From the moment he was born on June 21, 1982, newspapers have wondered what career the second-in-line to the throne would pursue before becoming king, whether he'd take after his fashionable mother (the late Princess Diana) or his more traditional father (Prince Charles) and, perhaps most frequently, who he would marry.
That's also been the easiest question to answer, because for the past eight years, Prince William has been firmly committed to his former college housemate, Kate Middleton. That long courtship (Middleton has been dubbed "Waity Katie" by the British tabloid press) led some commentators to wonder whether he'd ever pop the question
But William is a man who lives life by his own rules. In 2004, he told the press while on a skiing trip in Switzerland, "I don't want to get married until I'm at least 28, or maybe 30." He's a man of his word: the 28-year-old today announced he was engaged to Middleton, also 28.
It's easy to understand why the prince wanted to delay the royal wedding and make sure Middleton was the right girl for him. His parents were an ill-suited couple whose feud became fodder for the tabloid press. Chaos followed their separation, with the media poking their nose into every aspect of Charles and Diana's lives and subsequent loves.
His mother would eventually die in a car crash -- when William was just 15 and his brother Harry 12 -- as her driver attempted to escape Parisian paparazzi pursuing her car. Many who watched her funeral can still remember the sight of young William and Harry walking behind their mother's funeral cortege, keeping their composure while hundreds of thousands of people gathered on London's streets sobbed over Diana's death.
Despite suffering the tragic loss of his mother at such a young age -- in circumstances that would have made many would-be monarchs despise their celebrity-obsessed future subjects -- William has grown up to be a generous, warmhearted and remarkably level-headed individual. He doesn't throw tantrums like his father (who frequently rails against modern architecture and science) and is more self-assured than his mother was at his age. William's humility and regal looks have proved a crowd-pleasing combination. On a recent solo trip to Australia -- of which his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, is still head of state -- the prince was greeted like a rock star by hordes of screaming fans. That's quite a feat when you consider that most young Australians want to dump the monarchy and establish a republic.
His lack of pretension is perhaps a result of his mother's relaxed approach to child-rearing. Diana made sure that William and younger brother Harry, now 26, had as normal an upbringing as possible. They were taken to amusement parks, played with ordinary children -- like those of royal butler Paul Burrell -- and occasionally ate junk food at McDonald's. However, William also grew up knowing that he was destined to be king, and he reportedly gave up the dream of becoming a police officer at an early age.
Diana is clearly still an important role model for William, and he has continued her pioneering charity work. He is patron of homelessness charity Centrepoint. In December 2009, he spent a freezing night sleeping rough on the streets of London (albeit with a "small element of security") to raise awareness of Centrepoint's work. Afterward he said he could not "even begin to imagine what it must be like to sleep rough night after night."
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And like the free spirit that his mother became in later life, the prince frequently flouts royal convention. William's marriage to Middleton will make him the first heir presumptive to marry a commoner in more than 350 years. He has also doggedly pursued his own career. After carrying out the military service expected of all would-be kings, William chose to train as a full-time co-pilot with the Royal Air Force's Search and Rescue Force -- a job that will occupy him for at least the next three years.
His toughest challenge, though, still lies ahead. William is fiercely protective of Middleton and doesn't want her to face the constant paparazzi harassment that blighted his mother's final years. The prince has instructed his lawyers to warn photographers to keep their distance from Middleton and has launched legal action against those who invade her privacy. But with the glare of the planet's media now focused on the happy couple, it's doubtful that he'll be able to defend her from the intrusions that he has grown so familiar with over the past three decades.