Diana’s common touch changed the monarchy forever
It was so human. So accessible. So very Diana: Prince William, the heir to the British throne, sprinting down the track at London’s Olympic Park with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and his brother, Prince Harry, in a relay race this year promoting mental health.
There was a time when such a scene would not have happened.
Princess Diana, a preschool teacher thrust into the glare of celebrity by her marriage to Prince Charles, dragged Britain’s ribbon-cutting royals into the modern world. She made a direct connection with the public — once running her own race in a flowing white skirt and baggy sweater — and promoted causes far from the mainstream at the time, like land mine removal and AIDS research.
That link lives on through her sons, who have adopted their mother’s more personal approach to monarchy and in the process reinvigorated the institution.
“She was the first royal who really took the public’s heart,” said Sandi McDonald, 55, standing outside an exhibit of the late princess’ dresses at Kensington Palace. “I think her sons are the same — the public just loves them.”
William and Harry are the most obvious reminders of Diana’s impact. They have spoken openly about their own mental health issues over losing their mother while so young and broken down taboos just as their mother did by embracing AIDS patients to ease fears about the disease. But the princess’ most far-reaching legacy is her popularization of the idea that celebrities can use their ties to millions of people they’ve never met to bring about change.
Having been swallowed up by the royal machine when she was barely 20, Diana found her way in life after realizing that the public was fascinated by her every thought. She was able to manipulate that interest to promote causes such as land mine clearance and to tell her side of the story when her marriage collapsed amid Prince Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, who later became his second wife.
Today’s celebrities in every field have adopted that model — created when newspapers and the evening news were the primary sources of information — and pumped it full of steroids in the world of Facebook and Instagram.
“You can sort of trace the molecular chain or genetic chain between Diana and Kim Kardashian,” said sociologist Ellis Cashmore, the author of “Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption.”
“Imagine if Twitter or Facebook had been around in (Diana’s) day!”
While every wannabe celebrity today posts their secrets on social media, in the 1990s it was unimaginable that a royal would share personal hopes and fears with the world. But trapped in a loveless marriage, Diana chose to take her message to the people who loved her.
She covertly cooperated with biographer Andrew Morton to get her story out, using an intermediary who recorded tapes of her answers to the author’s questions so she could deny ever having spoken with Morton.
“This was a quite remarkable thing that she was doing,” Morton told The Associated Press. “Here she was, talking about the most intimate details of her life — about this woman called Camilla, about her eating disorders, about her half-hearted suicide attempts — to me, who was a relative stranger . ... She was talking about things which no princess had ever spoken about before.”
The gamble paid off. Diana’s story was told, and the public loved her all the more. Her funeral featured an unprecedented outpouring of grief and emotion, with tens of thousands lining the streets and mountains of flowers piled outside Kensington Palace. It was a transformative event for both the royal family and for Britain, Morton said.
“No longer were we seen as the stiff-upper-lip, do-not-touch nation,” Morton said. “We were seen as a trembling lower lip (nation), not afraid to emote, to shed our tears in public.”
After Diana’s death, the royals also learned they had to change.
Queen Elizabeth II returned to the capital from vacation in Scotland and gave a speech from Buckingham Palace that quieted days of headlines accusing her of being indifferent to Diana’s death. A more accessible monarchy has followed.
Last year, as Britain celebrated
Britain's Diana, Princess of Wales, talks to amputees at the Neves Bendinha Orthopedic Workshop in the outskirts of Luanda, Angola.
South African President Nelson Mandela, left, shows the way to Princess Diana, during a meeting in Cape Town.