Explained: The enduring appeal of Diana, the ‘People’s Princess’

The latest season of 'The Crown' has people again talking of Princess Diana, whose global popularity raised the profile of not just the British Royals, but of the causes she worked for. This popularity also saw her hounded by paparazzi –– some say to her death.  

Critically acclaimed historical drama The Crown is back with its fourth season on Netflix. The TV series that recounts Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, created and principally written by screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan, has secured a total of 39 nominations for its first three seasons at the Primetime Emmy Awards.

The latest season has again generated immense interest, in part because it features Lady Diana Spencer’s marriage to Prince Charles –– yet another indicator of the enduring popularity of Princess Diana.

Emma Corrin essays the role of the ‘People’s Princess’.

Who was Diana, the Princess of Wales?

Born Diana Frances Spencer, she became a member of the British royal family after her marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II and heir apparent to the British throne. The couple have two sons, the princes William and Harry.

Diana was a member of the British nobility, the youngest daughter of John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer, and Frances Shand Kydd, lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth and daughter of 4th Baron Fermoy. Her parents were divorced when she was a child and it had a profound impact on her life.

Diana grew up close to the royal family on their Sandringham estate. In 1978, she moved to London, living with flatmates and taking on various low-paying jobs. She rose to prominence in 1981 upon her engagement to Charles, and her activism and glamour soon made her an international icon, earning her the title of ‘People’s Princess’.

The royal wedding 

Among the highlights of The Crown’s new season are Lady Diana’s first meeting with Prince Charles at the age of 16, when he was dating her older sister Lady Sarah; a meeting during a country weekend, when she watched him play polo; the invitation to Balmoral, the royal family’s Scottish residence, to spend time with his family; and glimpses of the royal wedding.

Called the “wedding of the century”, the royal wedding took place at St Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981, in the presence of 2,650 guests. Diana’s taffeta wedding dress, made with silk and antique lace and 10,000 pearls, paired with an 18th-century Spencer family tiara, was accompanied by a 25-foot veil, which was the longest at the time. The ceremony was broadcast on television around the world, with nearly 750 million people from 74 countries watching it.

A troubled marriage

The Crown also puts into spotlight the tumultuous and strained relationship between Charles and Diana, ridden with explosive arguments and extramarital affairs –– the grim reality of what was considered a fairytale union.

Even in the early days of his marriage, Charles increasingly relied on his ex-girlfriend and close confidant Camilla Parker Bowles (whom he married in 2005, making her Duchess of Cornwall). Diana had also begun an affair with Major James Hewitt, the family’s former riding instructor. By 1987, the cracks in their marriage were becoming visible, with the couple’s cold attitude towards each other making headlines.

Subsequently, in December 1992, Prime Minister John Major announced the couple’s “amicable separation” to the House of Commons. In 1995, during her Panorama interview with BBC journalist Martin Bashir, Diana famously said: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” This proved to be the tipping point, with the Queen writing to Charles and Diana and advising them a divorce, which was finalised in August 1996. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Diana’s struggle with bulimia

One of the talking points of The Crown has been its portrayal of Diana’s struggle with bulimia, a life-threatening eating disorder. During her lifetime, the Princess of Wales had publicly spoken about dealing with postpartum depression, self-mutilation and bulimia, indicating that low self-esteem and an unhappy marriage may have led to it. In Andrew Morton’s 1997 biography Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, she is quoted as saying: “My husband put his hand on my waistline and said: ‘Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we?’, and that triggered off something in me.”

She also spoke about it with Bashir for the BBC interview, admitting that she had bulimia “for a number of years”, and described it as a “secret disease”, “a symptom of what was going on in my marriage”.

Her raw and candid confession sent shockwaves through the world, as eating disorders were rarely talked about openly. Left Bank Pictures, the production company working on The Crown, had said in a statement that they worked closely with Beat, an eating disorder charity, to ensure their portrayal of Diana’s bulimia was “accurate and sensitively handled”.

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Global popularity and activism

Diana’s first international tour, where she accompanied Prince Charles to Australia and New Zealand in 1983, made news as their son Prince William accompanied them, which was unusual at the time. Royal family members usually left their babies at home during official tours. The tour was a huge success as the couple drew immense crowds, but the press focused more on Diana than Charles, coining the term ‘Dianamania’, referring to people’s obsession with her.

The global interest in the elegant and vivacious princess boosted the Royal Family’s image abroad throughout the 1980s. During her 1989 solo trip to New York, Diana made an impact on the public by spontaneously hugging a seven-year-old child with AIDS at the Harlem Hospital Center, at a time of virulent homophobia and stigma around HIV/AIDS. The New York Times had described Diana as “a breath of fresh air” who was the main reason the royal family was known in the United States.

In 1997, just a few months before her death, Diana, donning protective equipment, walked across a landmine field in Huambo, Angola, drawing international attention to an overlooked issue, and ultimately raised the profile of the work being done to clear landmines around the world.

Diana was a patroness of a number of charities, working with the homeless, youth, drug addicts, the elderly, and for serious illnesses including leprosy. “Her overall effect on charity is probably more significant than any other person’s in the 20th century,” Stephen Lee, director of the UK Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, had said.

Relationship with the media and paparazzi

In 1982, when the paparazzi followed Charles and Diana to the Bahamas and took photographs of her in a bikini while she was pregnant with Prince William, the Queen called the publication of those as “the blackest day in the history of British journalism”.

Ever since an estimated 750 million people watched Diana and Charles’ wedding, the paparazzi had started documenting her every move, and she soon became one of the most photographed people in the world. Her entire life had become tabloid fodder, from marital discord to the divorce and its aftermath. Photographers were offered up to £500,000 for even grainy pictures of her. Popular celebrity photographer Jason Fraser had made in excess of £1 million from selling photos of Diana with Dodi Fayed, the Egyptian film producer and her rumoured boyfriend.

At her funeral, her brother Charles Spencer described her as “the most hunted person of the modern age”.

Sudden death

In August 1997, Diana was in Paris with Fayed for a 10-day getaway on the French Riviera. They hit the road after dining at the private salon at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, and while trying to flee the paparazzi, the driver, Henri Paul, reportedly approached the entrance of a road tunnel at approximately 70 mph. The speed limit was 30 mph. According to the reports, Paul lost control of the car and collided into a pillar in the middle of the highway.

Fayed and Paul passed away on the spot, while Diana breathed her last at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, survived the crash, and is said to be the only one wearing a seat belt. A French investigation had concluded that the crash was caused by Paul’s intoxication, reckless driving, speeding, and effects of prescription drugs.

Her sudden death brought unprecedented mourning to UK and the entire world. The televised funeral was watched by over 2.3 billion eyes the world over, and people kept leaving flowers, candles, cards, and personal messages outside Kensington Palace for months.

In pop culture

The first biopics about Diana and Charles were Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story, and The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, broadcast on American TV channels in 1981.

In 1992, ABC aired Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After, a TV movie about their marital discord. The 2007 docudrama Diana: Last Days of a Princess details the final two months of her life, where she is portrayed by Irish actress Genevieve O’Reilly.

In 2017, Prince William and Prince Harry commissioned two documentaries to mark the 20th anniversary of her death.

Among the actors who have portrayed her on screen are Serena Scott Thomas, in Diana: Her True Story, Julie Cox in Princess in Love, Amy Seccombe in Diana: A Tribute to the People’s Princess, Nathalie Brocker in The Murder of Princess Diana, Naomi Watts in Diana, and now Corrin in The Crown. In season five and six of the show, Tenet actor Elizabeth Debicki will play the Princess.

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