The Enduring Fictions of Princess Diana

Twenty years after her death, her life still asks uncomfortable questions about what we demand of fame.

Diana, Princess of Wales, in a diamond tiara and black dress during a reception in Bonn, Germany, in 1987
The Princess of Wales is pictured during a reception in Bonn, Germany, in 1987.  (Herman Knippertz / AP)

In June of 2011, to celebrate what would have been the 50th birthday of Princess Diana, Newsweek published a cover story with a title both simple and ominous: “Diana at 50: If She Were Here Now.” Written by the magazine’s then-editor, Tina Brown, who had been a friend of Diana’s during her short life, the essay was a blend of speculative and fan fictions: Brown imagined Diana having lived beyond mid-1997 and into the world of mid-2011. The images that accompanied Brown’s essay depicted Diana, age eerily grafted onto her with the assistance of Photoshop, gallivanting with her daughter-in-law, Kate Middleton, clutching an iPhone, grinning. The package indulged, on the whole, in a very particular kind of fantasy—that Diana’s unruly humanity might later in her life have resolved into the thing that had for so long eluded her: happiness.

The logic of Brown’s tribute to her friend is replicated in the new novel Imagining Diana, which also speculates about what might have happened had Diana survived the Paris car crash that did, in fact, take her life. Diane Clehane’s book is one of many new works that are being released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death: books (National Geographic’s Remembering Diana: A Life in Photographs), collectible magazine editions (Diana: Her Legacy of Love), and documentaries, among them National Geographic’s Diana: In Her Own Words. CBS’s Princess Diana: Her Life—Her Death—The Truth. PBS’s Diana—Her Story. TLC’s Princess Diana: Tragedy or Treason? The Smithsonian Channel’s Diana and the Paparazzi. HBO’s Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy.

In one way, the new works are simply predictable reiterations of the older ones: products of the Diana industry, its dusty machinery having lurched to life once more. But there is also, in them, something particularly fit to the world of the 21st century: the fan fiction. The Photoshop both literal and figurative. The consideration of celebrity as both a commercial transaction and an existential condition. Twenty years after she died, chased down by paparazzi who were chasing the images the people craved, many of these new takes look at Diana’s life and see not just a princess trapped in a flawed fairy tale, but also a public who helped to ensure her continued captivity. They reckon with the irony they helped to create—an irony that lives on, in some ways, for the celebrities of the current moment: that, as Diana’s brother Charles put it at her funeral, “a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was in the end the most hunted person of the modern age.” They look, once again, at Diana. And they seek their own—our own—redemption.

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Photography is an art of intimacy. There’s equipment involved in it, yes—metal, glass, lenses that contort reality in order to capture it—but on the whole the taking of pictures is physical work, requiring a proximity between the photographer and the subject. There can be a magic in that; there can also be a sense of invasion. The subject, captured without her consent. The subject, zoomed in on. The subject, “shot.”

That dynamic—subject and object, stalker and prey—informs much of the conventional wisdom that sprang up in the days and years after Diana’s death: The press, the logic went (the photographers, in particular) were at least partially to blame for the car accident that took her life. The paparazzi, frenzied by Diana’s new relationship with Dodi Fayed, had chased her into that tunnel in Paris; they had encouraged Fayed’s chauffeur, Henri Paul, to speed up in an effort at evasion; the effort failed in the most tragic way possible. The jury at the 2008 inquests into the deaths of Diana and Fayed found the paparazzi to be a contributing factor in those deaths. In 2007, Phil Hall, who had been the editor of the News of the World during Diana’s life, put it bluntly: “A big Diana story could add 150,000 sales,” he said. “So we were all responsible.”

That sense of collective guilt remains a common theme in the new Diana documentaries. In Diana, Our Mother, Prince William notes of the tabloids that paid for the paps’ images, “I think it was an industry that lost its way, quite heavily. Lost its sense of decency, lost its perspective on what was appropriate.” In TLC’s Princess Diana: Tragedy or Treason?, an examination of the many conspiracy theories that arose to explain the crash, the royal historian Kate Williams compares Diana to a hunted fox. In the same film, Tamron Hall, the former NBC News anchor, describes Diana as the prey that finds itself under the constant surveillance of the media’s collective “hyena.” Prince Charles, in a TV interview with his then-wife, noted “the cameras poking at you from every corner.” Diana herself called her treatment at the hands of the press “appalling.”

What the movies also acknowledge, though, are the capitalistic forces at play in all that: The press was doing the bidding of the public—a public with a voracious appetite for Diana, and in particular for pictures of her. That Diana was “the people’s princess” was a concept introduced by the British prime minister Tony Blair in a speech he delivered after her death—and the term was a reference not merely to her reputation for unstuffiness, or to her humanitarian work, but also to the sense of ownership people had over her life. That sense was ratified by a progression of pictures: the 19-year-old pre-school assistant, the sunlight rendering her modest skirt virtually transparent. The 20-year-old bride, her dress billowing behind her like a pouf of airy possibility. The 21-year-old mother, expertly soothing her newborn. And then, later: The global celebrity, “shy Di” no longer, twirling on a White House dance floor with John Travolta. And meeting AIDS patients—hugging AIDS patients—at Middlesex Hospital in London. And touring the minefields of Angola. And sitting on the diving board of Fayed’s yacht in the Mediterranean, legs dangling insouciantly—ominously—over the edge.

