1961 - 1997
The most charismatic and publicly adored member of the British royal family, Diana, Princess of Wales not only imposed her own distinctly modern style and attitudes on Great Britain's traditionalist monarchy, but served to plunge that institution into its lowest level of public unpopularity, fueling support for Republicanism and, after her death, forcing the Royal family to moderate its aloof image. However, as a glamorous and sympathetic icon of an image-driven and media-fueled culture, Diana's celebrity status and considerable influence traveled across continents. Her fame, matched by only a handful of women during the twentieth century, notably Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly), made her a significant popular figure in the United States, where her visits were welcomed with the fervor once reserved for the most famous stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Diana was the most photographed woman in the world, and from the time of her marriage to her premature and appalling death in 1997, she forged a public persona that blended her various roles as princess, wife, mother, goodwill ambassador for England, and international humanitarian. Diana's fortuitous combination of beauty and glamour, her accessible, sympathetic, and vulnerable personality, and an ability to convey genuine concern for the affairs of ordinary people and the world's poor and downtrodden, set her apart decisively from the distant formality of the British monarchy. She became an object of near-worship, and her lasting fame was ensured. Ironically, the intense media attention and public adulation that came to define her life were widely blamed for the circumstances of her death. Her untimely demise, however, served only to amplify the public's romantic perception of her as a modern goddess cruelly destroyed by a faithless husband, unsympathetic in-laws, and prying paparazzi. The life and death of the Princess of Wales, is, indeed, a monument to sad contradictions and ironies.
Lady Diana Spencer was born into aristocratic privilege, the daughter of Viscount Althorp, on July 1, 1961 at the remote and spacious family estate near Sandringham in Norfolk. Her parents divorced when she was still a child, leaving Diana and her siblings in the care of her father and his second wife. She was a shy child, unhappy about the absence of her mother, and early on developed a passion for children, which led her to become a nursery school teacher in London. At 18, she re-met Prince Charles, 13 years her senior and heir to the British throne, whom she had known slightly in childhood. Their courtship became public, and she had the first taste of the media circus that was to dog her every move for the rest of her life. On July 29, 1981, three weeks before her twentieth birthday, Diana married her prince—the first English woman in 300 years to become the wife of a future English king—in a wedding aptly described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as "the stuff of which fairy tales are made." The ceremony took place before an overflowing congregation of some 2,500 in London's St. Paul's Cathedral and drew a record-breaking global radio and television audience of nearly one billion. A worldwide media event, the wedding affirmed Diana's value as an internationally marketable personality whose image soon appeared not only in magazines, newspapers, and television programs across the globe, but also adorned an unending stream of merchandise ranging from postage stamps to coffee mugs.
Diana's married life revolved around her official Court duties and, increasingly, her own public causes. Ten days after her twenty-first birthday, the princess gave birth to the next heir apparent, Prince William, and, two years later, to Prince Henry (known as Harry). She insisted on taking her young sons on "normal" outings to cinemas and theme parks and on informal holidays abroad, and she bestowed lavish affection on them in public. Her conduct represented a sharp break from the stiff conventions of royalty and contributed to her position as the media's darling and to the discomfiture of her less demonstrative mother-in-law. On the one hand, Diana seemed determined to protect her sons from the harsh glare of public scrutiny; on the other, she kept the people abreast of the family's life by granting interviews and making numerous public appearances. She fed the media's hunger even while expressing despair at its persistence.
By the mid-1980s, rumors of a rift between Charles and Diana were growing, accompanied by whispers of infidelity and reports that the princess was far from well or happy. By the end of the decade, it was public knowledge that Diana was suffering from bulimia, a fact that she courageously admitted in public in hopes of helping other sufferers; that Charles had resumed his long-standing love affair with Mrs. Camilla Parker-Bowles early in his marriage; and that Diana had sought solace in an affair with an army officer named James Hewitt, who co-operated in a scandalous tell-all book about their relationship.
