LONDON – With Britain's royal wedding around the corner, wannabe princesses gathered Saturday at a posh London hotel for a crash course on how to curtsy, what to say to the queen and how keep pesky crumbs off their lips when eating finger sandwiches.
At first glance, the scene smacked of the 1964 film "My Fair Lady," except Audrey Hepburn's working class character had been replaced by a crew of tafetta-wearing pre-teens who gleefully walked with books on their heads and learned how to stir tea without clanging the cutlery.
The April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton has fueled a bonanza of opportunities for niche entrepreneurs.
"It gives girls the ability to know that they can be in any situation — whether it's with the queen, their parents, their teacher, a friend — and know that they're behaving the right way. And I think that's important, royalty or no royalty," says Jerramy Fine, 33, the American founder of Princess Prep.
Saturday's one-day course will be followed by a series of weeklong summer camps in London for 8- to 11-year-old girls. Costing more than $4,000, the camps teach girls about modern and historic princesses, royal history, phone etiquette, how to take compliments and what to do if you suddenly find food wedged between your teeth. The girls also volunteer at royal charities — all while being waited on by a butler called 'Jeeves.' Fine says she expects to draw more Americans for the longer summer camps.
"Before, I felt shy and like just a normal person — and now I feel like I actually am a princess," said Maude Fisher, 8, whose mother is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Wearing a Jackie O-style suit, pearls and perfectly coifed hair, Fine taught the 12 British and American girls Saturday how to behave in front of the queen — a mother wearing a cardboard mask of the monarch — who sat next to life-sized cardboard cutouts of William and Kate.
Girls were first instructed on how to curtsy: smooth out your dress or skirt, grab its corners and bend your knees. None of the girls wore trousers.
"Good afternoon your majesty," each girl recited, before greeting the one-dimensional soon-to-be royal couple.
The next lesson included a mock tea party, complete with tea, real jam, clotted cream, scones, finger sandwiches and a waiter whose name was not Jeeves.
"Take your spoon and stir from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock," Fine said. "I don't want to hear any spoons clanking."
Europe has long been known as the place to go to meet royalty and aristocrats. Some American girls and young women spend small fortunes each year to do "the season," which begins in the spring and features key events such as Wimbledon, the Henley Regatta and the Royal Ascot — tennis, rowing and horse racing events that have drawn Britain's aristocracy since the 17th and 18th centuries.
Debutantes also vie for coveted invites each year to the Crillon ball in Paris, a matchmaking-cum-fashion extravaganza.
None of the girls will likely get within spitting distance of Westminster Abbey for the wedding. If they do, they most certainly will refrain from spitting.
Fine, author of the book "Someday my prince will come: true adventures of a wannabe princess," says the camps are less about how to marry a prince and more to do with learning self control and confidence.
Still, a tiara on one of the tea party tables read, "Bride to Be." The plastic prop vanished before the cameras stopped filming.
"I wanted to create a different sort of summer camp — unlike the ones that I grew up with in America, where you slept in wooden cabins and had to play sports," said Fine, a 33-year-old who now lives in London with her non-titled, non-blueblood British husband. "My hippie parents are horrified, as they thought I would grow out of it."
Fine's royal obsession began in Colorado with a school girl crush on Peter Phillips — Queen Elizabeth II's eldest grandchild. She said when other girls were writing love letters to actor Rob Lowe — a 1980s American heartthrob — she was checking out royalty books at her local library.
The announcement of Prince William's engagement has prompted a fresh wave of girls and women dreaming about winning the affections of William's younger brother, Harry, who is still single. Some have even admitted to stalking the party-loving Harry's favorite London haunts in the hopes of seducing the redheaded prince.
"I can definitely relate," says Fine, who eventually did meet Peter Phillips after moving to Britain. "I try to explain now it's not really about meeting royal men. It's about the journey."
While the Princess Prep camps are just beginning, the princess business itself is a commercially charmed venture. Disney's Princess line of products debuted in 2001. Today, Disney Princess is one of the fastest-growing franchises with global retail sales of $4 billion, according to Disney spokesman Andrea Tartaglia.
Part of the draw, he says, is that some of Disney's fictional princesses have been given modern makeovers.
"It's a rite of passage," he says. "Many girls have emotional connections with the characters."
Critics, however, decry the perpetuation of princess-mania and the trend of becoming ultra-feminine. In her book "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," journalist Peggy Orenstein writes about her own daughter's obsession with princesses and the color pink, and the marketing machine behind products based on princesses.
Fine says unlike the feminism of her mother's day which shunned "being feminine," embodying feminine and princess qualities today is "empowering."
Michelle Gray, a 39-year-old full-time mother from Chicago, said even her son is interested in the royal wedding.
Her daughter Josephine stole Saturday's show by announcing that she didn't care for tea, a great British staple.
"I thought it was really a golden opportunity for her to experience something so relevant right now with the wedding coming up — you know, learn proper etiquette and manners," said Gray, who played Queen Elizabeth II by donning a mask Saturday.
Emily Watt, mother of 7-year-old Londoner Olivia Watt, said wanting to become a princess is fully entrenched in British culture. She hoped the tutorial would help her daughter, who she said could be "loud and sometimes" naughty.
"Growing up with Diana there was always a feeling that anyone could become a princess," she said. "Girls will always love this stuff."
Kali Borovic contributed to this report.