Diana was a woman first and a princess second
Why did Diana have such a profound effect on so many people? Vassi Chamberlain, who can still recall the ten electrifying minutes she spent with the princess 25 years ago, reflects on the woman who changed the face of royalty and captured hearts all over the world
Diana aged 21, photographed by Lord Snowdon
I will never forget the moment I met Diana in the flesh. It was a beautiful July night in 1996 and I had been invited to a fundraiser at the Dorchester Hotel hosted by Jemima Goldsmith and her then husband, former cricketer and now Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. The event was in honour of the Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital he had founded in Lahore in his mother’s memory, and Diana was giving the keynote speech.
Like many Brits, I was suffering from Diana fatigue during her post-Charles years. It felt like there was no escaping her image. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about her, but was I itching to actually meet her? Not really. As a journalist you quickly find out that the famous can be a crushing disappointment in the flesh. There are of course rare exceptions. But for some reason I didn’t expect Diana to be one of them.
I remember the mayhem as my cab pulled up outside the hotel’s ballroom entrance on Park Lane: the swarms of onlookers and paparazzi straining behind crash barriers – so many that they spilled out on to the busy street, cars swerving madly around them. It felt like the backstage door at a rock concert, everyone jostling and screaming. I took a very deep breath as I got out of the car and walked in as fast as I could.
As I wandered around the vast ballroom looking for a familiar face I spotted British establishment figures in black tie and Pakistani grandees, the women all in beautifully embroidered silk shalwar kameez (the traditional cuffed trousers and tunic). When I finally caught sight of my friend and hostess, Jemima Goldsmith, chatting in a group, I hovered close by, unsure what to do. She suddenly looked up and saw me, excused herself and bounded over. ‘Come,’ she said, pulling me by the hand, ‘I want to introduce you to someone.’
It was only then that I saw who she had been chatting to. ‘Hello,’ said a woman with intense blue eyes, towering above me in white silk and a pearl choker. I froze, and in that moment two things registered that I remember to this day. The first was her smile, so seductively friendly and intimate, so focused on me, as if we’d known each other for years. The second was her voice, one I thought I knew so well, but strangely in that moment, didn’t know at all. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked, ‘I’m Diana.’
Diana at the charity fundraiser hosted by Jemima Goldsmith and Imran Khan, July 1996
We chatted for maybe ten minutes. I remember she asked me if I’d been to Pakistan (I hadn’t at the time), how Jemima and I knew each other (through mutual friends), then something else, which I can’t recall but I do know it made me laugh. It felt complicit, like she wanted to be my friend. I know I wanted to be hers.
I’ve often wondered why I reacted like that. It wasn’t as if I was a super fan. I admired how she represented the UK abroad, how popular she was, that she championed unfashionable causes. I sort of admired her style. I liked how obviously loving she was with her sons. But it wasn’t like I was meeting one of my idols. Yet the visceral reaction she elicited in me that night never left me. Fourteen months later, I began to understand why.
Saturday 30 August 1997. My new husband and I – eight weeks married – were in Northumberland for a friend’s wedding. Having returned to our B&B in the early hours, happy and a little bit tipsy, we didn’t wake up until around 11am the next day. I rang reception to see if room service was still possible. A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door and a waitress walked in carrying a tray and a tabloid newspaper we hadn’t asked for. She wordlessly tossed it on to our unmade bed. ‘DODI DEAD’ were the only words on the front page. Suicide, murder – all popped into my head, immediately followed by… Diana.
I grabbed the remote. Her image filled the screen. She was dead. I felt like I had been punched, as if I had just been told that someone close to me, someone I loved, was gone. It felt confusingly personal. Heartbreaking.
Over the past 24 years, I have often wondered what exactly it was about Diana that so captured not just me, but millions across the globe. Of course, people were drawn to her style and her beauty – but also, I think, to her vulnerability. It is easy, in this age when we articulate our every thought and feeling, to forget that in the 1990s no one spoke openly about emotions – especially not the royal family. It was Diana’s fragility that was her strength, although – as we now know – it also placed a huge strain on her mental health.
Her early life certainly didn’t afford Diana the kind of stability that she would have needed to withstand the glare of public scrutiny that was to follow. She came from a broken home, was sent to boarding school aged nine, then was thrown to the wolves at a very innocent 19, marrying an older man she barely knew aged just 20, one whose affections were always elsewhere. The list of her mental health struggles is a long and well-documented one. She threw herself down the stairs while pregnant with Prince William, suffered from bulimia and seemed to be endlessly searching for some elusive truth – often shunning close friends who tried to guide her yet listening to new ones she barely knew.
But underneath that fragility, there was also grit. Diana was not afraid to buck a trend and this was particularly apparent in her attitudes towards her sons. Diana took William on an official tour of Australia even though this was not what royal mothers did. She further defied royal protocol by choosing her own nanny, her children’s schools and by being involved in their daily routines. Her presence on the school run and visible displays of affection for her children may seem commonplace now – but at the time they were highly unusual. Brits back then were only just learning it was OK to be tactile. For a princess to be leading the way on public displays of affection was almost unthinkable.
The fairy-tale wedding and that kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony, 29 July 1981
The Royal Family, often blindsided by Diana’s modern mothering style, could not have known how far the ripples of her actions would reach. After her death, Tony Blair said she had ‘shown the nation a new way to be British’. She had also, undoubtedly, shown the royal mothers who came after her a new way to be royal.
Diana’s attitude to the disintegration of her marriage was also a marked departure from the palace rule book. On discovering that her husband’s affair with his ex-girlfriend had resumed, rather than turn a subservient blind eye, she confronted Camilla Parker Bowles. Millions of women reflected that, in her shoes, this is exactly what they would have done. She was relatable. Here again, she behaved like a woman first, a princess second.
As she grew in confidence, Diana began to truly understand the platform she commanded, turning her attentions to causes which had previously been confined to the shadows. She expanded her focus to include Aids and leprosy, championing those who no one would speak of or stand up for publicly. She seems to have felt drawn towards the unheard because, for so long, that is how she viewed herself.
Her own fragility informed her common touch because she must have felt naturally drawn to those whose suffering she identified with. It moved us because it felt genuine, authentic. By shining a light on mental health, she allowed others to slowly begin examining their own. Of all her influences, this has to have been the most important, one so clearly reflected in her sons.
Princes William and Harry with Charles outside Kensington Palace just days after their mother’s death
It is easy, with the passage of time, to portray Diana as a saint which she, of course, was not. She could be capricious, paranoid, wilful, tempestuous, with a tendency to co-opt the views of the last person spoken to. With her snowballing fame came the inevitable narcissism and her dealings with the press became deeply complicated. She was certainly the victim of intrusion but, then again, would leak stories when the occasion suited. She graced the cover of Vanity Fair only to discover that the headlines were not about her charitable causes but her new Sam McKnight haircut. I have often wondered what Diana would have made of Instagram.
I’ve thought too about her words in that now fateful November 1995 BBC interview with Martin Bashir – conducted after Prince Charles threw down the gauntlet by becoming the first royal to be televised talking publicly about his private life. But do we remember his words? I know I don’t. I do remember hers, though. When Bashir asked her if she thought she would ever be Queen, we can all recite the reply: ‘No, I don’t… I’d like to be a queen of people’s hearts.’ Granted, it sounded cheesy and contrived in the moment. But I think she meant it on a very basic level because she knew that was her calling. She cleverly understood her power and she acted on it. Thank goodness she did. We are a better nation because of her.
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