L.A.'S ROYAL ROMANCE : Club Owner Mario Oliver Is Princess Stephanie's New, Local Love. But Can He Play the Palace?

Nikki Finke is a Times staff writer.

ONCE UPON A TIME, the media had a hand in marrying off a movie star to a monarch. At the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, a French magazine photographer, looking for a suitable backdrop to shoot Grace Kelly, rejected the French Riviera as too bland. He finally asked the star to pose in the palatial surroundings of nearby Monaco. During the course of the photo session, Kelly met the resident ruler, Prince Rainier III; a year later she abdicated her role as Hollywood's reigning star to became Her Serene Highness, and the rest is royal history.

Now history has come full circle. Three decades after her mother left Los Angeles for Monaco, Grace's youngest child, Princess Stephanie, has moved back to her mother's stomping grounds, embarked on a show biz career, and fallen in love with a prince of the West Coast nightclub circuit whom she met through a member of the paparazzi. Announcing the end of her noblesse days, she has even shed her "princess" title and prefers to be known now as "just myself, good old Stephanie." Will she still get the royal treatment from the media? "All I know is that, especially in this city, I don't want to give people anything to gossip about."

AT THE SPORTS CLUB/LA in West Los Angeles, valet parkers are running to keep up with the long lines of cars arriving after 6 p.m. Inside, men in custom-tailored pinstripes and women in clingy Donna Karan knits are shedding their work clothes for exercise uniforms that rank them on the basis of their bodies rather than their bank accounts. Up on Racquetball Court No. 6 a man with waves of blond hair is winding up a fierce game while a photographer kneels in the center of the court, trying to capture the smashing forehands without getting hit in the head. Passers-by look through the glass partition and wonder. Movie-star publicity? A rock star shooting an album cover? The blond man looks famous. The curious linger a few seconds and then go about their business.

At the other end of the club, a young brunette with teal eyes glides down the plush hallway, graceful in Reeboks. She has the Southern California look: deep tan, white teeth, trim physique, healthy glow. But, then, so has nearly every young woman working out at the club this evening. She doesn't get a second glance from the other exercisers. The young woman watches the blond player; when he takes a break she slips into position by his side and they give each other a light kiss on the cheek, looking like any pair of L.A. lovers. But in fact, they're 22-year-old Princess Stephanie and her 35-year-old much-talked-about man of the moment, Mario Oliver, the French-born co-owner of the trendy downtown nightclub Vertigo.

They met back in 1986 when Stephanie checked out the club with some friends and was recognized by a photographer, who asked her to pose with Oliver. The pair chatted briefly, but nothing came of it. Then, last October, after Stephanie had moved into the Westwood Marquis Hotel and carried on a much-publicized romance with actor Rob Lowe, she revisited Vertigo on a whim. "And I saw Mario again and, I don't know, it just happened between us," she says.

Flopped in one of the Sports Club's cushiony chairs, Stephanie seems perfectly at ease in the anonymity of the exercise club, where no one ever asks for her autograph or takes her picture--unlike Europe, where she once was followed from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day for three months by paparazzi using motorbikes equipped with two-way radios. "She even asked us not to put 'Princess' on her membership card," a Sports Club manager reports.

"I think I blend in really well in here," Stephanie says. Too well, perhaps. She recently moved her training sessions from the co-ed weight room into the quieter women's gym rather than become the Ann Landers of the club set--though people don't recognize her, she looks like someone with whom they can share their problems. "People come up and talk to me. I couldn't work out because they liked to sit and chat. I don't want to hear about their problems. I just don't care. Really."

When Stephanie talks about herself, the word "normal" comes up again and again. "I live a normal life. A quiet life. I don't live the life of a star. . . . I'm just a normal person made of flesh and blood like anybody," she says. For months now, she has been living with Oliver in a smallish, rented home in Beverly Hills with three puppies and a pool that needs cleaning. "Our favorite thing to do together is just laying back in the sun and seeing our friends and being real settled, like normal people, and then have a barbecue at the house. We have our really close friends, and that's it. We don't see other people. And besides," adds the princess, "Mario sees enough people at Vertigo on weekends. . . . He's a very sociable person. He has to be in his business."

She pauses to watch Oliver put away a backhand shot that slices parallel to the wall, then adds, "I don't want to be in the jet set anyways."

