Brassy blonde hair, an estuary accent and now stroking Brucie's knee ... why Zara is such an uncommon royal

For 11million television viewers, the voice may have come as a surprise.

The flattened vowels and clipped consonants could have been from somewhere between, say, Romford and Southend. But this was no 'Essex girl' cheering the contestants and chatting to the grandfatherly Bruce Forsyth from the star-spangled BBC1 audience on last Saturday's Strictly Come Dancing.

It was Zara Phillips, the Queen's granddaughter, a young woman who, more than ever, is turning into a very unusual royal.

Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall

Surprise appearance: Zara Phillips with boyfriend Mike Tindall on last week's Strictly Come Dancing

Like the dutiful girlfriend she has become since moving in with hulking rugby star Mike Tindall, she was with him supporting his former England team colleague Austin Healey, one of the favourites to win the ballroom dancing contest which moves a dance-step closer to its climax tonight.

The company Zara keeps these days is anything but royal  -  6ft 2in Tindall, 30, is a bluff Yorkshireman from the former pit village of Crigglestone, near Wakefield, and the sport of three-day eventing, in which she is the current World Champion, is no longer the preserve of the horsey rich and aristocratic but a healthy social mix of professionals.

If her mother, Princess Anne, had not rejected the automatic 'HRH' which was offered to Zara and her elder brother, Peter, by their grandmother the Queen, we might even be calling Zara the 'Estuary Princess' by now.

What a wise decision that turned out to be. She is much more relaxed as plain Miss Zara Phillips than her royal cousins, who find it difficult living up to the anachronistic style of 'Royal Highness'.

Even the honour she earned for 'services to eventing' after becoming world champion in 2006 (as well as the award of BBC Sports Personality of the Year) was the same, relatively humble MBE that would have gone to any other rider, and not one of the glossy and exclusive orders of triumph and chivalry that the royals habitually pin on each other's chests.

The intriguing paradox is that no one is happier with her 'Estuary' daughter and the ease with which Zara blends into any crowd than her mother, that most unbending of royals. Imperious  -  often to the point of rudeness  -  the Princess Royal may be, yet she has actively encouraged her daughter to live as unroyal a life as possible.

It's not difficult to understand why. As an old chum of the Princess was saying this week: 'Anne gets an enormous vicarious kick out of Zara's freedom and the daring way she is able to explore life  -  and love  -  in a way that she herself was denied when young.

'As the Queen's daughter, Anne was brought up in a royal straitjacket. Whenever she looked at a man  -  and she looked at several  -  she had to do so in secret.'

So secret, indeed, that even when the whole of Fleet Street was talking of her impending engagement to a handsome young Army officer called Captain Mark Phillips in the early Seventies, a press officer was dispatched from Buckingham Palace to hawk his way round the offices of each editor issuing a personal denial of the romance. Of course, the engagement to Phillips, who is Zara's father, was announced within weeks.

Zara Phillips

Riding her beloved Toytown. Zara became Eventing World Champion in 2006

For her part, Zara (the Greek name, incidentally, was chosen by her uncle, Prince Charles, because it means 'bright as the dawn') bounded out of Gordonstoun with A-levels in biology, geography and physical education and was soon setting a royal precedent by wearing one stud in her tongue and another in her navel.

Her mother was presumably away from her Gatcombe Park estate in Gloucestershire when Zara famously threw an Ann Summers saucy underwear and sex-aid party for 25 shrieking and giggling girlfriends there.

She engaged a male waiter who wore just a G-string and kept a straight face while he served smoked salmon and champagne as the saleslady demonstrated and explained her wares.

The event was paid for by Zara herself (well, could you imagine Princess Anne financing it?). She has her own trust fund set up with royal money, almost certainly provided by her great-grandmother, the Queen Mother.

Here were the early rebellious signs of things to come from the young woman, now 27, who remains 12th in line to the throne. Her plummy voice which, as a child, was said to be 'so like the Queen's', was already beginning its Colditz-style escape to freedom (intriguingly, the Queen's own vowels have softened a touch over the years).

But no one anticipated the extraordinary, some might say even squalid, events that were to mark her early 20s  -  her stormy four-year relationship with jockey Richard Johnson.

