It looked as if it would be an ordinary royal ritual. It was the Queen Mother's birthday and she'd come to the gates of Clarence House to accept flowers from children and applause from well-wishers. But as she stood with her daughter, Queen Elizabeth, and a clump of other family members, there came a cry from the crowd: "We want Diana!"

The cry was ignored; the Queen Mother smiled, nonplussed. The request came again. Queen Elizabeth turned slightly and beckoned with her finger. A few seconds passed, and suddenly Diana reluctantly inched out from behind a wall, chin tucked down, hands clasped behind her back, like a guest who doesn't want to hog the limelight at someone else's birthday party.

The crowd screamed with delight. Cinderella Redux

Diana, the 24-year-old Princess of Wales, who arrives here next weekend with her 36-year-old husband Charles, the Prince of Wales, is undoubtedly the most photographed and one of the most written-about women in the world.

She wasn't born royal, she's won no awards, she worked in a kindergarten and, until a rare British television interview with the royal couple last week (scheduled to air Thursday on the ABC television news show "20/20"), she probably had not said more than 500 words to interviewers.

But it is precisely that transition -- ascension, perhaps -- from alleged ordinary girl to wife of Prince Charles, heir to the throne of England, that has catapulted the former Lady Diana Frances Spencer into worldwide cult status -- a status unrivaled in recent history except perhaps by that of young first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Diana's story is the fairy tale come true -- a real prince, a coach ride to the church and all the glass slippers (and matching ball gowns) she could possibly buy. And when it turned out that some of the fairy tale had been oversold -- the prince's idea of a vacation was hunting in rainy Scotland and the idea of the princess' job was to open shopping malls and post offices and plant ceremonial trees -- the public was all the more titillated. The Diana Difference

Diana is chic in a family renowned for its dowdiness. When she and Charles arrive for a visit and go on "walk-abouts" -- essentially working the crowd behind the roped-off lines -- people are often disappointed when they get Charles instead of Diana.

The mystique surrounding Diana comes from more than being plopped into the right circumstances. In the beginning, she appeared unpretentious ("Shy Di"), blushingly natural and decidedly unroyal, even awkward, in her bearing. But at the same time, you knew she must be going after him. Stories abound that she declared her love first and that, when he finally proposed, she said yes, a million times yes, even as he begged her to consider what her life would become.

She appears to listen attentively. She can be charmingly frank. When she was pregnant with William she confessed to women she met at public appearances that she was suffering from morning sickness. On her 1983 Australian tour, she told a housewife who envied the princess' nanny that she wished she could take care of the baby herself.

What she says at dinner parties and functions is just enough to be engaging. Not particularly brilliant, not particularly witty. She's seductive. She leaves everyone wanting more of her as opposed to her serious-minded husband, who has a tendency to give wordy answers to everything.

Part of the appeal is the distance between her and the rest of the world. You can see her, but you can't know her.

As a result, any tidbits of conversations are devoured. When a couple of years ago she told a seatmate at an official dinner that she had had a difficult year but was getting better at being the princess, her words made headlines in British papers.

All this makes for a different breed of journalism -- Diana journalism. Since she doesn't talk and Buckingham Palace rarely complains, that leaves most everyone free to re-create her in the image they think they see.

Maybe she likes it that way. Facts & Theories

Is she an intellectual?

She's not well-educated, well-read, or proficient in a foreign language. She reportedly twice failed her O-level exams (national examinations in various subjects given to British schoolchildren at ages 16 and 17), and school, in general, was not a passion. Sent off to English boarding schools, she is remembered for her pet guinea pig, Peanuts, her tidiness and her kindness to the younger children. While her older sister Sarah, once a girlfriend of Charles, was skiing with the prince at Klosters, Diana was suffering through a Swiss finishing school, homesick and lost in her French.

But she is shrewd about what she wants out of life, clever in her encounters with the public and canny about her image, reportedly poring over her press clippings.

Is Diana anorexic?

No, but her sister Sarah was. And Diana did lose a dramatic amount of weight, which observers estimate as 20 to 25 pounds. She was never overweight, but some photographs showed her as voluptuous and one photo series, soon after the birth of William, displayed her still-plump stomach. A few months later, she was astonishingly thinner than before her pregnancy. Her full face was deflated and her curves had vanished. At a formal London premiere of "E.T.," she wore a strapless dress in which she appeared painfully bony. It was a far cry from her first formal evening appearance as Charles' fiance' when she wore a strapless black taffeta gown displaying so much cleavage that photographers went berserk trying to capture a glimpse of nipple.

The Palace denied she was ill but in a 1984 interview, Palace spokesman Victor Chapman said, "The prince was concerned . . . everyone was concerned, because the princess did lose an enormous amount of weight very quickly following the birth of Prince William, in June 1982. It was just a matter of wanting to get back into shape. Her solo engagements were starting that fall, so she had about three months."

Diana denied in her recent televised interview with Charles that she dieted, but she has been known to decline meals at official luncheons and the British Embassy here has been told that she likes her food plain and light. She rarely drinks and traveled through Italy sipping orange juice while her husband savored the wines.

At 5 feet 10 inches, the same height as the prince, she has whittled her prewedding dress size of 12 or 14 down to an 8. She also exercises often, doing some form of aerobics and swimming.

Is she domineering?

No, the princess said in the TV interview. She is a perfectionist regarding herself, Diana said. Clearly there is protocol at public functions that she dutifully follows now -- and did during her engagement. Her request to have at least one of her former roommates be a bridesmaid was denied (she did get them good seats at the wedding, though).

A large number of the staff have turned over since Diana arrived on the scene and she is sensitive about stories attributing this to her influence.

Concerning Charles and Diana's personal lives, she's clearly broken some rules of protocol. Despite a royal tradition of leaving babies at home, she made it clear two years ago that she would not go on a lengthy Australian tour without baby William. So the child went with his parents -- in the same plane, another break of the tradition that heirs travel separately.

And in public, she does not walk one pace behind her husband or call him "Sir." Famous Diana Quotes

When the couple met the press for the first time, she said: ". . . next to Prince Charles, I can't go wrong. He's there with me."

After her honeymoon, during a photo session of the royal couple at Balmoral, someone called out, "Have you fixed him breakfast yet, ma'am?" "We don't eat breakfast," she replied tartly.

Shortly before the birth of William, when she told someone she thought it was a boy: "I just hope I can cope."

In answer to what she first thought of Prince Charles: "Pretty amazing." Life Before Charles------

How ordinary was she before she married Prince Charles?

Not that ordinary. Born and raised at Park House on the royal family's country estate of Sandringham in Norfolk, she grew up with servants and nannies and a nursery where parents come in to say goodnight to the children.

When her father succeeded his father as Earl Spencer in 1975, they moved into the family house at Althorp in Northampton, a country house in the grand British tradition that has a room filled with paintings by Rubens.

Despite two sisters -- Lady Jane, 28, and Lady Sarah, 30 -- and a brother, Charles, Viscount Althorp, 21, Diana reportedly grew up a somewhat lonely child. When she was 6, her mother, Frances Roche, left the Spencer home for what turned into a highly publicized scandalous affair with Peter Shand-Kydd, a married man with three children who had inherited his father's wallpaper business. Each went through bitter divorces, lost custody of their respective children. They married in 1969, and Diana spent summers with her mother and stepfather.

After years of boarding school (Riddlesworth Hall and West Heath), where she distinguished herself mostly as a competitive swimmer and a member of the hockey and lacrosse teams, she went off at 16 to the finishing school Institut Alpin Videmanette, near Gstaad. She was supposedly studying French, dressmaking, cooking and typing, but what she actually did was learn to ski. Miserable, she came back to England after six weeks.

Her life style in London was the epitome of the "Sloane Ranger," the term coined by British pop anthropologist Peter York for the Sloane Square stomping grounds of the young British upper class. She wore flat shoes and tartan skirts, high-necked blouses and single strands of pearls. Her hair was brownish and longer than the famous cut she became known for. With family money, she bought a flat for 50,000 pounds at Coleherne Court in the somewhat run-down Earl's Court section of London and moved in with three friends. The company she kept was as aristocratically bred and vague in their life goals as she was.

At first, Diana tooled around on her bike or borrowed her mother's Renault. She had three cars, all given to her by her mother. The second she wrecked, and the third was the bright red Mini-Metro that later became an easy target for photographers. She took odd jobs, often involving looking after small children, once helping out with a dance class of 2-year-olds. She had studied dance and said she wanted to be a ballet dancer but grew too tall. She even did some housecleaning jobs. At 18, she found a job at the Young England Kindergarten where she was essentially a teacher's aide, helping children with their art supplies, supervising their recreation and drying their tears.