But she is, for royal membership in the jet set isn't something you can let lapse or renew at will. The first "working princess" in its history, Stephanie was born into the Grimaldi family, which has ruled Monaco with only brief interruptions since the end of the 13th Century; a country so small its rulers like to boast that they could seat their subjects at dinner all at once. But only when Princess Grace arrived on the scene did Monaco make big news in America; Prince Rainier once said that the 1,000 reporters and photographers at his wedding created such a frenzy he had to watch a film of the event to be certain of what had happened. His children, too, have learned how to survive in a fishbowl; when a helicopter flew over Stephanie's home while she was sunning in a bikini by the pool recently, she instinctively threw a towel over herself and ran indoors and hid.

Soon, however, Stephanie will be back in the public eye as part of her ambition to be a rock star. Her first album, "Besoin" ("Need"), sold 5 million copies overseas, making her one of the top-selling new singers in the world, and her first single outsold Madonna's "Like a Virgin" in Europe. After trying her hand at modeling (until her father put his foot down, feeling it was undignified for a princess to pose in various states of undress) and fashion designing (she did a sexy swimsuit line because, she said, she couldn't find one she liked in stores), Stephanie started her singing career almost by accident. She was dining in a Paris restaurant with friends when French music executive Yves Rose invited her to make a record. Thinking it was a joke, she signed a contract drawn up on the tablecloth.

Even the hottest European performers have to crack the all-important American market. So now Stephanie's career is in the hands of the well-known West L.A. management firm Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli, which handles such talents as Prince and Sheila E. Joseph Ruffalo is personally designing what he says is a "new look" for the singer in clothes, hair, makeup and publicity photos. Exactly what that look might be is a closely held secret. But the new Stephanie will be unveiled at the end of this year.

Until then, she and Oliver make infrequent public appearances at Hollywood bashes, though they did go to the Century Plaza Hotel in May when Frank Sinatra, a close friend of Princess Grace, received the NAACP Life Achievement Award. It's not that Oliver wouldn't fit in. With his continental charm, gracious manner and boyish sexuality, Oliver has cultivated an image of drinking champagne instead of wine, flying first-class instead of coach and having the prettiest woman in the room on his arm. From clothes to culture to girlfriends, he always seems to be in the lead. As one friend, David Gothard, explains, "Mario was born trendy." He also has plenty of time on his hands. Though he works hard on weekends, he rarely goes in to his club on weekdays, managing to get all his promotional work done with a few hours of phoning the famous. The rest of the day he devotes to cooling out and cooing in French to Steph-AHN-ie, as he calls his princess. But Stephanie's local life has been so hermit-like that she is playing second banana to her boyfriend, who's known as "what's-his-name" in the overseas press even if he seems to know all the regulars on the L.A. club scene. "Here, they recognize me on the street and say, 'Who is that?' about Stephanie," says Oliver. "But in Paris, they look at Stephanie and then at me. That's why she likes it better here."

It's hard to imagine that any princess could ever be ignored, let alone this one, who single-handedly raised the circulation of Paris-Match by 5% when she appeared on its cover. Yet Stephanie Marie Elisabeth de Grimaldi was brought up to cherish the "normal" upbringing that Princess Grace tried to provide her three children with. There also was talk that after letting older sister Caroline run loose and seeing the results (a failed marriage to playboy Philippe Junot), Princess Grace was sterner with Stephanie, who turned mutinous.

Stephanie's adventures quickly overshadowed Caroline's flirtation with the European jet set. Whether racing around Monte Carlo on a motor scooter or dancing until dawn at her favorite disco, Stephanie spent her puberty learning to dodge the paparazzi. But privacy was a thing of the past; one French newspaper even held a public poll to determine which of her boyfriends was the sexiest. The list was a Who's Who of famous scions--some real liaisons and some not so real--which included the son of one of Spain's legendary bullfighters, an Italian duke, and even Ted Kennedy Jr. But Paul Belmondo, the young son of the famed French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, was her most serious love, and in 1981 they embarked on a three-year affair.