Johnson boasted he'd 'never read a book' but Princess Anne did not disapprove when Zara, a mere 19, told her that she and the champion jockey were setting up home together. They were, after all, 'in love' and she moved into the jockey's modern, £400,000 house in Toddington, Gloucestershire.

She was already trying desperately to be a face in the crowd rather than be fawned over as the Queen's grand-daughter. At a Christmas ball, when approached by an organiser who told her it was time for the raffle and would she be kind enough to draw it, her reply was 'no'. As she afterwards explained to friends: 'I just don't want to do those sort of things.'

But the decisive note in her refusal had definite echoes of her mother, a trait she can turn on (and does) whenever she needs it.


With former boyfriend jockey Richard Johnson. The couple had frequent rows

Zara set another royal precedent when she and Johnson accepted a reported £125,000 for an intimate 14-page spread in Hello! magazine in which they talked about their domestic bliss. But, eventually, both began to feel an undercurrent of uncertainty and mistrust.

In horsey circles they still talk of the night when one of the loving couple's frequent rows developed into a public fight that left the Queen's grand-daughter lying on a pavement, bruised and sobbing, after Johnson accused her of cheating on him with another jockey.

But their disputes didn't always end like that. Zara is well-built and was taller than Johnson, and usually gave as good as she got. On one occasion (a dance in Cheltenham), she and Johnson were seen emerging from an ante-room with him holding himself like a man who'd been kicked in a very painful spot.

As he limped away she could be heard mumbling an apology and trying to catch up with him. It seems that when she bested him, she always apologised  -  'proof of her breeding', mutual friends would murmur, with wicked humour.

They knew the relationship was doomed and she had moved out of his home when she met Tindall in Sydney on the night of England's triumph in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final.

For the past two years they have shared a rent-free cottage on Princess Anne's estate. With 16-stone Tindall there are no rows, no jealousies, and definitely no fights.

'He's one of those big, patient blokes who looks after her,' says one of their rugby friends. 'They have a great relationship and she really looks up to him  -  in every way. It's quite touching.

'Mike's an ordinary bloke but she loves him in a way she never loved Richard because she knows she can always lean on him, and trust him.'

When Zara's main competitive horse Toytown was injured just before the Olympics, destroying her dream of winning a gold medal, it was Mike who pacified her by telling her that another Olympics would be along in four years.

Last month she broke her collarbone in Southern France when her horse, Tsunami II, tripped over a fence during a cross-country-event. She was devastated when the animal had to be put down. When she got home, the devoted Tindall brought her breakfast in bed.

In the New Year, when her collarbone has finally mended, Zara, whose main sponsor has been the troubled Royal Bank of Scotland, will start training again.

Zara Phillips property

The £1.75million converted barn in Upper Kilcott, Gloucestershire Zara and Mike are hoping to buy. The property has stunning views across the Cotswolds

Both she and Mike want children but she still dreams of an Olympic gold, especially as the 2012 Olympics will be on her home turf in London. So, for the moment, children may have to wait.

'Mike understands the position because he, too, is completely professional about his sport,' says family friend Desi Dillingham, president of the British Horse Society.

As for marriage, a friend of Zara says it will happen 'when she's ready  -  the longer they wait, the surer she'll be'.

Meanwhile, the couple have made an offer of £1.75million on a converted barn in the village of Upper Kilcott, Gloucestershire.

It has 43 acres and stunning views across the Cotswolds and planning permission for a stable yard big enough for her 14 horses. It also has six bedrooms, enough for when any children arrive.

For Princess Anne, the thrills of her daughter's achievements have become her own. She, too, was a fine horsewoman, of course, winning the European Eventing Championship in 1971 when she was 21. The difference between mother and daughter is that after her victory one observer described her as being 'upright and sour'.

However, when Zara became world champion in 2006 she was instantly accessible, brimming over with warmth, and was an instant world-wide favourite.

Naturally, the Princess Royal, her greatest encourager, is 'incredibly proud' of her 'Estuary' daughter. As for the way Zara now speaks, 'she hasn't noticed it,' says a friend. A truly royal response.

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