Intimate and distant, public and private: Diana’s story was one often told through pictures rather than words. She tried to push back against that—in bids for sympathy, perhaps, but also, it seems, for complication itself. She wanted to be understood not as a fanciful literary figure, but as a full and flawed human. In 1993, the journalist Andrew Morton published Diana: Her True Story, the first work to document some of the truths that had complicated the life that had initially seemed such a fairy tale, among them Diana’s eating disorders and suicide attempts. In interviews, Morton stood by the veracity of his story while insisting that he would not reveal his sources for it. Only after she died did Morton disclose that Diana herself had been his source. (“Thank you for your belief in me,” she had written to her biographer in a letter, “and for taking the trouble to understand this mind—it’s such a relief not to be on my own anymore and that it’s okay to be me.”)

She had to fight for that nuance, though. Diana was, through the media, living a bildungsroman in real time. The young Lady Spencer was deemed suitable to become Prince Charles’s wife in part because she was so young—an asset not only when it came to the expectations of childbearing that would be placed on her (her uncle, Lord Fermoy, vouched for her virginity to the Daily Star), but also when it came to the more narrative elements of modern princessery: She arrived on the scene, essentially, a blank slate. No previous boyfriends who could sell stories of her to the tabloids. No dramas of the past that might inject themselves into her new life. Diana appealed to the royal family in large part because she had, prior to accepting that sapphire-and-diamond ring, led a quiet life of easy aristocracy.

And her story from there resonated not just because of the gauzy romance of royalty, but also because of the conflict that will result when the traditions of monarchy tangle with the realities of a heavily mediated world. As Tina Brown noted in her Newsweek essay, “‘Happily ever after’ will never have the same allure to the press as ‘it all went horribly wrong.’” Diana’s personal take on the modern-day fairy tale could be shaped and molded, the thinking seems to have gone—largely through the bards of the media.

“How are you coping with all the press attention?” an anonymous reporter, following the not-yet-princess as she walked to her car in London, asked Diana, in 1979, in a scene aired across several of the 2017 documentaries.

“Well as you can see,” Diana began to reply—and, then, she trailed off. “You can tell,” Diana said, dodging a sidewalk lamppost.

The reporter pressed on. “Are you bearing up with it quite well, though? Because it must be quite a strain with all of us after you.”

Diana’s reply? “Well it is, actually.”

She is polite; she is also a little bit baffled. She is being asked to comment, after all, on how she is coping with the press attention by a member of the press who is lavishing that attention. Early on, through the repetition of such ironies, Diana came to be a media event incarnate: a person who was famous for being famous. A walking tautology. In the Smithsonian Channel’s Diana and the Paparazzi, a tabloid editor describes a common practice for their Sunday editions, after Diana and Charles had separated and her life had become considerably less quiet than it once had been. If Diana had plans to go out on Saturday night, the editors would save a space in the paper for her: Whatever she ended up doing, they figured, would be newsworthy. In the sense that it would further the story being written about her in the media—the fan fiction that surrounded her even while she was alive.

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Diana often compared herself to Marilyn Monroe: a woman also haunted and hunted, a woman also misunderstood, a woman who was in her own way famous for being famous. But Diana also had much in common with Beyoncé, and Kim Kardashian, and Taylor Swift, and the other women who would travel the path she helped to shape, with all those motorbiked cameramen in tow. She raised questions about a culture that is unsure what it wants from its celebrities: Are they role models? Are they warnings? Does their appeal rest in the fact that they are just like us—or in the notion, instead, that they are mortal gods?

Diana, so revered, so belittled, so sanctified, so victimized, was in her death a reminder of the obvious: The people in the images, held up as paragons of beauty and talent and fame itself, are ultimately flesh and bone. They are flawed and fallible, just like us. Diana, by virtue of the timing of her death, was perhaps the last of the analog celebrities: She died before Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat would come on the scene; she died less than a decade after her fellow Brit, Tim Berners-Lee, created the World Wide Web. (On the BBC’s 2002 list of the “100 Greatest Britons,” Berners-Lee was deemed the 99th greatest. Diana was deemed the third.) She died just before the dynamics of fame became regulated by the dynamics of marketing—just before, as The New York Times’s Katherine Rosman put it, celebrities took back some control, manipulating the press and calling it “branding.” She died just before she could, in some way, fight back.

And, so, 20 years later, to mourn Diana is also to mourn what she might have been, had she lived longer: personally fulfilled, in the manner of Brown’s fan fiction, and also, when it came to the press, more empowered. Better equipped. Front and center, rather than at the distant end of a roving telephoto lens. In 1997, Diana’s eulogies talked of guilt and shame; in 2017, her celebrations look for redemption. But they have a hard time finding it: Another irony of Diana’s celebrity was that people cared about her so reflexively that they weren’t sure how to care about her genuinely. They—we—looked at Diana and saw, first and foremost, an image to be bought. A character to be discussed. A royal to be envied. A heroine to be pitied. There was the people’s princess, trapped in a gilded tower, waving frantically at those gathered below as they gazed, and gawked, and paused to take just one more picture.