It was Belmondo who helped Stephanie make it through her family's greatest tragedy, the death of Princess Grace in a car crash on Sept. 13, 1982. Afterward, Stephanie romanced Anthony Delon, the street-smart delinquent son of a French film star, and she took to wearing leather, cut her hair short and dyed it red, green and orange. By 1985, she was a full-time member of Europe's underground club scene. Following a few more brief romantic encounters, the princess last September dated king brat-packer Rob Lowe. And although the media trumpeted the event by saying that love between Monaco and Hollywood was even better "the second time around," it lasted a mere month, after which Lowe returned to his longtime friend Melissa Gilbert, and Stephanie met Mario Oliver.

SATURDAY NIGHT HAS already turned into Sunday morning, but the capacity crowd at Vertigo is just warming up to the rhythms of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam on the dance floor. In the restaurant, a clutch of beautiful young women are trying to catch the eye of the guy with all the blond hair. But Mario Oliver is too nervous to flirt with anyone now; actor Mickey Rourke, a Vertigo regular, has just telephoned to say that he will arrive momentarily with 50 bikers in tow and expects VIP treatment. " Fifty bikers," Oliver mutters. "Ugh, it is too much."

Doorman Guy Brand, a part-time underwear model, nods his head in agreement. "I hope we've added lots of security," he warns Oliver. (The worry turned out to be unnecessary; Rourke and the bikers merely danced and drank for a few hours and then left without incident.)

Since its opening on New Year's Eve, 1985, in Myron's Ballroom at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and South Grand Avenue, Vertigo has become one of the hottest clubs in the country. The secret of its success has not been merely its ability to attract celebrities but also its New York-style club philosophy, which simply stated is that only the hippest of the hip are admitted. At Vertigo, doormen survey the crowd and then select the elite, elevating appearances to new heights even in this appearance-oriented city. And yet crowds form three deep outside the entrance every weekend.

Twin brothers Nick and Jim Colachis, who with Oliver comprise Vertigo's three major owners, like to make fun of the fact that, by charging a $12 cover, "we have become self-made thousandaires." But it's no joke that Oliver's new-found notoriety as Princess Stephanie's latest beau has been good for business. "Has she helped him? Absolutely. Absolutely ," one of Oliver's competitors assures. "It's helped him personally. It's helped the club. And while I don't think that was the motive for his getting involved with her, it's certainly been a stupendous windfall." Right now, Oliver is flying around the world negotiating to set up Vertigos in Paris, Tenerife, Buenos Aires and Toronto. "We'll be like Regine's," he says. But like everywhere else in Los Angeles, it is Stephanie's name, not her face, which is recognizable at Vertigo. People often can't pick her out from the other beautiful women. "My table is the first one in the restaurant by the door," Oliver says. "And I hear people asking, 'Is Stephanie here? Where is she?' And sometimes she's sitting right there."

Stephanie hears this and laughs. "I don't like the club," she insists. Then she realizes that perhaps her remark may be taken out of context. "Well, I like the club . I've had great times there. But I just realize that there's really no point in me going there. Mario gets mad because he can't spend as much time as he'd like to with me at the table. And, of course, I get mad. . . . It's not easy when you want to be with somebody and he has to be working."

"She's jealous," Oliver says.

Stephanie nods her head. "I come there for him. I don't come there to just sit around and look stupid. So I go there for dinner once in a while because I want to see him. And then I just leave."

In the past, people's opinion of Oliver meant little to him. But now that he's involved romantically with Stephanie, they both care that the press seems so intent on soiling his reputation by dwelling on two events from his past--a rape charge and a theft arrest. "It's not easy. But I'm used to this," says Stephanie. "It's not only to be nasty to him. It's to be nasty to me, too. . . . I wonder how people can be so mean. I don't even know how, not even for 10 minutes. It's just not inside me." Not that love is blind, of course. "Yes, Mario has some defects. He has some dark spots, like everybody. Nobody's perfect," she says.

Oliver admits that "there's nothing better for a club than a little bit of scandal. I mean, any kind of publicity is good. But I think now the time has come where I need some good publicity personally. God, I've been through the worst. The worst ."

His real name is Mario Jacques Oliver Jutard. But he changed it when he began modeling in Paris "because Mario Oliver was easier to remember." Admittedly vain, he still changes his age: Last year, he was telling people he was 28. This year he says he's 34.

Born in France to a middle-class family, he spent his youth traveling the world and modeling. In between assignments, he worked as a waiter in Paris restaurants ("They say sometimes in the newspapers, 'Mario started as a busboy.' I was never a busboy," he insists) and became a fixture on the city's nightclub circuit, working as a doorman, then as a disc jockey and finally as an assistant manager. "I knew everybody," Oliver says. "I would make just enough money to keep my life together and to travel. But mostly I just used to enjoy myself. My life was like a party."

