A deep dive into Princess Di’s en­dur­ing fame.

Twenty years af­ter her death, we as­sess the place of the “peo­ple’s princess” in pop cul­ture.

ELLE (Canada) - - Insider - By Sarah Laing

PRINCESS DIANA’S DEATH IS THE FIRST NEWS story I can re­mem­ber be­ing ob­sessed with. I was eight when she died in 1997, and while I can’t re­mem­ber where I was when I heard she’d been in a car crash in Paris, I do re­mem­ber the days af­ter: snatches of in­for­ma­tion heard on the car ra­dio about tun­nels, a Mercedes and the Ritz, the lurid pull of those quickly born con­spir­acy the­o­ries on the pages of tabloids in the su­per­mar­ket and, most vividly, sit­ting cross­legged in front of our tele­vi­sion and watch­ing her sons’ stoic march be­hind her cof­fin as it rolled past crowds of strangers, some hys­ter­i­cal in their grief for a woman they’d never met.

For me, at the time, this spec­ta­cle was a glimpse into an adult world I didn’t quite un­der­stand; it starred a woman who looked a lot like my mother (a blonde who was close in age and also had a pen­chant for blue eyeliner) but who lived a life of ball gowns, tear­ful tele­vi­sion in­ter­views and, posthu­mously, El­ton John chang­ing the lyrics to a song for her. (Tan­gent: “Can­dle in the Wind” was one of the first songs I learned for the piano—well, the first bars at least.)

And now, 20 years later, it feels like she’s ev­ery­where again—not in quite the same way, of course, but still ubiq­ui­tous: There’s an ex­hi­bi­tion of her clothes at Kens­ing­ton

Palace, a 200-page com­pendium of iconic pho­to­graphs called Re­mem­ber­ing Diana: A Life in Pho­to­graphs and a statue of her that, once com­pleted, will be in­stalled in the pub­lic gar­dens at Kens­ing­ton Palace. In ad­di­tion, BBC and HBO are air­ing doc­u­men­taries later this year, and, per­haps most ex­cit­ing, she’s the fo­cus of Ryan Mur­phy’s next sea­son of Feud. That’s not even tak­ing into ac­count her In­ter­net pres­ence, which en­com­passes thou­sands of Tum­blrs and In­sta­grams and a near-daily sup­ply of ar­ti­cles with ti­tles like “The REAL Rea­son Princess Diana Al­ways Car­ried a Clutch.” (I’ll save you the click: It was ap­par­ently to cover her cleav­age as she stepped out of cars.) Ob­vi­ously, it’s all tied to mark­ing the two decades since her death, but Mother Teresa died later that same week, and, well, you cer­tainly don’t get reams of min­utes-old sto­ries about freshly leaked record­ings and MI5 agents con­fess­ing to her mur­der when you Google the No­bel Peace Prize-win­ning nun.

“Princess Diana is an iconic fig­ure, and her iconic­ity was en­hanced through her death,” says Pauline Maclaran, coau­thor of Royal Fever: The Bri­tish Monar­chy in Con­sumer Cul­ture, when I ask her whether all this fuss is just be­cause we’re a so­ci­ety that loves mark­ing an an­niver­sary. “But it’s in­ter­est­ing to see how the royal fam­ily has re­cently been repo­si­tion­ing the Diana brand within their over­ar­ch­ing um­brella brand to keep the leg­end alive in a very pos­i­tive way.”

