Prince Albert of Monaco, now 62 and as portly as Santa, looks relaxed and happy sitting with his children in a red outfit and festive hat.

However, Christmas joy is in rather short supply in photographs of his wife Charlene, a former Olympic swimmer. Her Serene Highness sports a jaw-dropping punk haircut with shaved sides, which has astonished the wealthy and conservative residents of Monaco, and led to rumors of a serious crisis in their nine-year marriage.

Wearing a Covid mask, her eyes look sad and tired.

In a few weeks’ time, a sensational court case will reveal precisely what Charlene, 42, is rebelling about right now and why, according to sources in Monaco, she is in ‘utter agony’ and facing the ‘greatest crisis’ of her life.

The tabloids started talking when Princess Charlene debuted her newly sheared head at a holiday event at the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, in December.

A Brazilian woman, now living in Italy, has come forward to accuse Prince Albert of fathering a child by her. She says they met in a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro in 2004 and conducted a red hot affair around the globe, before she fell pregnant and was dropped.

A Messy Affair

Documents shown to this newspaper indicate that her daughter, a 15-year-old Brazilian schoolgirl, who cannot be named, sent a handwritten note in Portuguese to Albert at the Prince’s Palace in the heart of the tiny principality on September 24, 2020.

An excerpt reads: ‘When I was five or six, I kept asking my mum where you were, and why you weren’t with us, because I have friends who always have both parents to play with, but I never got a response from you. I don’t understand why I grew up without a father, and now that I’ve found you, you don’t want to see me.’

An initial legal skirmish is due to take place in Milan in February.

The multi-billionaire Prince denies that he is the father and says that he is being blackmailed.

The affair is alleged to have started after he first met his wife Charlene, but before they began dating seriously. It will be a third legal action against Albert over paternity — two previous love children have been declared his children and their mothers received huge financial settlements. In line with a negotiated agreement, neither are in Monaco’s line of succession.

“I don’t understand why I grew up without a father, and now that I’ve found you, you don’t want to see me.”

And now there may be a third. The romance allegedly began in September 2004 when he was on a trip to the U.S., but made a detour to Rio to ‘enjoy the social life’, according to Italian legal papers.

He then allegedly used trips to New York to see his new lover, before inviting her to Europe.

The papers go on to describe how, on her first trip, she lost her passport in Lisbon, where she met Albert, and the Monaco Consulate in the Portuguese capital helped her to deal with the situation.

After Lisbon, the couple flew to Milan, where they got a visa for Russia, but they did not use it straight away. Instead, they drove back to Monaco, and Albert booked the woman into the Riviera Marriott at Cap-d’Ail, just outside Monaco.

The couple later flew from Nice to Moscow, where Albert introduced the woman to President Vladimir Putin who ‘gave her a hug’, according to the legal papers. The trip lasted two weeks, and then the woman returned to Rio, where it is said she learned she was pregnant in November 2004.

That was then: the royals on their wedding day, in 2011.

Last year, the woman instructed an Italian lawyer who is — by bizarre coincidence — called Erich Grimaldi, sharing the same name as the dynasty over which Albert presides. He sent a picture to Monaco of the Brazilian child and her mother posing by the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio.

‘My client is desperate,’ said Mr Grimaldi. ‘Maybe the photo will help Albert remember her.’

Through her lawyer, the claimant said: ‘I’m not a blackmailer. I never asked Prince Albert for money. All I want is a DNA test, so that my daughter will finally know who her father is.’ She said the allegations of blackmail and fraud from Thierry Lacoste, Albert’s veteran lawyer, were ‘ridiculous’.

A Princess in Crisis

Is this what prompted Charlene to shave off her hair? Some believe that the court action is causing her intense stress.

One source said: ‘Charlene doesn’t want to believe the claims are true, but dealing with them is a nightmare — this is her worst crisis since she married Albert.’ They first met at the Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) swimming competition in Monte Carlo in 2000. The Prince, who had a reputation as a serial bachelor after romances with Claudia Schiffer and Brooke Shields, was smitten by the statuesque 5ft 11in blonde.

In an interview in 2013, she said they spent their whole first date ‘talking and laughing’, bonded over a mutual love of sport, and that she found his pursuit ‘incredibly flattering’.

Five years passed before there was a second date. They began a long distance relationship and eventually Charlene moved from South Africa to a small apartment in Monaco. She couldn’t speak French, and often felt lonely.

Born Charlene Wittstock, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, she is the daughter of a photocopier salesman, Michael, and a swimming teacher, Lynette.

In June 2010, Albert, 20 years Charlene’s senior, proposed with a Repossi diamond. Comparisons to his mother, Princess Grace, were inevitable. Both were beautiful blondes from the New World, joining the House of Grimaldi.

But there were rumors of frictions almost from the start.

One such period arrived in the summer of 2011, when a few days before Albert’s royal wedding, the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche published unsubstantiated allegations that Charlene had made three attempts to flee. It even claimed the distraught bride-to-be had tried to claim sanctuary at the South African embassy in Paris.

Men at work: Prince Albert and Vladimir Putin, traveling in 2007.

The story appeared to be confirmed by her tears on her wedding day — in church, Albert could be seen telling her: ‘Don’t cry.’ Charlene, however, said reports that she wanted to run away were ‘categorical lies’.

She said the tears were just a result of the pressure. Later, in an interview in Paris Match, Charlene said she had indeed left Monaco just before the marriage, but not because she wanted to go home. ‘My mother asked me to accompany her to Paris to look for a pair of shoes for the ceremony. This is where a whole story was made up.’

She settled into the life of a consort — the two of them host a party on the Friday night of the Monaco Grand Prix, plus annual balls and gala dinners.

She set up a charity and her brother Gareth moved from South Africa to help her run it.

Palace Intrigue

But what is life like as a Princess? She complains of homesickness. ‘My mum is my best friend. I miss her all the time,’ she said.

In an interview with the South African magazine Huisgenoot a year ago, she said: ‘I have the chance to lead the life I lead, but I miss my family and my friends back in South Africa.’ She also says looking after her six-year-old twins Jacques and Gabriella is tiring.

Albert has talked about loneliness and boredom and indicated their life is not a bed of roses.

He told a TV documentary last year: ‘There’s not enough room for spontaneous activities. Even spontaneity has to be scheduled.’

They were separated when the Prince tested positive for Covid and recuperated at the Palace. Charlene went to Roc Agel, their mountaintop retreat, with the twins. There are no courtiers inside, just guards at the gates.

Albert has talked about loneliness and boredom and indicated their life is not a bed of roses.

By contrast the atmosphere at the pink Prince’s Palace of Monaco is said to be ‘stifling’. There are courtiers and servants everywhere and, despite the luxury, it can be a very snobbish, restrictive place.

Veteran Monaco royal watcher Richard Fitzwilliams says that he expects Charlene will, despite rumors to the contrary, stay in Monaco. ‘A powerful royal couple is essential to the image of Monaco, especially given the dysfunctional behavior of individual family members. That’s why the marriage of the Prince and Princess is a source of constant fascination. Given all the rumors that accompanied the marriage, she has managed rather well.’

Alison Boshoff writes about show business for the Daily Mail. Peter Allen is a Paris-based journalist