Caprice. You see her everywhere: sprawled semi-naked across the front pages of the red-tops, hair bleached, skin permanently tanned, her nose sculpted, her breasts and lips perhaps tastefully enhanced - a real living doll. You see her sprawled naked, a little riskily, across the glossy pages of the lads' magazines - Loaded, GQ, FHM - the dream girl of the post-literate generation, smilingly compliant. You see her at film premieres, fashion shows and at night-club openings, a trophy girlfriend on the arm of a tycoon or footballer or pop star or another easily dispensable member of the new plutocracy. You see her on television offering make-up and fashion tips. You see her modelling Wonderbra, selling pizza, or singing on Top of the Pops.
Caprice. You have seen her everywhere. And now you can see her, if her friends and the papers are to be believed, at a prince's candlelit dinner table. Prince Andrew, to be precise, of our distinguished house of Windsor - a "smitten" prince and his showgirl.
But who is Caprice? What does she want? Indeed, what does she mean? Perhaps we should start with that name - the names she shares, fortuitously, with a swanky London eatery. Caprice - who like Prince, Pele, Lulu and Madonna before her - prefers to be known by that one name, although she has two, she really does. Caprice - the light of my life, the fire of my loans, as any lucky prince might say. Cap-wice as Jonathan Ross famously did say, when the two of them met across a table to advertise Pizza Hut. Ca-price: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of two steps to . . . well, where exactly? Where does the girl want to take us?
At present, with the exception of poor, embattled Victoria "Posh" Beckham, it is difficult to think of a more photographed or gossiped about woman in Britain than Caprice. She has seemingly risen without trace since she first arrived in England from California and began appearing in the papers and gossip columns in the summer of 1996. A former Miss Teen California, Caprice had only moderate success as a model in the US - perhaps because it was harder for her lights to shine in the fog of LA, where women with her looks are so numerous as to make one suspect they are manufactured from a plastic surgeon's patent. In London, however, Caprice has a certain exotic appeal, a glamorous difference: she looks like no one else.
So coming to London, as the Hawaian supermodel Marie Helvin did a generation before her, was the first of several smart moves. Another was signing up with the publicist Ghislain Pascal, who had done so much to create the phenomenon of the "It Girls", the bored, indolent, decadent daughters of rich fathers who were briefly fashionable in the mid-1990s. After this, in the early autumn of 1996, doors began opening for Caprice. First, she was signed up as the "face and 34C-24-34 figure of National Playtex Wonderbra Week". She was thrilled. "I want to be big, very big," she said at the time, as if 34C were not big enough. "I've been waiting for this break all my life. What happened to Eva [Herzigova, Wonderbra superstar] after the ads was phenomenal - and I'm more than ready."
She was, too. When her next big opportunity came along - the chance to appear at the 1996 National Television Awards - she took it as if she had been waiting for that moment her entire life. In a way, brought up as she was in solipsistic, celebrity-giddy California, she had. Caprice, like Liz Hurley strutting around in her Versace dress at the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, opted to wear (what else?) a revealing black lace dress. The dress was so spectacularly revealing that, according to Alison Boshoff in the Daily Mail, the awards host Trevor MacDonald was left speechless with wonder.
The next day, the papers were enlivened by photographs of Caprice and that dress. The girl had done it. She was on her way. A future of nude modelling, celebrity boyfriends, health drinks and long days at the gym stretched before her like a bright blue ocean of discovery. If she could stay slim and blonde, who knows what she might achieve? She might even turn out to be a dish to set before a king. Or at least a prince.
Since those early appearances, Caprice's career has followed a familiar trajectory, from modelling assignments to endorsements to travel-show shoots to making her own pop record (her first single, "Oh Yeah", peaked at number 24 in the charts). A movie appearance or two will surely follow. At the same time, her boyfriends have become progressively more famous: the Arsenal captain Tony Adams; the grizzled rocker Rod Stewart; and now perhaps the Happy Prince himself.
The American cultural critic Lewis Lapham, writing in the March issue of Harper's Magazine, identifies what he sees as a sickness at the heart of our celebrity culture. We are tyrannised by the image. "Somewhere in the mid-1990s, all the brightly packaged selves [of our media culture] came to look and sound so much alike that it was hard to tell which one was the famous anchor- person, which one the presidential candidate, which one the bottle of perfume."
To watch a programme such as the BBC's Parkinson is to understood exactly what Lapham means. For some reason, Michael Parkinson is considered to be a good television interviewer, his show being not just the best but the ideal form of its kind. But all of his guests - most of whom are actors or television "celebrities" of slender achievement - are received with unctuous respect, as if dear old Parky were in the presence of greatness.
What makes the phenomenon of Caprice so very interesting, culturally and politically, is that she seems to be the very embodiment of our celebrity showgirl culture, in which a politician is indistinguishable from a bottle of perfume, and fame is achieved at all cost - at any cost. That Caprice is in danger of becoming an icon illustrates the dearth of female role models in our politics. Where are the inspirational female icons to rival Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher? Where is the sense of glamour and excitement in political life? Instead we are in thrall to a relentless dullness. The women of the new Labour project - if indeed there are any of note - are all we have in the absence of their great predecessors, and their chief characteristic is their anonymity. As our glistening showgirl culture comes to dominate the media, politics becomes ever more insipid, non-ideological and controlled.
As for Caprice, what she seems to have understood, almost from the beginning, is how money and sex spiral so tightly around celebrity. Talent, she knows, is not democratic; so, if you have no obvious talent, what do you do when fame is the spur? Why, make of your own body a canvas on to which can be projected the dreams and desires of men. So Caprice has turned her entire life, her brightly packaged self, into a kind of elaborate corporate image. The blonde hair, the lips and breasts, the knowing smile - it's all part of the brand. A corporate logo, if you like. "The product", as she has been known to call herself. A product called Caprice.
Caprice Bourret was born in Los Angeles in 1972. One of her early appearances in Britain was in a film called Filthy Rich, in which she spoke of the affluent ease of her upbringing in the hard white Californian sunshine and of how she had never had to work. "I never really imagine myself in a different lifestyle, ever. This is what I'm used to, this is what I'm accustomed to, this is what I was born with." The film, like so much about her rise, was an elaborately choreographed fake. Caprice was born on the wrong side of town in LA. She had a tough, blue-collar upbringing in a Jewish family - which was made even tougher when her father, Dale, was injured in a road accident and had to have one of his legs amputated above the knee. When Dale eventually returned after months in hospital, he had changed; he and his wife struggled to rekindle their old intimacy.
Dale eventually left home, and Caprice was raised in a three-room bungalow by her impecunious mother, Valerie, whose resilience she admires. When she was 13, she became a cheerleader, and then at 16 she won Miss Teen California - the then "proudest day" of her life. By the time she was 19, she had "only one ambition": to leave for New York to become a model. "I would be sent from casting to casting - sometimes for 12 hours a day - and they would all treat me like a monster. Often I didn't have enough money to eat two meals a day." So not filthy rich at all, then.
In the end, fatigued and alarmed, she called on an old friend. "I would pray to God each night that I'd get a big break." For once, the old boy must have been listening: her big breaks have come all at once since arriving in London, like multiple fractures.
Caprice is now mistress of all that she surveys, her childhood hurts comfortably in the past and her future buoyant with promise. The Product has her own tastefully licentious website (www.caprice-supermodel.com ), and she is easing down on the modelling commitments. "Financial independence is very important to me, it always has been," she says. "I've busted my ass to get here, but now I can do what I want to do, which, for the moment, is music." She speaks, as a female politician might once have, of her desire to "influence both male and female. I just don't want men to look at me and go, 'Oh, she's hot'. I want them to look at pictures of me and go, 'Look at that strong, independent woman of the 90s'."
And where does one go to find such a woman? Well, not to politics, for a start. In a powerful sense, then, Caprice is a product of the crisis of feminism. Here is a tough, smart, independent woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. That she gets it by turning herself into the very embodiment of a male fantasy figure, a Sindy doll made fresh, seems to concern her not in the least. Why should it when she has her fame and may yet one day have her prince, too?