How so? Maclaran points to re­cent in­ter­views with Prince Wil­liam and Prince Harry in which they of­fer up in­for­ma­tion about their mother more freely than ever be­fore. Yes, th­ese are gen­uine re­mem­brances of the “Mummy” they loved, but there’s also a lit­tle bit of strat­egy at play here. “She’s no longer seen as the ‘rebel,’” says Maclaran, re­fer­ring to the os­tra­ciza­tion Diana faced af­ter her very messy and pub­lic di­vorce from Prince Charles. “She’s now seen as the grand­mother she would have been and for her charit­able works.” This isn’t only ev­i­dent in in­ter­views; it’s also ap­par­ent in sub­tler ways: the boys favour­ing the same char­i­ties as their mother, Kate wear­ing Diana’s en­gage­ment ring and, yes, even Ge­orge wear­ing out­fits that not-so­sub­tly mir­ror the ones Wil­liam wore as a child. “The Diana brand has had three ma­jor [it­er­a­tions] in the press,” adds Maclaran. “First as a naive fairy-tale princess, sec­ond as an un­der­dog vic­tim­ized by the royal fam­ily and then af­ter her death that pub­lic emo­tion and sup­port that tran­si­tioned her yet again into some kind of saint, a holy mother.”

And now, with the pas­sage of time, we’re en­ter­ing what might be called the fourth phase of Brand Diana. “She’s be­ing viewed as a more com­pli­cated fig­ure now,” the­o­rizes Carolyn Har­ris, his­to­rian and au­thor of the new Rais­ing Roy­alty: 1000 Years of Royal Par­ent­ing. “We are see­ing more bal­anced ac­counts of how her mar­riage to Charles broke down, whereas be­fore, Camilla, whom he is now mar­ried to, was very much the vil­lain.” She also points to the gen­eral per­cep­tion that Diana was the bet­ter par­ent—one who made her kids stand in line for McDon­ald’s and gave them hugs in pub­lic—while it’s emerg­ing that Charles was (and still is) as at­ten­tive a par­ent, just a more pri­vate one.

More than any­thing else, though, Har­ris at­tributes the con­tin­ued in­ter­est in Diana to the in­tense per­sonal con­nec­tion so many peo­ple had with her—be­cause of her un­usual and un­royal vul­ner­a­bil­ity, her tac­tile ap­proach to causes like home­less­ness and lep­rosy and the glam­orous fig­ure she cut. “You’ll of­ten see peo­ple at Wil­liam’s and Harry’s en­gage­ments who are ea­ger to talk about Diana with them or say kind things about her,” she says of the for­mer Princess of Wales’ wide ap­peal. “She was some­one who was not shy about re­veal­ing her emo­tions to the pub­lic, so peo­ple felt like they knew her.”

But what about peo­ple who were chil­dren, or even not alive, when Diana died? As it turns out, I’m not alone in that de­mo­graphic. “I re­mem­ber get­ting out of bed and find­ing my mother watch­ing the break­ing news cov­er­age,” says Jess Ilse, who works for Royal Cen­tral, a royal-news web­site. She was nine at the time of Diana’s death. “My par­ents saved all the news­pa­pers that week, and we watched all the spe­cials and her funeral. My mom bought me the Princess Diana Beanie Baby Bear when it came out; it’s still in my closet at my par­ents’ house.” Ilse is now a proud monar­chist and at­tributes a lot of that to Diana. “She breathed life into the royal fam­ily,” ex­plains Ilse. “She held hands with AIDS pa­tients, she walked through land-mine-laden ar­eas and she mod­ern­ized the way roy­als be­have—al­though I’d be ly­ing if I didn’t say that I’m also in­ter­ested in her im­pact on fash­ion and how her style has in­flu­enced the next gen­er­a­tion of roy­als.” Ilse has amassed a col­lec­tion of royal-re­lated mem­o­ra­bilia, the most prized of which is a porce­lain Princess Diana doll in a blue vel­vet dress, a replica of the one she wore at the White House when she danced with John Tra­volta.

And that’s the mag­ni­tude of Diana’s leg­end: It’s the sort of myth that has room for ev­ery­thing from Hol­ly­wood satire to kitschy col­lectibles. She once said in an in­ter­view that she wanted to be “the queen of peo­ple’s hearts”; 20 years on, it’s safe to say that she has achieved that. Com­mem­o­ra­tive spoon op­tional. n


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