LONDON – She makes headlines for getting a parking ticket, newspapers comment on her fashion choices, and her 25th birthday on Tuesday is generating a media storm.
Prince William's girlfriend, Kate Middleton, may one day become queen of England. Before then, she is undergoing the ordeal seemingly demanded of royal wannabes since Lady Diana Spencer began dating Prince Charles more than a quarter-century ago.
A frenzy is building around Middleton — fueled, perhaps, by a large dose of wishful thinking from the press and public.
Pictures of the brunette fashion buyer, who has dated William since both were university students, fetch thousands of dollars from the tabloid press. Paparazzi follow her to work, on shopping trips and on nights out with the prince. One recent, widely published snapshot showed Middleton receiving a ticket from a parking warden outside her London home.
The retail chain Woolworths has commissioned Wills-and-Kate engagement memorabilia, despite the absence of any evidence that a betrothal announcement is imminent.
"It would be more of a surprise now if they split than if they marry," said Robert Jobson, author of the recently published book "William's Princess."
"I think it's only a matter of time before this role of princess in waiting is changed to being a real princess and maybe one day queen consort."
British bookmaking firm William Hill says it is so certain William will pop the question, it has stopped taking bets on whether the pair will get engaged — only on the date.
"We're certain they will — it's a question of when, not if," said spokesman Rupert Adams.
William Hill said it is a 4-5 probability the pair will announce their engagement in 2007, and is offering 3-1 odds they will marry this year.
The prince and Middleton have dated since they were both students at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and were first photographed together on a skiing holiday shortly before their graduation in 2005.
There have been persistent reports in recent weeks that the two may soon announce their engagement.
Born in the commuter town of Reading, west of London, Middleton — unlike most previous royal consorts — is a quintessentially middle-class Englishwoman. Her father worked for an airline and her mother was a flight attendant; they now run a mail-order business specializing in children's parties.
As a high school student she attended an elite private school, where she played tennis and field hockey, before studying art history at St. Andrews. She and William shared a student house in the seaside university town.
Amid the spiraling media interest, Middleton, and the royal family, want to avoid a repeat of the paparazzi hounding endured by William's mother, the late Princess Diana.
Preliminary hearings for an inquest into Diana's death in a 1997 car crash opened at London's Royal Courts of Justice on Monday.
Middleton is older, and perhaps better prepared for media scrutiny, than Diana, who was just 19 when she began dating Prince Charles. The pair married in 1981, in a fairy-tale ceremony at St. Paul's Cathedral watched by an estimated 700 million people around the world.
Middleton's lawyers have complained to newspaper editors, requesting she be left alone, and British newspapers have recently reported that she is to be given a round-the-clock guard from the police royal protection squad — a key sign of inclusion in the royal circle.
The royal family appears to be quietly easing Middleton into its public events, as well.
Last month, she was in attendance, along with the queen, when William, 24, graduated from Sandhurst military academy. He has since joined the Blues and Royals, an elite cavalry regiment.
"The queen was there, yet Kate stole the limelight," Jobson said. "The fact they allowed her to do that signaled intent. It shows that this is a very serious relationship. It's not a frivolous one."