King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain, in Washington this week for their first official visit — without the frenzied media mob that follows the British monarchy. There are no breathless morning television countdowns, no stakeouts for their trips to Mount Vernon or the White House. They could walk the streets of Georgetown, where he attended graduate school, without turning a single head.
But Spain’s new king and queen are sexier, slightly scandalous, and more interesting than the squeaky-clean Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Felipe was the cherished royal son expected to marry a nice Catholic princess — until he defied his parents for a love match. Letizia is the first Spanish commoner to become queen, a feat even more remarkable when you realize that she was a celebrity journalist with an ex-husband and a live-in boyfriend before meeting her prince.
Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbón y Grecia was born in Madrid on Jan. 30, 1968, the third child and only son of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia. Because Spain still adheres to the male line of succession, Felipe became crown prince and heir to the throne.
He was always a serious kid who embraced his future role with a laserlike focus: military training in the army, navy and air force, where he became a helicopter pilot; a law degree in Madrid; a master’s in international relations from Georgetown University; speaker of Spanish, French and English. From the age of 22, he began the lifelong job of traveling throughout Spain and Latin America soaking up all things Spanish. In 1992, the 6-foot-6 sports nut enjoyed one of the real perks being prince: a spot on the Spanish sailing team at the Barcelona Olympics, where he carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremony.
He only strayed from the predictable path when it came to women. He had no interest in a princess bride, and his parents vetoed two serious girlfriends as unsuitable marriage material. One was a Spanish socialite with a family drug problem, the other a Norwegian underwear model. Then he met Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano.
Born in 1972, she was the daughter of a journalist and a nurse, a middle-class girl with high-class ambition. She married her high school literature teacher when she was 25, a union that lasted less than a year. The beautiful brunette quickly rose in her broadcasting career, reporting for Bloomberg News, CNN and Television España. She was named the best Spanish journalist under the age of 30 and landed an evening anchor spot — and moved in with her sports-reporter boyfriend. Everyone in Spain knew her name.
Then, while reporting on an oil spill off the Spanish coast in late 2002, she ran into Felipe. The two met earlier that year at a dinner party, but this time he asked her for a date. They kept their courtship under the radar and announced their engagement a year later. Instead of a prim dress, Letizia wore a sexy white pantsuit to meet reporters and created a stir when she chided, “Let me finish,” after Felipe interrupted her.
His parents were opposed to the match. It wasn’t just that Letizia had no pedigree; other royals in Europe (Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, Monaco and, of course, Britain) were marrying commoners left and right. But she was “the very antithesis” of a classic Spanish queen — divorced, worldly, opinionated and a celebrity journalist, says Andrew Morton, author of “Ladies of Spain,” a tell-all about the Spanish royal family. Juan Carlos called his future daughter-in-law “the enemy within,” he says. “He was very hostile to the idea.”
Felipe won that argument, and the two married in May 2004. Letizia’s first marriage was officially erased: Because she wed in a civil ceremony, that union was not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and she could marry the prince without getting an annulment. The wedding was watched by 25 million people in Spain, and the bride officially became a princess.
It is, by all accounts, a happy marriage. The couple have two daughters: Infanta (princess) Leonor, 9, and Infanta Sofia, 8. Felipe quickly embraced his roles as husband and father and looks happiest in informal photos with his family.
Juan Carlos stepped down last year, citing health issues and his son’s readiness to assume the title. There was no fancy coronation, just a ceremony in front of the parliament on June 19, 2014, where Felipe, with Letizia and his daughters at his side, took the oath of office and the formal title of His Majesty King Felipe VI of Bourbon and Greece. The 18th-century Spanish crown was displayed but not placed on his head, no foreign royals were invited, and there was an afternoon reception for 2,000 guests with tapas instead of a lavish banquet.
In his first address as king, Felipe tried to reassure the politicians and public that things had changed: “These are my convictions about the Crown, which from today I shall embody: a renewed monarchy for new times. And I undertake my task with energy, with enthusiasm and with the open and innovative spirit that has inspired the men and women of my generation.”
“I always say to my American friends, ‘We measure our history by reigns,'” says Ramon Gil-Casares, Spain’s ambassador to the United States. “So this is the Spain of Felipe VI.’ ”
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