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.