For a time, Diana was cruelly treated by the media and criticized by the public, who simultaneously relished and disapproved of a spate of further revelations. When, however, Charles consented to an in-depth television interview with his biographer Jonathan Dimbleby, and confessed to the Parker-Bowles affair, Diana retaliated with her own interview that effectively put the knife into the royal family and re-established her position in the public affection. To the evident distress of the queen, the couple announced a separation in 1992, the year in which Britain and America were agog at the publication of Andrew Morton's book, Diana, Her True Story. The royal divorce followed four years later.
Her marital woes and personal troubles only served to raise Diana's public profile even higher, and she took advantage of the media's relentless coverage of her every move by redirecting their attention from her private life to her charity work. Though stripped of her full title—no more Her Royal Highness—she continued to upstage her beleaguered husband and his family in the public eye. She ruffled the feathers of politicians with her international campaign for the banning of land mines, visited lepers, and indicated her sympathy and support for AIDS sufferers by embracing one such for the television cameras.
But even as Diana worked to focus the world's attention on her pet causes, the public remained most keenly interested in her post-divorce love life. The public's seemingly insatiable appetite for detail was both whetted and offended by Diana's sudden whirlwind romance with Egyptian playboy Dodi Al-Fayed, which hit the headlines in 1997. Her new lover was the son of Mohammed Al-Fayed—the owner of Harrod's department store and the Ritz Hotel in Paris, from where the couple left on their last fateful car journey—and had long been a figure of ugly controversy in Britain. When the Mercedes in which Diana and Al-Fayed were traveling crashed at high speed in a Paris tunnel on the night of August 30, 1997, immediate blame was laid at the door of the press photographers who were giving chase to the car, and gave rise to protracted legal hearings in Paris in a futile attempt to charge somebody with the couple's senseless deaths.
The news of Princess Diana's death sent shock waves around the world and plunged millions into a near-hysterical frenzy of grief. The profound sense of loss that was experienced, particularly in Britain, elevated Diana's mythic-martyr status to unprecedented levels. In the aftermath of Diana's death, her brother, Earl Spencer, remembered his sister as "the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, and of beauty." Indeed, when, in the eyes of the public, the queen failed to show the requisite level of emotion at the news of Diana's death, she endured outraged criticism for "not responding to the pain of Britons." To quell the anger, she spoke publicly about Diana's death on television, and agreed to lower the Union Jack atop Buckingham palace to half-mast—an honor that had, for nearly a thousand years, been reserved solely for reigning monarchs. As further evidence of Diana's impact on staid British institutions, although a divorcee, she was given a state funeral on September 5, 1997. Her coffin was borne, in a simple but ceremonial procession, from her home at Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey, where the service was conducted in the presence of television cameras. The cameras then followed the cortege to her final resting-place at Althorp, and two-and-a-half billion television viewers in 210 countries worldwide watched the hours of filmed coverage. In Britain, sporting events were postponed, bells chimed every minute, and a moment of silence was observed before the take-off of each British airline flight in memory of the princess.
In death, Diana hardly eluded the international cult of celebrity that had haunted her during her life. Thriving on the controversy over who was to blame for her death, the international media sold more magazines and newspapers worldwide than they had at any time during her life. Even the charities to which she had been patron were complicit in exploiting her valuable name and image. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, established to endow a suitable memorial, was still riven by indecision, controversy and exploitation by the end of the 1990s, while her name and likeness was continually exploited by the souvenir market. While Diana's status as an exemplary mother and world-class humanitarian became cemented in the popular imagination, she left behind a darker legacy, that of a public figure who became a past master at manipulating the media and the celebrity culture that had both exploited and promoted her. As the object of the world's infatuation, Diana was, in the words of her brother, "the most hunted person of the modern age." The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, however, addressing the nation on the Sunday morning following the accident, dubbed her "The People's Princess." So she was, and so she is remembered.
July 6, 2004: A memorial fountain dedicated to Diana was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in London's Hyde Park. Source: Reuters, www.reuters.com, July 6, 2004.
August 24, 2004: Sculptor Nigel Boonham announced that he has begun work on a new memorial for Diana. The ten-foot-high bronze statue of a smiling Diana in an evening gown will stand outside South Bank's County Hall in London, England. Source: Daily Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk, August 25, 2004.