ONCE upon a time, it was easy to identify a true princess: she had uncommonly small feet, a pair of wicked sisters and snow-white skin. A glance at her records would show she had spent her formative years below stairs, up to her elbows in ashes, generally sulking around and being over-nice to frogs. But that was long, long ago when kingdoms did battle with cannons instead of currencies and warriors carried swords, not mobile telephones. Today, the fairy-tale scene is in crisis. The old Identikit just doesn't work anymore and recently no prince - in Europe at least - has displayed the faintest clue when it came to choosing his bride. The glass slipper may fit but so does a dunce's cap and, eventually, a clown's nose. The magic has gone. The transformation never happens. Perhaps because they are no longer judged by a mirror on the wall but by an electric box in the corner of every subject's living-room, true princesses seem to be in chronically short supply. Few Europeans would have seen much to change that view when Alexandra Manley first appeared before Danish TV cameras on the arm of Denmark's Prince Joachim, the second son of Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrik. It is spring 1995 and the smallish woman whose very normal-sized feet are planted on the steps of Fredensborg Palace breaks convention in almost every way. Her formative years were spent making money and giving orders, she is older than her fiance by five years and her two sisters are reportedly very far from wicked. By virtue of the fact that she has a Shanghainese great-grandmother and was born and raised in Hong Kong, she is, most unusually of all, anything but snow-white. If any country is ready to rewrite the fairy tale, it is Denmark, home of the world's oldest monarchy and of Hans Christian Andersen, the world's favourite storyteller. By the time Alexandra Manley had finished her first press conference, the nation was swooning. Press and public alike were besotted by her charm, elegance and 'Asian mystery'. In interviews, she was deemed sharp, eloquent and knowledgeable. Whatever her background, Miss Manley was born to be a princess. Six months later, Alexandra Manley's face smiles from almost every single local magazine cover. Her name is on bottles of wine, a brand of biscuits, a new type of bread, a brew of beer, a celebratory brand of cake. She is on the Danish phone card, on the currency (a special coin is being minted) and on the television almost constantly. Before she arrived in Denmark, there were 804 people named Alexandra in the country; now there are 1,336. Shops in Copenhagen have started stocking her distinctive Hong Kong-style short skirts/black tights combos and two-piece business suits. Her waxwork image is 'the major draw' in the city's branch of Madam Tussauds. Already she has spearheaded a campaign to raise funds with which to rebuild one of the country's castles. 'Denmark has gone Alexandra-mad,' says Holger Blom, editor of the royalist Billed Bladet magazine. 'Our sales have gone up 15 per cent since the announcement of the engagement. There is absolutely no doubt that Alexandra is almost entirely responsible for the astonishing success of the castle appeal.' The Danish business community is also feeling the earth move. 'We are very excited about Alexandra Manley,' says Rolf Larssen of the co-ordinating group, Copenhagen Capacity. 'She understands business, she is sharp and presentable and it is no secret that we are hoping she can help Denmark make major advances it its relationship with Asia.' In terms of magical transformations, pumpkin and mice metamorphosing into a coach and horses pales by comparison. Denmark has gone bonkers. A Hong Kong contingent of journalists has been in Copenhagen for 36 hours. Although we are far from inhabiting the fairy-tale world of Miss Manley, there is a shared and growing sense that reality is on pause. The TVB camera crew is filming a Sir Ralph Richardson look-alike, whom we are told is the Lord Chamberlain to Queen Margrethe, as he strides across a city square. To our left and right are fantastic buildings with dreamy Disney spires; before us is the palace. Soldiers in tall, furry hats bearing stubby bayonets march by as if propelled by clockwork. It is -2 degrees Celsius and unpleasant white fluffy stuff is falling from the sky. The TVB camera crew, meanwhile, is being filmed by a Danish camera crew who is making a documentary about the visit of the Hong Kong journalists. The Sunday Morning Post Magazine photographer is trying to capture the whole interlocking scene. Loitering around the edge of the square are various members of the Danish press, representing Copenhagen's versions of People and Hello!. The little old lady from Xinhau is talking quietly to herself. 'The cas-tle is very be-ewwtiful,' she intones, fearing she will soon be collared to give yet another interview. The chances of this happening are quite high. We have been granted an exclusive interview with our countrywoman, Alexandra Manley, and the Danish press corps, desperate for any royalty-related story, seem to want hourly updates on our impressions. The Xinhua lady, easily the most reticent in our group, has already given two television and four print interviews. When we reach the palace, we are handed over to a Sir John Gielgud look-alike whom we are told is the Lord Chamberlain to Prince Joachim and his elder brother, the Crown Prince Frederik. After one final lecture in protocol (the 26-year-old Prince must be addressed as 'Your Royal Highness' and his 31-year-old fiancee as 'Miss Manley' and the meeting must be limited to 45 minutes with no mention of politics), we begin our long, imposing journey through the royal residence. With the Lord Chamberlain huffing and puffing in front of us, we are led up a large, curved staircase lined with portraits, through a couple of rooms containing pictures of royal families from other countries, through a room empty apart from a carpet made out of a flattened seal (its little paws flap helplessly on either side) and, finally, through a white double door into a room containing a chaise longue, a few rows of wooden seats and two red-and-yellow-striped empire chairs. Friends from Hong Kong describe Alexandra Manley as a typical expatriate girl. 'Please don't stitch her up,' pleaded a former flatmate. 