In a short story serialized on the Internet, Prince William, the 16-year-old heir to England's throne, has just rushed to the side of his injured girlfriend, Hannah, who lies in a hospital bed, enmeshed in a network of life-support tubes.
Upon seeing her helpless and inert, the prince can only stare. "He had still not shed a tear," wrote Mary Duncan, spinning her tale in the Shy Royal, billed on the Web as the newsletter of the Prince William Fan Club. "He just had to keep himself under control. He had been trained for that since he was very young."
It seems fitting that the young nobleman with the proverbial stiff upper lip has been given the star treatment in fiction that is as melodramatic as anything on "ER."
Prince William crept into the consciousness of American girls, many of them not yet teen-agers, shortly after the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. His stoic suffering touched their hearts. But in recent months, the object of their fantasies has gained the status of a full-blown idol -- and a formidable rival to another charmer of young hearts.
"He's an international superstar almost on the level of Leonardo DiCaprio," says Christina Ferrari, managing editor of Teen People. "That's the kind of hysteria he creates wherever he goes among teen-aged girls."
There is no official tally of his fans, since there is no officially sanctioned fan club (the palace discourages them), only a scattering of informal clubs on the Web. But the volume of letters and e-mail at Teen People (each month, he is one of the magazine's 15 most requested male celebrities) is great enough that the editors recently made him the subject of a soft-cover book, "Prince William, Prince of Hearts," the first such venture for the magazine, published last month by Warner Books and Teen People.
"Prince William is a poster boy for crushes," said Beth Mayall, editor of All About You, a magazine for junior high school girls. Last fall it featured the prince on its cover, after readers rated him the celebrity they most wanted to see on the newsstands.
In paperbacks, magazine pinups, posters and snapshots that are cropping up in supermarket checkout racks as well as appearing in Sam Goody and Barnes & Noble, Prince William is seen skiing and hiking, and gamboling in the park with his former nanny, Tiggy Legge Bourke, and playing with his beloved dog, Widgeon, with his diffident smile and cornflower eyes radiating.
But it is not his looks alone that have captivated Prince William's young admirers. They see him as a late-20th-century Galahad embodying a kindness and valor most movie stars do not possess. The thinking girl's sweetheart, he exudes a refinement some fans see as a refreshing antidote to the churlish, bad-boy image of Hollywood's top stars.
"He's civilized," declared Olivia Katz, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the Spence School in New York. Unlike DiCaprio, whom she dismissed as "really gross" -- "I think he parties a lot, has lots of girls" -- Prince William seems innocent, she said, adding, "He's not doing stuff you don't approve of."
Small wonder then that 8-to-18-year-olds venerate "His Royal Sighness," as fan magazines have dubbed him, tacking his pictures to their walls, pasting his image inside their lockers and school binders, exchanging factoids on the Web -- enshrining him in all the places once reserved for DiCaprio.
"After 'Titanic,' and all the hype, Leonardo DiCaprio just kind of got old," said Julie Fletcher, 16, a sophomore at Stratford High School in Houston and co-president of the Prince William Fan Club, whose 200 members communicate on the Internet.
"Prince William is cuter than Leo," said Lauren Garfield, 10, a fifth-grader at the Murray Avenue School in Larchmont, N.Y., who has saved a spot on her bedroom wall for her idol. "I'll probably hang him over my bed," she said. "He's hip, he's modern, he's the new thing."
What gives him an edge over his stiffly regal forebears and his entertainment-world rivals is his naturalness, his spontaneity and his apparent accessibility. "Our readers know that he doesn't live this hothouse-flower life," Ferrari said.
Reinforcing the perception that the prince is no recluse tucked away in a cold granite tower is the steady proliferation of magazine articles that describe him going to concerts, watching MTV, dating the sisters of his friends and attending the "Spice World" movie premiere, sharing the pastimes that other kids do.
Readers of Seventeen, YM and Superteen learn that their idol likes fast food, techno music and action-adventure fiction, that he is an expert swimmer, that he has his own bathroom at Eton, his boarding school, and that among his most treasured possessions is his mother's Cartier tank watch.
This avalanche of data has encouraged his most ardent groupies to believe they might someday actually meet their prince. "We don't get that sort of reaction with our other celebrities," said Mayall, whose celebrity roster at All About You includes the actors Christian Slater, Matthew McConaughey and Joshua Jackson of "Dawson's Creek." "Judging by their letters, some of our girls believe they could even date him," she added.
But the youngest and most pragmatic of Prince William's fans know better. "In a way, he's just another heartthrob," said Katharine Schub, 10, a fifth-grader at the Garrison Union Free School in Garrison, N.Y. He has managed to retain his high standing in her pantheon of idols that includes Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt and Justin Timberlake of the pop group 'N Sync, and he rates a place of honor on her bedroom wall. "But you can't really keep your hopes up; he is just so much older," she said. "You know you could never go out with him.
"Still," she admitted, a note of wistfulness seeping into her voice, "he's the only person at the moment who I think is really cute."
Pub Date: 1/05/99