One reason is that she does not represent a threat. She may be more financially independent than Fergie or Diana but the suburban girl from Kent - she grew up in Brenchley, between Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells - will never kick up a stink or embarrass the palace when the going gets tough. She's a little too grateful for that.

Sophie, it has been noted in rarefied circles, is the lowliest commoner to marry a royal. Partly this is because family conventions are always more relaxed by the time the youngest sibling is an adult. If there'd been a fourth Windsor male, he'd probably have ended up with an Essex babe in breakfast television.

Not that her "ordinary" middle-class credentials will signify the end of a class-ridden royal family. She will adapt to Edward's pedigree and leave her Kent upbringing at the altar. James Whitaker, the Daily Mirror's royal commentator, says sniffily, "She just hasn't got the right background to marry into the royals. Only princesses can really understand how it all works. You need to be a special breed. In other times she wouldn't have had the chance to curtsy to Edward, let alone marry him." Which is why she'll try so much harder to hang on in - much harder than those other "special breeds" who fell by the wayside.

As one magazine editor has said of Sophie's background, "She is every Kent girl with Sloaney aspirations." Her father, a former car salesman, now has a tyre-sales business. Her mother used to take in typing at pounds 4.50 an hour to help pay the school fees at Kent College for Girls, where Sophie got six O-levels. Then it was A-levels, English and law, and a secretarial course. A friend at the time remembers her as "fun-loving and very good at drinking".

Tabloid commentators always like to trot out the platitude "She's a girl who's been around the block". Certainly her past hints at an appetite for "fun girl" activities; she's been a ski rep, a barmaid and, as we now know, a press officer at Capital Radio. Then she was headhunted by MacLaurin Communication and Media, where the papers later referred to her as "Blobby's girl" when she was supposed to have worked with the television presenter Noel Edmonds.

It's hard to imagine where else Sophie could have met Edward but the PR arena. It was, in fact, an MCM publicity stunt for the Real Tennis Challenge, to raise funds for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. They managed to date secretly for three months until the paparazzi caught on.

There followed five years of speculation along with rumours that Sophie had threatened Edward to propose or leave, and that they were living together in Buckingham Palace. The press were also keen to dig up her past which included a list of her former boyfriends and one in particular, Michael O'Neill, an Australian former skiing instructor, who confessed to a magazine: "I felt I had to be earning substantially more than I was to lift our profile ... I don't think she would have settled for the obscure. I realised that she enjoyed being in the company of people with influence."

If there's one aspect of Sophie's high-profile life that threatens to corrode that suburban smoothness, it's this sort of media revelation. Three weeks ago, she flipped when an ex-colleague sold a revealing photograph of her to the Sun. There she was larking about in the back of a car with a Radio 1 DJ. And she had allowed the photograph to be pinned on an office wall while she was working for Chris Tarrant. It was, though she failed to spot it, marvellous PR exposure - the first indication that Sophie was rather more interesting than we'd been led to believe. Suddenly her past hinted at an extra dimension. She seemed less prim and appeared to have at least one fairly decent-looking breast. What could possibly be so bad about that?

Still, Sophie seemed devastated by the story and is desperate to stay out of the media's glare in the run-up to the wedding and beyond. According to one royal watcher, she has been buying a number of kaftans and baggy clothes for her honeymoon. He says, "She doesn't want to reveal too much in case the paparazzi do catch up with her." Don't expect long-shots of a toned figure encased in a leopard-skin swimsuit, posing for the press pack.

It is another reason for the Queen to breathe a sigh of relief; if the lives of her offspring were once the stuff of soap opera, she can rest assured that the drama stops with Sophie.