'She is one of the most thoughtful and kind people I know; I should know, I stayed on her couch for two months. There was never anything snobbish about her. She didn't have any great advantages or inheritance. Sure, if you dig hard enough, you will find the usual wild nights in Lan Kwai Fong and so on but you won't find anyone who has a bad word to say about her.' The tributes flow thick and fast. According to those who remember her from the Island School, she was sophisticated and friendly, excelling in languages and sports. Former colleagues at the investment company, GT Management, where she worked as a fund manager, describe her variously as 'nice', 'super', 'really nice' and 'really super'. Suddenly, a side door opens and Europe's newest and, perhaps, oddest royal couple take their seats. He sits stiffly in a sharp, double-breasted grey suit and addresses us, his hands cupping the air in a manner reminiscent of Prince Charles: 'Thank you all so much for joining us ... ' She, wearing a beautiful Chanel suit, pure Hong Kong in its mix of power and allure, is not so much seated as curled on the chair next to him, her arm threaded through his, her thigh touching his. Question by question, we piece together their romance. Prince Joachim came to Hong Kong in October, 1993, to work for the Danish shipping firm, Maersk. Although he failed to remain anonymous during his 10-month stay (various Hong Kong gossip columnnists linked him to Miss Denmark, Maria Hirse, over the course of regular visits to JJs, Le Bar Bat and California), he was able to enjoy more freedom than in his home country. One evening towards the end of 1994, he and Miss Manley were invited by a mutual friend to a Chinese dinner. By chance, they were seated next to one another and talked all evening. Today, looking back on their first encounter, Prince Joachim says he was immediately struck by 'this very modern woman who had made her career. My interest was triggered by the fact that she was not simply an expatriate but a native of Hong Kong'. She remembers being drawn to his 'openness and genuineness and his willingness to try everything that was put in front of him. He was very interested in Hong Kong.' The next day, he called her and they went to watch the races at Happy Valley: 'She has a very strange way of betting,' recalls the prince with evident amusement. One date led to another and pretty soon - unbeknown to the Danish press - the prince and Miss Manley were gallivanting around the territory in the tight grip of a blossoming romance. Like a true gent, Prince Joachim asked Alexandra's father, Richard Manley, for his daughter's hand in marriage before he took her to the Philippines, got down on one knee and popped the question. Last May, Queen Margrethe, in accordance with convention, informed the Danish prime minister of the proposed marriage. Again in line with custom, a delegation was dispatched to Hong Kong to ascertain the suitability of Miss Manley. Old friends and colleagues were interviewed and records checked. At this point, a pea was presumably placed under her mattress. On May 31, Alexandra Manley was presented to the Danish government at a formal Council of State meeting and, late that afternoon, gave her first television interview on the steps of Fredensborg Palace. As our meeting with the royal couple progresses, it is hard not to share the feelings of the Danish nation. Although in real life, Miss Manley is no more than above-averagely pretty, there is something about her sensuality that reacts extremely well to her surroundings. Dressed in her Chanel suit, sitting comfortably in the throne room of this imposing palace, she is inordinately sexy. She is also inordinately engaging. She listens carefully to each question and gives the full weight and considerable edge of her mind to the answer. In this way, she comes across already as an excellent diplomat. It is only when you get home and play back the tape that you realise she hasn't really answered the questions. Another striking thing about her is her honesty. There is none of the gold-digger's pretence that she loves Joachim for his warm personality and that his being a prince is just coincidence, an inconvenience even: 'Of course, I knew he was the Prince of Denmark when we first met. When I said yes to him, I didn't for a minute think I could continue my life as normal and go to work everyday in Hong Kong. Obviously, there were things I had to give up. Even when you love somebody and care so much for them, there are days when you reflect on your old life and realise how much you miss your friends and family. I talk to them on the phone but it is not like being able to see them regularly. But this was something I fully accepted.' Instead, she stresses that she found Joachim's princely demeanour extremely attractive, thought his life exciting and useful and was impressed by the way he combined his role with a down-to-earth charm. 'From the moment I met him, he was just Joachim,' she says. 'He had no fancy frills or airs and graces. He is a very genuine person.' How is she coping with the current blaze of media attention, one wonders. 'I don't have a choice. I just have to get used to it,' she answers simply. 'I realised that I was not just saying yes to Prince Joachim but to his country, my new country, too.' The couple insist that they want to live in the real world as far as their position will allow them to. Someone raises the issue of the publicity-plagued British royal family; are there, do they think, any lessons to be learnt? Prince Joachim's response is surprisingly forthright: 'The press in England show a different attitude to the royal family as an institution than the Danish press. To be quite honest, I think it is rather questionable. That is not the case here. Our press is much more responsible. It gives us more freedom of movement, thought and speech. They do not misquote us.' As for their immediate post-nuptial plans, the couple is reluctant to say too much although Miss Manley admits that she is looking forward to starting a family. When exactly? 'I have only just received my diary for 1996,' intervenes the prince drily. 'I haven't had time to check through it yet.' After the print media's interview, I sit and watch TVB fire questions at the couple for 45 minutes. Once again it is Miss Manley who is the most efficient communicator. She is still squeezing out a smile and oozing charm long after the prince has glazed over. She connects with people in a way that he does not. 'My role as a princess,' she states, 'will be to serve my country at home and overseas - especially in industry.' She is good at this and she knows it. And why shouldn't she be? She was born and raised in the world capital of public relations. 'I knew it would be a challenge to marry Prince Joachim,' she is saying, 'but I enjoy challenges and am determined to give him and the Danish people one thousand per cent.' Alexandra Manley is a true princess because she comes from the city of magical transformation - not Hans Christian Andersen's Copenhagen but commercial Hong Kong. She was born and raised in a culture where people change status and fortune as quickly as their shirts, where people use confidence and bluster in the same way Europeans use convention and tradition. Moreover, she has no doubts about the role of the monarchy. She knows that the job of the royal family is the same as it has always been: to lead its country confidently into battle. And as a capable Hong Kong businesswoman, she knows that the battlefield is the business world.