The best man, for better or worse

Charming, gaffe-prone Prince Harry may enjoy being out of the spotlight

The best man, for better or worse

Prince Harry with his mother—mischievous from the start. In the military he found a real sense of purpose and belonging. | Tim Graham/Getty Images; John Stillwell/AP

If there is any justice, Prince Harry will get to organize the stag night. It wouldn’t just be his duty as presumptive best man (current odds from British bookmaker William Hill: 12-1), it would play to his proven natural talents. For of all the royals, 26-year-old Henry Charles Albert David, third in line to the throne, is the indisputable party boy.

Charles and Diana’s second son, or “the spare,” as the late princess used to teasingly call him, has long had a taste for fun, and occasionally trouble. At 16, the tabloids revealed he’d been drinking to excess down at the local pub, and smoking pot on the grounds of his father’s Highgrove estate. (The Prince of Wales reacted by dispatching him to a London drug rehabilitation clinic for one short, sharp, shocking afternoon.) At 20, he got involved in a 3 a.m. scuffle with a paparazzo outside a posh London nightclub, leaving the man with a cut lip, and a highly lucrative photo. He celebrated his 25th birthday—and the official inheritance of $14.5 million from his mother’s estate—with a $32,400 African booze cruise, on a houseboat filled with friends, lager and smokes.

“Does everyone expect me to be just the caring person and not to have a cigarette, not to have a beer?” Harry asked an interviewer who inquired about his “party prince” reputation a few years ago. “If that’s a problem with anyone, then I’m very sorry.”

Not particularly academically inclined, the prince left Eton with just two less-than-impressive A-levels in art and geography. He spent a gap year working on an Australian cattle station, and making a documentary about AIDS orphans in Lesotho. His interests include polo, rugby, skiing, shooting, and very fast motorcycles—including a certain Triumph Daytona 675 with a top speed of 257 kph.

For his career, he followed family tradition and joined the military, entering the Royal Military Academy in 2005. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Household Cavalry, he pushed hard for a deployment in Iraq. “There’s no way I’m going to put myself through Sandhurst and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country,” the prince proclaimed. But a planned tour of duty in the south of the country in early 2007 was scrubbed over concerns that he would become the target of kidnappers and an all-around “bullet magnet.”

The following winter, Harry did make it to war as a forward air controller—call sign Widow Six Seven—in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Stationed in an outpost near the front lines, he was responsible for coordinating air strikes, and scouring surveillance video for “Terry Taliban.” But the deployment ended after just 10 weeks when Australian and U.S. websites broke a media blackout.

In the U.K., the returning prince was hailed as a hero by politicians and the press alike. (“When Harry met Tali,” was the headline in the tabloid Daily Star.) But the honeymoon didn’t last. A few months later, News of the World released a three-year-old home video of an army training exercise in Cyprus, where Harry was captured jokingly calling one fellow cadet “Paki” and telling another that his camouflage headdress made him look like “a raghead.” A public apology quickly followed.

Harry received a formal dressing down from his army superiors, and was sent for additional anti-racism training. But the incident—along with his decision to dress up as a Nazi for a friend’s 2005 costume party—cemented the prince’s reputation as an exceptionally tone-deaf public figure.

So far, the public has been inclined to forgive, if not forget, such gaffes. Harry was, after all, just 12 when his already bizarre life was upended by his mother’s tragic death. “Every day, whatever we do, wherever we are and whoever we’re with I always wonder what she’d think—what she’d be doing if she was with us now,” the prince said in an interview he and his brother gave to a South African television network earlier this year. And as the patron of 10 organizations and charities—including Sentebale, a group he cofounded to help the orphans of Lesotho—he clearly strives to carry on her works.

But now with his elder brother engaged to be married, and presumably on track to produce more heirs, Harry may finally be able to start edging out of the spotlight. Currently retraining to fly Apache attack helicopters, the prince has made no secret of his desire to return to war, and a sense of belonging that he’s never experienced anywhere else. “It’s bizarre,” he said during his stint on the Afghan front lines. “I’m out here now, haven’t really had a shower for four days, haven’t washed my clothes for a week and everything seems completely normal. I think this is about as normal as I’m ever going to get.” And it only lasted 77 days.