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Image: Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, Jetsun Pema
Karma Nidup  /  AP
Bhutan's 31-year-old monarch, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, left, and his commoner love, 20-year-old Jetsun Pema, a student at London's Regent College.
TODAY contributor
updated 10/12/2011 11:43:46 AM ET 2011-10-12T15:43:46

Becoming royalty was once the stuff of fairy tales.

Now, upward-climbing regular Janes or Joes actually have a shot at a palace suite. And it's not only happening on shows like "Gossip Girl," where Blair is marrying the fictional prince of Monaco: It is becoming reality.

Story: Tiny kingdom of Bhutan prepares for royal wedding

Kate Middleton, the daughter of two former flight attendants, became the most high-profile commoner to hit the big time when she married Prince William and became the Duchess of Cambridge this summer.

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And on Thursday, 21-year-old student Jetsun Pema, the daughter of an airline pilot, married Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the 31-year-old king of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan.

Royal wedding fever grips Himalayan nation

Bhutan, a remote country of 700,000 tucked in between India and China, only allowed television in 1999. As such, the royal wedding is not expected to reach the hysteria level of Will and Kate’s nuptials — but it's still a significant event. And the commoner/royal pairing is not so outlandish in the Buddhist country that invented the concept of “Gross National Happiness,’’ where the mental well-being of its people is more important than material wealth.

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“In this case, nobody is blinking an eye, and nobody is saying anything negative,’’ said Lisa Napoli, the author of “Radio Shangri-La,’’ which details a year she spent in Bhutan. “They wouldn't even do that anyway because they just got media in 1999, so there isn’t a lot of the media trappings that exist in the West. I don't think people feel anything other than incredible delight.’’

Slideshow: Fairytales do come true... (on this page)

Wangchuck’s wedding is a little tamer than that of his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who married four sisters simultaneously in 1979.

“There’s not a lot of royal people (in Bhutan),’’ Napoli said. “There’s one royal family that has reigned for over 100 years and there hasn’t been that many offspring. Of the 10 kids of his father, (Wangchuck) is the eldest son, and he is marrying as close to royalty as you can get.’’

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Last year, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden married commoner Daniel Westling, her former fitness trainer, to the initial horror of her father, King Carl XVI Gustaf. This summer, former South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock married Albert II, Prince of Monaco, eleven years after having met him at a swimming event in 2000.

And just last week, the 85-year-old Duchess of Alba in Spain married Alfonso Diez, a civil servant 25 years her junior. Will and Kate, of course, met while attending St. Andrews in Scotland.

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“It's just modern ways, really,’’ said Camilla Tominey, royal editor and columnist for the Sunday Express in London. “In the old days they had rules about only mixing with other royals, but now you have royals like William who went to a normal school, then went on to university and lived a normal student life. Marriage isn’t as set up. The royals are on a different level on one respect, but there’s not the class divide there once was. Royals like William and Harry have normal jobs and are mixing with civilians, and that makes it different.’’

One of the most notable commoners in the modern era to first live the fantasy was the actress Grace Kelly, who in 1956 married Rainer III, Prince of Monaco and became Princess Grace. In 1959, Hope Cooke, a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College who was on a summer trip in India, met 36-year-old Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Crown Prince of Sikkim, in a bar in Darjeeling, India. In 1963, she married him and had two children with him before the couple divorced in 1980.

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In 2004, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark married an Australian woman, Mary Donaldson, after meeting her at a pub in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics.

Some couplings with commoners have been more scandalous. Princess Stephanie of Monaco, the daughter of Grace and Rainier III, married her bodyguard before divorcing him in 1996 after barely over a year of marriage. She ran off and married Adans Lopez Peres, a circus performer, in 2003 before divorcing him a year later.

In England at least, the royals see these relationships as a way the monarchy is adapting to the modern world.

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“The queen is a modernizer and so is her husband even though they are 85 and 90 years old,’’ Tominey said. “The queen has witnessed enough history to know that you have to keep up with the times. You can’t be too detached from the rest of society, and Kate Middleton is a very welcome addition because she’s very well brought up, but she has that ‘girl next door’ quality that opens up the British family to the British public and the global public. She gave the monarchy relevance.’’

“The British royal family is adept at being an ordinary family writ large,’’ said Peter Stansky, a Frances and Charles Field Professor of Modern British History, Emeritus, at Stanford University. “What they are clever at is playing both sides of the street of, ‘We’re just plain folks, and we are extremely grand.’’’

Compared to the over-the-top wedding of Will and Kate, “normalcy’’ has a different meaning in Bhutan, where no other members of the royal family or heads of state are even invited to Thursday’s wedding in Bhutan’s 17th century Punakha Dzong. Wangchuck himself, after all, is a pretty low-key guy. Crowned the king of Bhutan in 2008 after his father abdicated the throne, Wangchuck is an Oxford graduate and a mountain-biking and basketball enthusiast.

“This wedding will resemble Will and Kate’s wedding in no way, shape or form,’’ Napoli said.
Still, thousands of Bhutanese are expected to attend, and the ceremony will be shown live on the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, which came to the country, along with the Internet, in 1999.

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“Marriage there is not like it is here or in England,’’ Napoli said. “It’s very casual. It’s only because they’re royalty that there’s a big deal because huge, lavish parties at weddings are very rare there. They’re going gaga over the royal couple in their own way because they don’t do it like in the West.’’

The nuptials are expected to be a colorful, sacred event steeped in symbolism and tradition rather than one filled with pomp and circumstance.

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“It’s a nice break from the ‘What is Kate going to wear?!’ insanity,’’ Napoli said. “I'm sure it's astrologically divined because they don't do anything in Bhutan without asking the astrologer what day to do it.

"It's not the day that they could get the hall, let's put it that way.’’

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Royal marriages to commoners

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  1. King Jigme of Bhutan and Jetsun Pema

    When people mention a commoner marrying into royalty, the most recent couple to come to mind may be Prince William and Kate Middleton but they're not the only royal/commoner pair to cause a stir. Here are a few other couples that found love outside their social class.

    King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan holds the hand of Queen Jetsun Pema, a 21 year old student at London's Regent College, after their wedding on October 13, 2011. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Prince William and Kate Middleton

    Britain's Prince William married Kate Middleton, a commoner with coal-mining roots, on Friday, April, 29, 2011 at Westminster Abbey in London. Upon their nuptials, the couple were titled the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (Alastair Grant / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Duchess of Alba and Alfonso Diez Carabantes

    Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James-Stuart, the Duchess of Alba, married for the third time at age 85 on October 5, 2011 in Seville, Spain. Her new husband is Alfonso Diez Carabantes, a 61-year-old civil servant. (José Manuel Vidal / Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Prince Albert II and Charlene Wittstock

    Prince Albert II of Monaco and one-time Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock were married on July 1, 2011. The couple met when Charlene traveled to Monaco for a swimming competition in 2000. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Princess Victoria and Daniel Westling

    Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and her husband Prince Daniel meet the general public as they appear on the Lejonbacken Terrace after their wedding ceremony on June 19, 2010 in Stockholm, Sweden. The couple fell in love while Daniel served as Victoria's personal trainer. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Princess Sayako and Yoshiki Kuroda

    Princess Sayako Kuroda of Japan married Yoshiki Kuroda, a commoner, on November 15, 2005 and lost her royal title as a result. (Issei Kato / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Crown Prince Felipe and Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano

    Spain's Crown Prince Felipe kept his relationship with journalist Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano under wraps until they announced their engagement in 2003. They were married on May 22, 2004. (Heribert Proepper / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Crown Prince Haakon and Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby

    Crown Prince Haakon married single mother Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby on August 25, 2001. Mette-Marit's wild past in Oslo caused some concern among the royal family and general public but their opinion of her rose after she admitted to her past wrongs a week before the wedding. (Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Prince Nikolaos and Tatiana Blatnik

    Prince Nikolaos of Greece and Tatiana Blatnik, an event planner for fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, were married in Saint Nicolas church at the island of Spetses on August 25, 2010. (Studio Kominis / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. King Abdullah II and Rania al Yassin

    Jordan's King Abdullah II and Rania al Yassin met at a dinner party in January 1993 and were engaged two months later. The two married on June 10, 1993. (Nasser Ayoub / Royal Palace via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Crown Prince Willem Alexander and Máxima Zorreguieta

    Crown Prince Willem Alexander of the Netherlands and Máxima Zorreguieta, an investment banker, married on March 30, 2001. (Carl De Souza / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Crown Prince Frederik and Mary Donaldson

    Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark wave to well-wishers from the balcony at Amalienborg castle in Copenhagen after their wedding ceremony at Copenhagen's cathedral on May 14, 2004. Mary, an Austrailian marketing consultant, met Frederik at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. (Odd Andersen / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. King Hussein and Elizabeth Najeeb Halaby

    Born to an Arab-American family, Elizabeth Najeeb Halaby met King Hussein while working in Jordan on urban planning and design projects. She converted to Islam upon marrying Hussein on June 15, 1978 and changed her name to Noor al-Hussein. The two had a happy marriage until the King died of cancer in 1999. (Rabih Moghrabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson

    Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, married Sarah Ferguson on July 23, 1986. The marriage didn't last and after four years of separation the couple filed for divorce in 1996. (Tim Graham / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly

    Prince Rainier III of Monaco met American screen legend Grace Kelly during a photo shoot in 1955. The two married a year later on April 19, 1956 in what the press called "The Wedding of the Century." They remained happily married for almost 30 years until Grace had a stroke while driving, resulting in a deadly car accident. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Bhutan Celebrates As The King Marries
    Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (15) Fairytales do come true...
  2. Getty Images
    Slideshow (7) Low-hanging princes: The world's single royals
  3. Image: A Service Of Commemoration - Afghanistan
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