One day, the party ended. "The police came to the club where I was working and said I'd been involved in stealing some stereos. And I said, 'What?' And they said someone was staying at my house with the stuff. And I said 'What?' Well, they were talking about a friend of the owner of the club who was just staying at my house for one night. So I went to the station with the police. And the next morning, we went to my house and saw a stereo. And they asked, 'Is that thing stolen?' and I said I didn't know anything about it. Well, the charge was dismissed after four hours. But it's still written about as if I were a criminal."

Oliver's story is corroborated by friend Philippe Lasson, a Los Angeles tennis coach who has known Oliver for a dozen years. "It was nothing, really. No one had any proof that the stereo was stolen or anything."

In 1981, Oliver came to Los Angeles on a tourist visa and stayed. "I didn't come here to make a fortune," he says. "I just wanted to move here because something was pushing me. I don't know what." After a brief stint with Guess? jeans, Oliver managed a Westwood restaurant until he realized he could make more money as a waiter. Then in 1982, he was arrested on charges that he and a friend had raped a 19-year-old Los Angeles college student at a Bel-Air party. The case dragged on for a year until finally a plea bargain was arranged in which the rape charges were dropped if Oliver pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of sexual battery. He puts his head in his hands as he tells his version of what happened that night. "The thing is, I didn't rape her. I didn't rape any girl. I don't need to. . . . Sorry, but I've even had some girls trying to rape me. That happened when I was younger," he says.

"I knew this girl. She was going out with one of my friends. She came to this party and I had sex with her. Something normal. Plus, she was really, really, really trying to pick up on me. . . . Eight days later, they came to the restaurant where I was working and said, 'Mario, you're accused of a crime.' "

His friends told him to run home to France. "But I said, 'I didn't rape this girl. I want to fight.' . . . I had to be very strong to stay. . . . It was one year of a really, really bad time." Asked why the woman filed the rape charge if he wasn't guilty, Oliver shakes his head. "I don't know." He pauses. "People who know me, they love me."

Except Maria Kelly, an L.A. stunt woman and Oliver's first wife (he's been married twice), and Verna Richland, Oliver's girlfriend before Stephanie entered the picture. Though Kelly went with him for six months while they were waiting tables at Sonny Bono's now defunct L.A. restaurant, Kelly says she asked Oliver to get an annulment three weeks after their wedding "when I realized the marriage was on false pretenses because he wanted to use me to get American citizenship." Richland, a model and law student, maintains that Oliver is still calling her on the telephone, visiting her at work, "crying how much he loves me and all the while lying to Stephanie."

Asked why the two women would want to savage him publicly, Oliver says, "They're just trying to see their names in the newspaper." He himself has a vast collection of newspaper clippings he keeps stored in the wood-paneled study of his house, all articles about the romance by reporters who have followed Stephanie and him on trips to France, Mauritius, Mexico and Argentina, or pictures of intimate moments taken by photographers with zoom lenses. He pulls out a story from the French newspaper France Dimanche showing him entering Fred Joaillier, the jewelry store. "It says I bought a wedding ring for Stephanie. Actually, I bought myself this bracelet," he says, holding up his wrist to display the "Force 10" bangle whose twin is worn by the princess. "And then another newspaper reported the next day that 'Stephanie shows her father the ring that Mario has offered her.' It says that he will disinherit her if she stays with me. Really, it's too ridiculous. And I have tons of articles like these."

Stephanie also reads what the media are saying about them. "The papers said a whole bunch of crap (about) a normal father reaction. If he weren't happy with my living here, he would have me back home on the next flight."

Even now they're planning a visit to Monaco together so Mario can meet Stephanie's family. "They haven't gotten the chance because things just haven't worked out. My father's a very busy man. And we're busy too. But I'm sure we will get together soon."

Will they get married? "We'll see," she says. For now, "we're the way we are."

In the meantime, she knows that whatever she does, whomever she loves, any romance a princess has will continue to make news. And she'll put up with the press attention as best she can. As Britain's Prince Charles once replied when asked how he coped with the rigors of being a royal: "It's all in the breeding."

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