Royal fans around the world are familiar with the lives of people like Queen Elizabeth II, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, but those who closely follow might also pay attention to royals from smaller countries. Reigning over Monaco, one of the smallest countries in the world, is Her Serene Highness, Princess Charlene, who married into the country’s royal family.
Charlene isn’t your typical princess, however. She’s a former professional athlete from Africa who fell in love with a man who just happened to be the reigning Prince of Monaco, Prince Albert II. Much like Albert’s mother, Grace Kelly, one of Charlene’s predecessors, Charlene had a life and career that was very different from one she has now. "’I am African," the princess told Tatler. "I wasn’t born Monegasque, nor was I born a princess." Learn more about Princess Charlene and how she transformed into Her Serene Highness.
The future princess was born in Rhodesia and grew up in South Africa
Princess Charlene may be royalty now, but she wasn’t brought up in a luxurious lifestyle. In fact, although she is formally known as Princess Charlene of Monaco, she is not even from the small country. The now-royal was born Charlene Lynette Wittstock on January 25, 1978, in Rhodesia (known today as Zimbabwe), according to the official Prince’s Palace of Monaco website. According to BBC News, when she was 12 years old, she and her family moved to South Africa where she would grow up. Wittstock’s mother, Lynette, worked as a swimming instructor, while her father, Michael, was a sales director (via Tatler).
Charlene also has two brothers and is very close to her family. "Above all, my true friends are my family," she told Tatler in 2010. "My mother and two brothers are the only friends I need and the only people I trust. I’m very grateful to have them."
She began swimming at an early age
Given that Princess Charlene’s mother was a swimming instructor, it might come as no surprise that the Monacan royal grew up swimming. In fact, her love for swimming blossomed when she was a young child. According to Tatler, it was clear she was a gifted aquatic athlete by the time she was 8 years old, and both of her parents were supportive of her abilities.
As she grew up, Charlene would go on to participate in swim competitions. She was a fierce competitor by the time she became a teenager. When she was just 18 years old, in 1996, the talented swimmer won her first South African Championship, according to the Special Olympics. The princess has won several national backstroke titles in her home country and claimed three gold medals at the World Cup: one for the 50-meter freestyle, one for the 100-meter freestyle, and one in the 4×100 meter medley relay.
She competed in the Olympics
For Princess Charlene, being a talented swimmer didn’t stop at winning national titles. In 2000, the athlete made it all the way to the Olympic Games. During that year’s Olympics, which were held in Sydney, Charlene competed with the South African team in the 4×100 meter medley relay (via the Special Olympics). Unfortunately, Charlene and her team came in fifth place and did not win a medal that year.
Although she didn’t take home any medals in the 2000 Olympics, Charlene still planned to compete in future summer games. After becoming South Africa’s 50-meter women’s backstroke champion in 2007, she trained for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Unfortunately, she didn’t qualify for the Olympics due to having difficulties stemming from injuries, according to the official Olympics website. Soon after, Charlene retired from professional swimming. "Giving up competitive swimming was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make," she told Tatler in 2010. "I was not emotionally prepared to retire or for the change of life that it entailed."
The future princess met her prince
Although Princess Charlene had to retire from professional swimming earlier than she anticipated, she didn’t leave the sport without a pleasant surprise. Years before her retirement, Charlene met Prince Albert II of Monaco, who is also a former Olympian, at a competition in his country in 2000 (via BBC News). "’I was in Monte Carlo for a swimming competition when I first met the prince," she said in an interview with Tatler. "I was 22 and focused. I wasn’t in the emotional place for a relationship." However, when Charlene met Albert she immediately felt connected to him as if they were meant to be together, also telling Tatler that she "knew he was the one."
The pair dated for years and tried to keep their relationship private despite rumors. The sports-loving couple eventually went public when they attended the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, together, according to BBC News. When the princess ended her swimming career in 2007, she moved from South Africa to Monaco to be with the prince.
Princess Charlene married royalty
After dating for years, Prince Albert and, the future, Princess Charlene got engaged in 2010, according to Hello!. The couple married the following year in July, which officially transformed Charlene Wittstock into Her Serene Highness, Princess Charlene.
The royal couple wed in a civil ceremony followed by a widely attended religious ceremony the next day, according to People. For the wedding, which took place at the royal palace, the princess wore a Giorgio Armani Privé gown complete with a train and veil. "It was one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever seen," wedding guest and family friend Gildo Pastor told People. "They have a wonderful future ahead of them."
Although Charlene isn’t a native French speaker (per Tatler), the couple exchanged vows in Monaco’s official language. However, the princess got a taste of home when she and the prince spent their honeymoon in South Africa.
She became a mother
Almost four years after their wedding, Princess Charlene and Prince Albert announced they were expecting a child together. While it would be Charlene’s first child, Albert had a son and daughter from his previous relationships, according to BBC News. While the royal spouses expected one child, they actually ended up with two! On December 10, 2014, Charlene gave birth to twins Gabriella, Thérèse, Marie and Crown Prince Jacques, Honoré, Rainier (via Prince’s Palace of Monaco).
Known as Princess Gabriella and Prince Jacques, the twins would grow up to show their differing personalities. "In very broad terms, Jacques is a little more shy and a little quieter, but he can also come up with some very funny things," Albert told People Royals (via People) in 2021. On the other hand, the prince described Gabriella as "a little more outgoing, and she definitely has the gift of gab."
