Even though Charlene, Princess of Monaco had a particularly tough 2020 , she remains one of the most-loved royals in Europe. But her story actually began far away from the glamorous palace walls of the sovereign city state on the French Riviera. The 42-year-old princess, who is mum to twins Princess Gabriella and Hereditary Prince Jacques, became royalty when she married Albert II, Prince of Monaco during a televised wedding on July 1, 2011. Before that the princess lead a very different, and not so royal, life. All the way away in Africa, in fact. How British royals escape the palace – and what they do in disguise An African princess She may be one of Europe’s most-glamorous royals, but Princess Charlene actually hails from Africa. Charlene Lynette Wittstock was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and relocated with her family to South Africa in 1989. The princess told South Africa’s Huisgenoot magazine: “I have the privilege of having this life, but I miss my family and my friends in South Africa and I’m often sad because I cannot always be there for them.” It wasn’t always glamorous gowns The princess’s outspoken South African father, Michael, told Times Live that Charlene was a fearless tomboy who would regularly get into fights as a kid. “Once she jumped off a tree onto a horse and broke her arm in three places. She was not scared of anything,” her father said. Prince Harry’s Rolex, and more celebrity-owned watches selling for big money She was born to swim If you think the 42-year-old princess is in fantastic shape, you’d be right. Before marrying into Monaco’s royal family, the blonde beauty was an Olympic swimmer representing South Africa at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Her mother Lynette was a former competitive diver and swimming coach, so Charlene was always bound to be a water baby. She eventually met her now-husband, Prince Albert, in 2000 at swimming competition in Monaco. The marriage was clearly meant to be. She retired from professional swimming in 2007. Although she planned to compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics in China as her final bow, she sadly did not qualify for the event. Charlene vs Charlize Did you know South Africa’s famous royal grew up in the very same small town as the country’s most famous Oscar winner? Yep, Princess Charlene and Charlize Theron both grew up in a small town called Benoni on the outskirts of Johannesburg. In 2018, Charlene finally took her young children to see the town where she’s from. “I’d dreamed of taking them there for a long time, showing them South Africa, certainly, but also Benoni, the city where I grew up,” she told Huisgenoot . “On the plane, when we arrived, we were all three looking through the porthole and Jacques cried, ‘Wow, this is the country where you come from, mum? It’s so big!’ It was very moving for me.” STYLE’s top 7 royal stories of 2020 – from Britain to Brunei A loyal friend Princess Charlene may have moved up in the world, but she never forget the friends from where she came from. One such pal is fellow South African Olympic swimmer Ryk Neethling, who has always remained close to the princess. In 2017, she appointed him as the CEO of the Princess Charlene of Monaco’s foundation‚ set up in 2012 to raise awareness about water danger and to teach children water safety skills. View this post on Instagram A post shared by HSH Princess Charlene (@hshprincesscharlene) Another lucky friend is singer Jason Hartman, the Idols South Africa reality show winner who got to know Charlene during his rise to fame. She eventually asked him to perform at her wedding celebrations in Monaco years later. She’s always been really, really nice One thing the princess is famous for in her native South Africa is for being super-nice and friendly to everybody. Her former teammate and roommate, Penny Heyns, remembers Charlene as a friendly person “who knew somebody, without exception, wherever we were in the world”. “She has a lot more depth of character and is more perceptive than you see on the surface,” said Heyns. Want more stories like this? Sign up here . Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .