I was shaken awake on the morning of September 1, 1997 by my cousin: “Wake up! Lady Diana has died!”
In shock, I remember turning on the (CRT) TV to CNN. Indeed, Di, as she was affectionately known, had not just ‘died’; she had tragically perished in a road accident in Paris. It was ugly, sudden and gruesome. Predictably, an outpouring of grief and anger followed the world over. People found a new reason to hate the British royals. Flowers were laid. Elton John appropriated one of his songs for the funeral. The cost of being a celebrity and the menace of paparazzi came into renewed focus.
Like a supernova, the incident is still sending waves across space and time. British royalty has never fully recovered; personal details of Diana’s life still surface and cause ripples; celebrities are now often seen as (and become) victims of the press and the internet.
Although her love life and marriage may have been rocky at best, her affair with the media was rewarding and mutually respectful. Diana created her own mythology, a monster of adoration and desperation that tragically ended up taking her life.
“Not since Jackie Kennedy’s masterful post-assassination theatre – from deplaning in her blood-spattered pink Chanel to staging her husband’s funeral [...] had a post-modern public figure so assiduously crafted her own narrative,” writes Maureen Callahan for the New York Post.
Diana’s fairytale romance with the media began in 1981 when her grand wedding was televised the world over; people were completely caught up in the royal storybook ambience, and Princess Di conquered our hearts in one fell swoop. After the birth of Prince William in 1982, Di suffered postpartum depression and according to her, she did not receive due care and attention, which made the problem worse. Then Prince Harry arrived in 1984. Diana kept her children close to her, choosing their first names and largely keeping them away from royal trappings, no doubt raising some privileged eyebrows. Unfortunately, the Princess’ marriage was failing and in December 1992, the couple’s separation was announced. The divorce was finalised in 1996.
In the form of an uneasy relationship with her in-laws and an estranged husband, Diana had been handed a ‘bucket of lemons’ by life. She opened a lemonade stand and had the press and general public hooked. Di continuously portrayed herself as helpless, and above all, clumsy – a quality which people found even more endearing.
She had a portrait of her taken in front of the Taj Mahal in 1992 – a sad and lonely figure, 'Forrest Gump'-like, on the bench. The picture made the rounds around the world and complemented her branding. Just one small catch: Prince Charles was on the trip with her.
'Diana, driven to five suicide bids by ‘uncaring’ Charles,' read the headline of the UK’s Sunday Times on July 7, 1992. 'Marriage collapse led to illness; Princess says she will not be Queen.' Given stringent UK libel laws, and the power that the monarchy exert over the British press, these headlines had to be coming from inside the house.
The same year, Diana: Her True Story, a book by journalist Andrew Morton, was published. Morton asserts that although Di was cagey about whether she was behind the book, it was her, all the way.
She was careful to have herself photographed whilst discharging her motherly duties towards her sons. She appeared a hapless victim, resilient and defiant enough to protect her kids from it all while facing all the adversity herself.
It was a no-win situation for Charles and the royal family. When Charles finally sat down to relate his version of events in a high-profile interview, Princess Diana appeared that night in a cocktail dress at a party that lent her an otherworldly beauty, doing no favours to Camilla and rendering Charles’ hankering for her inexplicable. She also pushed him to the bottom of the page. Nothing the royals would say would ever have a semblance of credibility with the general public. That remains true to this day.
We all remember her 1995 televised interview with Martin Bashir. Some readers may be offended by it, but I would still say the interview is a master class in public image management. Her posture, with her face and body turned slightly away from the camera, brought out the ethereal beauty that still captivates billions around the world. That posture also allowed her to bow her head slightly – photographers know that is the most flattering angle for a portrait. But there was a third outcome of that posture, the most devastatingly effective: it allowed Diana to cast her eyes down during the interview and raise them to the audience at opportune moments, cementing her emotional turmoil and pushing our buttons at the right time.
Please don’t get me wrong. All I am saying is that she put her situation to good use. Following her divorce, Di reinvented her persona as a social worker focused on humanitarian causes. She was careful not to fall into the trap of hanging out with Hollywood personalities and their shallow, often self-serving initiatives. She was eager to be seen with real humanitarians like Mother Teresa. While visiting hospitals, old homes and charities was part of her royal duty, the Princess had developed an intense interest in serious illnesses and health-related matters outside the purview of traditional royal involvement, including AIDS and leprosy. In recognition of her effect as a philanthropist, Stephen Lee, director of the UK Institute of Fundraising, said: "Her overall effect on charity is probably more significant than any other person’s in the 20th century."
Princess Diana was and is an enigma if seen through a royal lens. In fact, in retrospect, Princess Diana was no hapless beauty swept off her feet by an unfaithful beast; she was part of British aristocracy and was in perfect knowledge of Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, which makes her less of a sacrificial lamb and more a calculating individual who was in charge of her own destiny. She painted herself as the people’s champion in a stuffy and elitist house; all the while careful in distancing herself from any blame in the collapse of her marriage.
Shocking, right? We, her fans, the royal family – none of us want to see her for what she was: a clever and self-reliant individual, who also happened to be a celebrity.
Yes, she manipulated her image. Yes, she was headstrong and often too clever for her own good. But in the end, Princess Diana proved herself to be a dedicated mother and a kind human being, using her universal appeal to drive her charitable work.