Princess Charlene is heavily involved in charity
Princess Charlene might be a busy wife, mother, and royal, but she still makes time to give to causes dear to her heart. The former Olympic athlete is involved in various charitable work — notably, and maybe not surprisingly, working with other swimmers. Through her organization, The Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation, Her Serene Highness works to prevent drowning deaths. Additionally, she works with the Special Olympics as a global ambassador.
Charlene’s charitable involvement expands sports and athleticism, however. Throughout the years, she has also worked with various organizations, including the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Amfar, and the South African Red Cross Society (via Prince’s Palace of Monaco). Additionally, the princess is a vocal advocate for rhinoceros conservation in South Africa and has posted about her efforts on Instagram. "I would love for my grandchildren to see a rhino one day," Charlene said in an interview with South Africa Radio 702 (via People). "But if we don’t unite and do something now globally they’re not going to have the chance."
The princess has experienced health issues
Although Princess Charlene’s life might seem like a fairy tale, she has had her share of ups and downs. In 2021, the princess experienced health issues that kept her away from her husband and children.
While visiting her home country of South Africa in May 2021, Charlene caught a post-surgery sinus infection, which prevented her from flying back to Monaco, according to People. "Initially I was supposed to be here for 10 to 12 days," Her Serene Highness told South Africa Radio 702 (via People). "Unfortunately, I had a problem equalizing my ears, and I found out through the doctors that I had a sinus infection and quite a serious one, so, it’s taking time to address this problem that I’m having." The princess had corrective surgery in June and missed her 10th wedding anniversary in July, but eventually returned to Monaco in November 2021 (per People).
Unfortunately, her return was short-lived, as she left to receive treatment at a Swiss Clinic 11 days after arriving in Monaco (via People). Speaking on his wife’s condition, Prince Albert told People that his wife was "clearly exhausted, physically and emotionally" when she reunited with her family. In March 2022, the princess finally returned to Monaco.
Princess Charlene spoke out about those pesky divorce rumors
While Princess Charlene was away from Monaco recovering, rumors began to swirl about her relationship status. In September 2021, her husband Prince Albert spoke on these rumors, telling People, "She didn’t leave Monaco in a huff! She didn’t leave because she was mad at me or at anybody else."
After Charlene’s return to Monaco, Albert admitted the rumors affected him and his royal family. "We were obviously hurt by the malicious rumors that were peddled," Albert told the Journal de Dimanche newspaper (via People). "But we were able to stay united despite the distance, we spoke to each other often."
Charlene finally shared her thoughts and feelings about the circulating rumors in a May 2022 interview. "I still find it regrettable that certain media peddle such rumours about my life, my relationship," the princess told the Monaco-Matin (via Yahoo). "Like everyone else, we are human beings, and like all human beings we have emotions, and weaknesses, only our family is exposed to the media and the slightest weakness is relayed." Charlene also shared that she and her husband spoke about the rumors and stories, and Albert remained protective of his family. The princess continued, saying, ""When I returned to the Principality, I focused all my energy on my children, my husband and my health because they are my priority."
The princess eventually returned to public life in Monaco
After health issues, time away from her family, and a long recovery, Princess Charlene made her return to public life in Monaco. One of her appearances was for an especially good cause. In July 2022, the princess visited Monaco’s sole public hospital, Grace Hospital Centre, according to the Daily Mail. While at the hospital, Charlene spent time with several patients and their families, as well as staff members.
While the hospital visit marked Charlene’s first solo outing since her return to Monaco, it wasn’t her first official public visit. Before spending time at the Grace Hospital Centre, Charlene, her husband Prince Albert, and their children visited Norway (via Daily Mail). Additionally, Charlene and Albert attended a Formula One event. While at the race in Monte Carlo, the former professional athlete looked happy and healthy in a patterned blue tunic and white pants — a look she completed with a bold red lip (via Express). Charlene and Albert even chatted with F1 racers Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel, as well as actor Patrick Dempsey.
Although Charlene has made her way back to public life, she explained that she isn’t in a rush. "My state of health is still fragile and I don’t want to go too fast," the princess told the French publication Nice Matin (via Express). "The road has been long, difficult, and so painful. Today I feel calmer."
Princess Charlene and Prince Albert presented a united front on their 11th wedding anniversary
In 2021, Princess Charlene spent her 10th wedding anniversary away from her husband Prince Albert due to her health. "This year will be the first time that I will not be with my husband on our wedding anniversary in July, which is difficult and saddens me," Charlene revealed in a statement to People at the time. "However, Albert and I had no choice but to follow the instructions of the medical team, even if it was extremely difficult. He has been the most incredible support to me."
In July 2022, Charlene was thankfully able to celebrate her 11th anniversary with her husband and family in Monaco. To mark the occasion, the royal couple released a new photo of the two. For the photo shoot, the princess wore a floor-length teal dress and simple necklace. She sported a short, blonde haircut as she held hands with her husband, who wore a navy blue suit and silver tie.
Charlene commemorated the pair’s 11th wedding anniversary by posting the new photo on her Instagram. She captioned the post simply, writing, "Happy anniversary" with a red heart emoji. The Palace of Monaco also posted the photo on its official Facebook page, stating that the couple took the picture in the prince’s Palace garden.