In August 1980, Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, the daughter of Princess Margaret, invited Diana Spencer to join her family on the royal yacht Britannia for the festivities of Cowes Week. Everyone assumed she'd been invited for Prince Andrew, but it was Prince Charles, brooding over a breakup with his girlfriend Anna Wallace, whom Diana was watching from the deck as he windsurfed. Diana decided to join him and playfully caused him to tip over in the water. Later that night at a formal party, guests noticed they danced close when the music was slow.

The next month, veteran royal watcher James Whitaker caught a glimpse of Diana fishing with Charles on the banks of the River Dee at Balmoral. The courtship -- and the press siege -- was on. What the Gossips Say

Diana and Charles met in a field.

The occasion was a shoot on the grounds at Althorp in November 1977 and Charles, then dating Lady Sarah Spencer, was the guest of honor. Diana was 16. The romance blossomed later.

Diana hates polo.

If she does, she doesn't show it -- anymore (occasionally she was spotted looking bored or depressed). She watches Charles play almost every weekend, wearing his watch, for safekeeping, next to her own. She regularly sits with Sarah Ferguson, the daughter of Charles' polo manager. At these polo matches the couple is often photographed kissing.

When she was a young girl, she once fell off her pony and broke her arm. Since then she's never been fond of riding.

Diana hates hunting.

She doesn't like it, despite the fact that she grew up in a social group that does. But when Charles went pheasant hunting on his 33rd birthday, Diana tagged along, listening to music on her Sony Walkman.

Charles and Diana fight a lot.

They've had their frosty moments. The most famous: Diana sulking on a ski slope over the presence of photographers while Charles tells her not to act silly. And at one point during a sometimes difficult trip to Italy this year, Charles cautioned Diana as she walked through an archway to watch her head. She reportedly snapped back, "Why? There's nothing in it."

Diana had an evil stepmother.

When Raine Spencer moved into Althorp, she instituted formal dinners and apparently tried to rule the children. Raine Spencer has said that her husband's older daughters deeply resented her presence, but insists that she got along fine with the younger Diana.

Diana has banished all of Charles' former friends.

Not exactly. She apparently has as little interest in his former girlfriends and his older male friends as he has in her former girlfriends. She apparently did get Charles to banish his jumping horse, saying that his steeplechasing frightened her.

Diana doesn't get along with Princess Anne.

It certainly looks that way, though Diana insisted in the recent television interview that she and Anne have "always hit it off very well." There are lots of pictures of Diana chatting with Princes Andrew and Edward, Princess Margaret and her daughter Sarah Armstrong -- Jones. Diana and Anne are rarely photographed together, let alone seen talking to each other.

Anne is reported to have grumbled once to an annoying photographer trying to take her picture, "I am not Diana Spencer! I never was a fairy-tale princess and I never will be."

Diana spends $150,000 a year on clothes.

She's got lots of clothes and she loves to shop. Even after her marriage, she could be seen browsing through Knightsbridge shops in the company of a detective and a lady-in-waiting. But few designers publish what she actually paid (it's been reported she gets a discount). In her collection is a $2,770 silver-sparkled Hachi gown.

Often accused of extravagance, she wore a formal gown in Italy that she'd worn on other trips, and the Italians were offended.

Between her engagement and her wedding, Diana lived at Clarence House with the Queen Mother.

She reportedly stayed there only two days before discreetly moving into Buckingham Palace to occupy a suite of rooms on the same floor as Charles. During those days she rarely dined alone with the queen, waited eagerly for time with Charles, and, when she was on her own, wandered the palace with her Walkman. She did spend the night before her wedding in Clarence House. She had asked to spend it with her flatmates, a request that was denied. The Royal Life Style

They have an apartment in London's 17th-century Kensington Palace, where court officials and some royalty live. And they have a country house, Highgrove, in Gloucestershire, 100 miles from London.

Diana spends much of her time with her two young children. When she's not tied up with royal appearances, she listens to music -- Neil Diamond and the Police were favorites in her single days -- sees friends, exercises. She drives a 1985 red Ford Escort convertible, one of several cars leased by the royal family, and she's accompanied by a bodyguard. She was reportedly stopped recently for speeding along a freeway at 90 miles an hour and was given a stern warning.

