He may be the world's only national political party leader who is still a teenage college student. Or whose breathless female fans plead that he not be assassinated "because he's so hot."
On Tuesday, 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari surfaced for his first public appearance since he was anointed the titular head of the Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, which his mother, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, led before she was killed in a gun and bomb attack Dec. 27.
Composed and articulate, the reedy, bespectacled college student defended his backroom appointment, despite his youth and inexperience, and asked the media to respect his privacy while he completed his undergraduate degree at Oxford University.
"Politics is . . . in my blood, and although I admit that my experience to date is limited, I intend to learn," Bhutto Zardari told reporters during a brief news conference at a London hotel. "However, my immediate priority is to return to Oxford to continue my studies."
He added that he was "only too willing to give time to talk to journalists, and I should like to continue a good relationship, but in moderation. . . . When I am at Oxford, I hope that I can be left alone."
That may be a tall order now that the world's attention is upon him, as well as the burden of history and the expectations of so many fellow Pakistanis. Although life was never completely normal for Bhutto Zardari as the eldest child of an internationally famous figure who hobnobbed with the world's elite, it will certainly never be the same.
His appointment by party officials Dec. 30 as joint head of the PPP, along with his father, threw into sharp relief the propensity toward dynastic politics that pervades South Asia. In India, three generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family have held the nation's premiership, with a fourth-generation scion being groomed to continue the tradition. Leaders in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka bear illustrious surnames. Bhutan is ruled by a king. So, until recently, was Nepal.
Bhutto Zardari's role in the party will be a ceremonial one at least until he finishes his studies, with his father, Asif Ali Zardari, acting as regent in the meantime.
But thrusting such a major, and potentially dangerous, responsibility on him raises difficult questions about what the future holds for a youth who only a few years ago was devouring Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books bought for him by his adoring mother.
"He'll have to grow up very quickly now," said Shafqat Mehmood, an analyst here in Pakistan and a friend of Benazir Bhutto.
Her son inherits a family mantle stained heavily with blood. The PPP was founded by Bhutto's father, a onetime president and prime minister of Pakistan who was hanged by a usurping military dictator. One of her brothers died under mysterious circumstances, and the family believes he was poisoned; the other was killed in an ambush by Pakistani police. Bhutto was the target of deadly attacks before the one that claimed her life.
In her will, she named her husband, Zardari, as head of the party. But the PPP is so closely identified with her side of the family that the party's core officials, apparently at Zardari's suggestion, picked as co-chairman their only son, who promptly added "Bhutto" to his name to emphasize the continuation of the pedigree.
"It was recognized at this moment of crisis the party needed a close association with my mother through the bloodline," Bhutto Zardari acknowledged at his news conference. "Also, it was important to give hope to the new generation of Pakistanis who were looking not just at the elections [Feb. 18] but beyond."
Installing the teenager as the PPP's standard-bearer was an astute move in a society where loyalty to personalities and ruling families trumps loyalty to organizations and institutions, analysts said. The powerfully emotional symbolism of a Bhutto at the head of the party is impossible to underestimate. It can unify disparate elements and sets the seal of authenticity on the main PPP, versus breakaway factions headed by disaffected members.
As a fresh young face, Bhutto Zardari can also offset some of the suspicion and hostility surrounding his father, who has been dogged by corruption charges and who was nicknamed "Mr. 10%" for his alleged taste for bribes when his wife was prime minister.
But keeping control of the PPP firmly within the family drew plenty of criticism from those who noted the irony in a party whose late leader insisted to all who would listen on the need for democracy in Pakistan.
"This is not democracy. This is a dynasty system. The Bhutto family holds the power," complained Lahore resident Muhammad Iqbal, 27, a few days after Bhutto Zardari's elevation was announced.
On Tuesday, the party heir defended his appointment by the PPP's executive committee. "It wasn't handed on like some piece of family furniture," he said. "They asked me to do it and I did."
For Bhutto Zardari, whose formative years have been spent mostly outside Pakistan, grief over the loss of his mother is now compounded by the difficulties of life in a harsh and possibly perilous spotlight.
At Oxford, he had tried to keep a lower profile by using the name "Bilawal Lawalib," the fake last name being his first name spelled backward. There is no anonymity now, not when journalists pore over every word in his Facebook profile to glean an insight into his likes and dislikes, or when others gossip about a photo showing him acting up in put-on devil horns next to a young blond. Being a regular 19-year-old is hardly an option anymore.
Bodyguards and other heightened security measures will probably accompany Bhutto Zardari for the rest of his life. Given his family's history of violent death, some observers were horrified by his ascension as head of the PPP, viewing it as a virtual death sentence for such a young man. A spokeswoman for Oxford said the university was reviewing its security arrangements for him.
Whether Bhutto Zardari would have chosen on his own to follow his mother into the precarious and complex world of Pakistani politics is uncertain.
The woman who helped Bhutto write her autobiography said recently that she met mother and son for tea in a New York hotel in August and asked the youth directly whether he was going to go into politics.
"He looked uncomfortable and shrugged. 'I don't know,' he said," Linda Bird Francke wrote on the website of Newsweek magazine.
Bhutto Zardari gently sidestepped that question Tuesday.
"We had discussed about how once I had finished my studies I would come back to Pakistan and aid her in her campaigning," he said of his late mother. "But we did hope that this day would not come as soon as it did."
Bhutto's catapulting into politics is now the stuff of legend. Although she envisioned becoming a diplomat, her world turned on its head with the execution of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, on the orders of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who toppled him in a coup.
"I remember so vividly my last visit to his death cell, how he was ready to free me, telling me I was not obliged to follow him in politics," she said in an interview with The Times last year. "But it was then that I knew I must."
Her son may be in much the same position. With his father alive and acting as regent, in a culture where parents hold enormous sway in the lives of their children, including over their professional and marital choices, any hesitance Bhutto Zardari might still feel about a career in politics is no longer relevant.
He was already famous when he was born, if only fleetingly. When Bhutto was pregnant and campaigning for her first term as prime minister, she kept her due date a secret so that Zia could not schedule elections to coincide with the time she would probably be in the hospital.
Bilawal's birth, in September 1988, made headlines. His name means "one without equal."
Bhutto won election as premier less than two months later.
Since Bilawal was 11, the family has lived abroad in self-imposed exile, with homes in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. English is Bhutto Zardari's main language, as it was for his mother, rather than the Urdu of his native land. Media reports describe him as Westernized in manners and outlook.
He is a first-year history student at Oxford, where his mother also went to school. A bachelor's degree normally comes after three years of study; he has not announced what he will do immediately after graduation.
"Unless I can finish my education and develop enough maturity, I recognize that I will never be in a position to have sufficient wisdom to enter the political arena," he said.
When he does finally enter the cut-and-thrust of politics in Pakistan -- he is still six years too young to run for parliament, according to law -- Bhutto Zardari will no doubt need coaching in the intricacies of Pakistani culture, ethos and social dynamics. It could take years for him to learn the ropes, analysts say.
"He doesn't know how the common people think, how the common people live," said Muhammad Ali, 27, a graduate student here in Lahore.
At his news conference, Bhutto Zardari acknowledged that "I haven't lived" in Pakistan, but he said that he had been "completely and utterly involved in everything" his mother did, and that "she informed me about everything."
"I do not claim any sort of aspiration," he added. "I was called, and I stepped up and I did what I was asked to do."
Chu reported from Lahore and Murphy from London. Janet Stobart in The Times' London Bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun