O what a wedding... and in Jackie's dress too

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THE VALENTINO dress is ready, more than 1,000 bottles of Veuve Clicquot are on ice and the pre-nuptial agreement protecting all assets owned before marriage has been signed.

Athina Roussel Onassis may claim to be just an ordinary girl and Alvaro Affonso de Miranda swears he is marrying for love, not money. But any pretence that they are just a normal couple was cast aside yesterday when the 20-year-old sole heiress to the Onassis shipping fortune and the Brazilian equestrian champion prepared to marry in a lavish wedding in Sao Paulo.

Details of the marriage between one of the world's richest women and the 32-year-old divorcee are one of the worst-kept secrets among Sao Paulo's social elite. Even though caterers and other contractors have been sworn to silence, gossip magazines such as Caras and Istoe Gente are giddy with excitement.

Around 750 guests from among the Brazilian elite were expected to attend in the lush gardens of the Maria Luisa and Oscar Americano Foundation, an art museum in the posh Morumbi district.

Much of the gossip yesterday however was focusing on the question of whether Athina's father, French boulevardier Thierry Roussel, would be at the ceremony to give his daughter away.

She was raised by Roussel and his Swedish wife, Gaby, along with three half-siblings in Switzerland, following the death of her mother Christina in 1988 but it was not clear if they had been invited. Roussel is said to disapprove of Athina's marriage to a man 12 years her senior.

"Only Sandrine, her half-sister, is definitely going," said one family friend. "Talk is that one of the groom's relatives will give her away."

The billionairess bride was due to wear Valentino - the same as her late step-grandmother Jacqueline Kennedy wore in 1968 when she married Athina's grandfather, the late Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The dress cost at least 40,000 and her hair-do and make-up for the big day will add a further 1,000 to the bill.

In a city where millions of people live in poverty and violent crime is rife, chances of any of the hoi-polloi getting close for a glimpse were minimal.

During the wedding, at least 400 private security guards were due to be deployed to protect the guests and keep out paparazzi

The entire area was sealed off last Sunday by 100 guards in black suits and the chain-link fence surrounding the grounds was covered with green plastic to keep passersby from seeing the preparations or the festivities.

Guests were told to park their cars several blocks from the wedding grounds and travel into the party in vehicles provided by organisers. They then had two metal detectors to pass through where they were to be told to leave behind cameras and mobile phones

The service was set to be ecumenical because she is Greek Orthodox and he is Roman Catholic. Entertainment was to be strictly Latino with singer Jennifer Lopez believed to be the headline act.

As for a present that a guest could bring for a girl who can afford anything, donations to charity were the order of the day. Instead of gifts, the couple had asked that guests make donations to the Aconchego day care centre for underprivileged children.

"We did this to show people there is a better place for their money," Miranda said.

The couple met in Belgium in 2002 and romance blossomed over their shared passion for horses. Athina dropped out of school to be with her Brazilian lover.

Athina inherited 1.56bn from her grandfather on her 18th birthday but it was at the age of just three she was dubbed the "poor little rich girl" when her mother died aged 37 in Buenos Aires after a history of drug abuse.

Aristotle Onassis died in 1975, two years after the plane crash which killed his son and heir Alexander. Following Christina's death, the Onassis fortune was divided two ways, between Athina's inheritance from her mother and a foundation, named after Alexander, that controls the shipping business and a vast charitable trust.

Miranda, known as Doda, is the son of industrialist Ricardo Miranda. One of Brazil's top equestrians, he was a member of the Brazilian showjumping team that won a bronze medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and another in 2000 in Sydney. His legacy from his previous marriage to a model is his six-year-old daughter, Viviane. Gossip magazines say he has a "comfortable life" but he is not a millionaire.

Although his motives for wooing one of the world's richest women were inevitably questioned by some, including his ex-wife, friends and family say they are now convinced it is true love.

The couple live in a penthouse overlooking Ibirapuera Park, Sao Paulo's equivalent to Central Park, and spend much of their time at the Hipica Paulista riding club.

"They train a lot, compete frequently, and go out little - they like to watch DVDs at home," according to one magazine profile.

Athina has learned to speak Portuguese and when she goes shopping waits her turn in queues to pay, it noted approvingly. Her tastes are Brazilian-style barbecues and Japanese food but she does succumb to certain temptations.

"From time to time she can't resist a little cake with ice cream although she has a constant battle with weight," the magazine said.

As for their future plans, Athina will turn 21 in January and faces a legal tussle for control of the billion-dollar Onassis Foundation charity, whose trustees have challenged her links to Greece.

Doda is now considering competing for Greece in the next Olympic Games and will train at the riding centre in Belgium, which is owned by the Brazilian equestrian Nelson Pessoa, where the couple first met.

For the groom's father, this is the proof that his son is not marrying Athina for her cash. "He would never even consider this if he weren't deeply in love with Athina," Ricardo Miranda said.

He certainly appears to approve of his new daughter-in-law and her stay-at-home lifestyle. "She is not a stuck-up woman," he added. "She is a very intelligent woman who speaks fluent Portuguese and likes to watch soap operas."

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