She's been known to lunch out with friends -- favorite restaurants in her single days were Menage A Trois, Poule au Pot, Topolino -- but her appearance in public is disruptive. She's been known to disguise herself with a scarf, oversize sunglasses and nondescript clothes and sneak out to lunch in a restaurant or visit a friend's home. The New Diana

Diana's image has changed substantially since her marriage. Her hair is lightened, longer and puffier. She still has her legs waxed and her eyelashes dyed. Her skirts are shorter, her heels higher, and she's gone from demure to sophisticated.

She's also trying to shake the clotheshorse image. She's developed an interest in drug rehabilitation and care of the elderly, visiting nursing homes and hospices.

"I think when people get more assurance, they become easier to photograph," said Lord Lichfield, who photographed the royal wedding. "She doesn't look as shy."

The Diana Stance remains, perfected after four years of royal duty:

Chin tucked down, smile wide, left arm bent in a right angle and pressed against her torso to keep her purse secure, her hand balled into a fist to hide bitten fingernails. Her Jewels

She's got lots of them. Before her marriage she wore a gold D on a chain and a strand of pearls. When Charles asked her to marry him, Diana was presented at Buckingham Palace with a tray of rings from Garrard, the crown jewelers. From that she picked the now-famous oval sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds. Since then she has accumulated earrings and necklaces to match.

Charles also gave her a diamond pendant in the design of the Prince of Wales' Ostrich Feathers Badge, which she wore on different colored ribbons. That was before her wedding gift from the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince consisting of a necklace strand of diamonds, a sapphire and diamond pendant that slips on and off the necklace, and sapphire and diamond earrings and watch. The gift is reportedly worth $1 million. Diana often wears the Prince of Wales pendant with the Saudis' diamond necklace.

Queen Elizabeth sometimes presents Diana with little gifts of brooches and pendants from her own collection, the most valuable private one in the world.

When Diana becomes Queen Consort, she will get to wear the Crown Jewels. The Lady-in-Waiting

She is Anne Beckwith-Smith, Diana's only full-time lady-in-waiting (there are three other part-timers) and the only one on salary. In her early 30s, she is well-bred, studied art in Paris and Florence, speaks French and Italian and is considered calm and quick-thinking. Beckwith-Smith will arrive in Washington on Wednesday to make sure everything is in order for Diana's arrival.

At official appearances, she is constantly at Diana's side, relieving the princess of bouquets of flowers thrust at her. While Diana tucks sleek envelope purses under her arm, Beckwith-Smith totes a large handbag with a spare pair of panty hose and sometimes carries Diana's coat.

Diana has become close to Beckwith-Smith, who sometimes dines with the prince and princess. After her 1983 Australian tour, Diana reportedly gave her lady-in-waiting a gift of diamond, sapphire and gold earrings with the note, "I couldn't have done it without you." Her Friends

They must be discreet. They also tend to be titled, rich and young.

Lord and Lady Romsey. When the pressure of the photographers made Diana break into tears at a polo match only days before her wedding, it was Lady Romsey, 32, who put her arm around Diana and escorted her out of the stands. Diana and Charles spent their honeymoon at the couple's country estate, Broadlands, which Lord Romsey, 38, inherited from his grandfather, Lord Louis Mountbatten (the Romseys discreetly left). The royal couple was on vacation with the Romseys in Eleuthera in the Bahamas when Diana was caught sunning five months pregnant in a bikini.

Natalia Phillips, the Duchess of Westminster. A childhood friend of Diana's, she is married to Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, who inherited the title of Duke of Westminster and enough land to make him reportedly one of the richest men in Britain. Tall and blond, she is Diana's age, has two young children and was a godmother to William.

Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones. She was Diana's chief bridesmaid and is a godmother to Prince Henry. Now 21, she and Diana often lunch together.

Carolyn Herbert. She is 23, the daughter of the queen's racing manager and bears a striking resemblance to Diana.

Diana still spends time with her sisters. Lady Sarah Spencer, whose own romantic relationship with Charles ended after she told a reporter that she wouldn't marry the prince if he asked, is now married to Neil McCorquodale, who farms his parents' estate in Lincolnshire. Her sister Jane is married to Robert Fellowes, assistant private secretary to the queen, and lives near Kensington Palace.

As for her three former flatmates, Carolyn Pride, now married to a brewery heir who owns a disco, has remained the closest. She is a godmother to Diana's son Harry. Anne Bolton lives in Australia with her husband and Virginia Pitman is pursuing a career in art. Predictions

Diana will have four children.

She will overcome her awkwardness at public speaking and eventually take to the podium like a natural, perhaps becoming champion of a cause.

Both Diana and Charles will tire of polo.