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A FLORIDIAN EXCLUSIVE // SCANDAL TAKES A (wee) HOLIDAY

She may be ruler of "The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and Her Other Realms and Territories," but Queen Elizabeth has one thing in common with most women of a certain age _ she likes to keep her pocketbook close at hand.

A portrait of the royal family taken at Prince William's recent confirmation shows his 71-year-old grandmother with a proud smile on her face, hands demurely folded and black patent-leather purse tucked securely beneath her chair.

Now we wonder _ what could a woman with all those ladies-in-waiting possibly need to cart around in a handbag? The keys to the castle? Extra hatpins? The phone number of the Domino's Pizza on Regent's Park Road?

"Everybody always asks that, especially in America," says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. "She doesn't carry very much in it _ it's more like a security thing. She probably has a powder compact and some dog biscuits."

The queen's beloved Welsh corgis are among the better-behaved members of a royal family that has gone through a headlinemaking assortment of lurid affairs, bitter divorces and sensational kiss-and-tells.

Such is the stuff of Britain's tabloid press. But there's another, more dignified side to the royals _ the pomp, the tradition, the endless state functions _ and that is where the monthly magazines Majesty and Royalty have found their niche.

"We don't have our nose pressed to the window as the newspapers do," says Bob Houston, Royalty's editor-at-large. "Over the years we've been able to put together a considerable team that can go out with the idea of putting things in perspective and taking it beyond those wondering who Diana's next dress designer is going to be or whose hand is up whose skirt."

Houston and Seward note that daily coverage of the royals has slackened a bit in recent months, with the press distracted by the British elections and change of government. And as the royals get older and presumably a bit wiser, the scandals seem fewer and farther between.

Sarah Ferguson _ caught in 1992 in a topless romp with a rich Texan _ has paid off her debts and temporarily moved back in with her still-smitten ex, Prince Andrew. Since her divorce last year, Princess Diana has kept a low social profile and devoted much of her time to good causes. And the queen's youngest son, Edward _ an artsy sort who has his own television production company _ may finally be settling down with a London PR woman.

"We're beyond the Hollywood glitz period," Houston says.

But as much as the royals might enjoy being out of the spotlight, Seward sees a solid and enduring interest in them. The magazine's 60,000 circulation reflects a readership that's "really interested in royalty," she says. "Any specialist market is very valuable to have."

Majesty, the older of the two full-color magazines, was founded in 1980 by London publisher Derek Shephard.

"He thought there was a huge market for color pictures of the royal family," says Seward. "There was nothing then _ no Hello! magazine, few supplements in the newspapers. You had all these people taking photos, but the photos were never seen. It was a brilliant idea."

Although launched the same year as the Queen Mother's lavishly celebrated 80th birthday, the magazine was not an instant hit. But in 1981 Diana married Prince Charles, and interest in the royal family soared.

The world's most-photographed woman, Diana continues to be a Majesty staple despite her diminished public posture. She is featured on the cover of the latest issue, which has a four-page spread on some of her fabulous evening gowns to be auctioned for charity next month in New York.

"It could turn into sort of a farce," Seward says of the auction, which already has engendered enormous public interest. "I like the idea of the whole of gay New York bidding for the dresses."

Times have changed _ Majesty never used to run photos of Diana in a bikini, both because the royal family objected and "because the quality of paparazzi shots is usually not good enough." Now that she's divorced, Di has appeared bikini-clad on the cover.

In general, Seward says, the royals are "pretty pleased" with they see and read in the magazine: "At least it reports on what they're actually doing."

Recent issues have included stories on the royals' efforts to curb travel expenses (they spend $32-million a year on official trips); the unusual gifts presented by foreign governments (two pygmy hippos, a solid gold pinafore), and a profile of a more mature and self-confident Prince Andrew.

"Andrew has behaved with a little more dignity than a lot of his siblings, and I think he's in a very awkward position right now, having Fergie under his own roof," Seward says. "It must be very inhibiting for him. Though there's lots of talk about his other girlfriends, he's in love with her because she's the one person he can't have."

As for the free-spirited Sarah, "I've known Fergie for years and she has never changed," says Seward, a heart specialist's daughter who was raised in upper-crust circles herself. "I'm very fond of her, but I don't think it was ever the kind of life she could mold into."

According to a recent poll, the British public feels Fergie has done more than any other member of the royal family to damage the clan's reputation. A close second is Prince Charles, whose popularity nosedived as a result of his divorce and long-running affair with Camilla Parker Bowles.

Seward, though, thinks Charles will make a good king and regards Camilla as "a good woman in a very difficult situation." Doomed to be known as the royal mistress, Camilla might have married Charles but "the timing was wrong _ when he wanted to marry her she didn't want to marry him."

Houston, of Royalty, agrees that the Charles-Camilla relationship is one of the more poignant episodes of modern royal history.

"In a different time with different personalities it would have been seen as one of great romances of our time," he says. "But then you had the Diana factor and the fairy tale aspect of that marriage, and there was an element of disappointment and betrayal. Charles had as much respect as any royal this century and he blew it."

A former editor at Majesty, Houston left in 1981 to start his own magazine, which now claims a worldwide circulation of about 130,000. Like its competitor, Royalty covers monarchies throughout Europe and is about 60 to 70 percent pictorial. However, it tends to be a bit more sensational _ a recent issue called Diana a "Prisoner in the Palace" and speculated that "some of the mud that had been thrown on her inevitably will stick."

In general, though, the British royals are "enjoying peace and quiet for a change," says Houston. "They haven't had much in the '90s. But the rottweilers will be let lose in two or three years with Prince William. From what I've heard _ we have a friend with a boy at Eton _ the word is that he's a nice lad. None of this arrogance and snobbery seems to have stuck to him."

And, Houston, adds, "the older her son gets, the more influential Diana will become. Remember, she's the mother of a future king."

Houston himself admires the queen, who tends to be taken for granted amid the more colorful members of the royal family. "When (new prime minister) Tony Blair went up to kiss her hand, he was the 10th prime minister to do that. She's a very astute and well-informed lady. In fact, I think she was far better informed of what the British people feel than the Conservative Party was."

What of the royals' future? Polls show that only 20 percent of the public thinks Britain will have a monarchy a century from now. However, half feel the monarchy is important to Britain and 60 percent think the country still needs it.

Some commentators have speculated that the power and prestige of the royals will be eroded under the new Labor government, which objects to public funding for a royal yacht and wants to "reform" the House of Lords.

In fact, "the record shows that the royal family in the last 50 or 60 years has gotten along better with Labor prime ministers than Conservative ones," says Paul Minet, editor of Royalty Digest, a more scholarly look at European royalty.

Editorially, his journal remains in favor of a constitutional monarchy. "We always bracket the two words together," Minet says. "We're not in favor of the divine right of kings _ they've got to earn their own way."

And largely they do. He notes that the queen _ at an age when most people are retired _ still appears at more than 600 functions a year and handles a large number of other official duties.

"One chap a year or two ago followed Prince Philip around for a week and was completely fagged-out at the end of the week," Minet says.

And despite all the scandals and shenanigans, Seward of Majesty says the royals are actually a pretty likable bunch.

"They're always on show so you don't actually see them at their most relaxed. They're really quite a jokey family and have quite a good sense of humor."

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