THE SPIN doctors who have been busily weaving a new reputation for Camilla Parker Bowles can relax. The woman who has been vilified by the press and public for so many years appears to have won them round.
Last week began with the unprecedented public statement, issued jointly with Prince Charles, denying that the couple had collaborated in a new book portraying the late Princess of Wales as a deranged psychotic and him as a long-suffering saint. Then an opinion poll showed widespread opposition to the couple was diminishing. On Thursday they attended the society wedding of Santa Palmer-Tomkinson, the daughter of one of their closest friends. By Friday most of the newspapers were united in praise for her.
Mrs Parker Bowles, who has been variously described as "hatchet-faced" an "old boiler", a "mannish freak", and famously "the rottweiler" by Diana herself, has become "stunning Camilla'" a "sensation in blue", "stylish and elegant" and "a fashion triumph".
If all goes according to plan the coming out of the Prince of Wales's mistress will be complete on 14 November when she will host a party at Highgrove attended by nearly all the crowned heads of Europe - except our own - to mark the 50th birthday of her lover.
The event will be the clearest sign yet that the woman who has conducted a passionate affair with our future King for more than 20 years is his official, increasingly accepted consort, although she may never become his wife.
The couple had hoped to achieve that situation a year ago following carefully staged outings to prepare the public to accept the "non-negotiable" part of the Prince's life. He hosted a 50th birthday party for her, and gradually the photographs became more posed and glamorous. It should have culminated in her hosting a soiree for the National Osteoporosis Society, but the death of Diana put paid to that.
Still, little is known about the real Camilla Parker Bowles. She has never courted public attention and has never spoken to the press. Her life revolves around the country and she spends most of her time hunting. She also gardens and paints watercolours - a hobby she shares with Charles. If it wasn't for the fact that she was sleeping with the future King, she would be just another upper-class woman with plenty of time to devote to leisure. But unlike other members of the county set, she does little voluntary work.
"She really is pretty idle," said Christopher Wilson, who has written her biography, A Greater Love. "Most people who live in the country and who are in fortunate circumstances do their bit to help but she does nothing. She is energetic about her horses and Charles but that is about it."
She is apparently a ruthless horsewoman. A member of the Beaufort who has ridden with her once said: "To use the word assertive would be an understatement. You should hear her screaming as you approach a fence. She's shouting, 'Bloody hell, get out of the fucking way'. She steamrollers people and it can be quite frightening."
"She is quite happy wearing jodhpurs all day, smoking and joking," a friend once observed. "She is quite happy to jump off her horse and into an evening dress without having a bath." The novelist Jilly Cooper paints an equally frank portrait of her lack of airs and graces. "She's terribly attractive in real life, and has this terrific giggle. When you stay with her, she wanders about at breakfast in her dressing gown, wearing no make- up and her nail varnish is chipped."
Charles, in contrast, is fastidious in his habits, but the pair do share a lavatorial sense of humour, as became apparent from the infamous "tampon" conversation caught on tape by a mystery hacker.
Camilla has actually been the undisputed mistress of Highgrove for some years. Although she has her own house, bought after her divorce from Andrew Parker Bowles in 1995, she stays at Highgrove when the Prince is there, often four times a week. She also spends two nights with Charles at St James's Palace in London.
Friends say they act like an old married couple and call each other "darling". Mrs Parker Bowles organises guest lists, checks the menus and runs his household as well as her own. Although she has no need of financial help, Charles foots the bills.
Molly, her chestnut hunter, is stabled at Highgrove, and the Prince has paid for a state-of-the-art security system at her home. His chauffeur often drives her around, and his staff help with her catering and shopping. She is escorted by former Royal Protection Squad officers employed privately by the Prince.
"The problem she faces is that she lives a rarefied existence," said Christopher Wilson. "She has no contact with ordinary people. I have a strong feeling there is a groundswell of resistance to her and her popularity ratings will never rise above 50 per cent.
"The public remain suspicious of her and of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that is going on. Charles wants her by his side on 14 November but I think that it could rebound badly on them. His advisers have misjudged popular opinion and they will come a cropper."
If that happens, Mrs Parker Bowles may be forced back under cover, running from the press like one of the foxes she so relentlessly pursues.
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