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Lady Diana, her public image ... and the press

Concordia professor Kate Sterns reflects on our enduring fascination with the People's Princess, 19 years after her death
August 30, 2016
By Kate Sterns


Royal rebel, AIDS activist, style guru: Diana, Princess of Wales, was many things to many people.

When she passed away in a fatal car crash on August 31, 1997, there was an unprecedented global outpouring of grief. Nearly 20 years on, she’s far from forgotten.

Kate Sterns — author, playwright and associate professor in Concordia’s Department of English — comments on the lasting impact of Princess Diana on popular culture.

Austin, Texas. August 31, 1997.
A man next to me sat hidden behind his newspaper. Glancing at the front page, I observed a large photograph of Princess Diana. Underneath it, the dates: 1961–1997.  I, too, was born in 1961. As a friend later remarked, the shock of Diana’s death was due in part to that sense of viewing your own headstone.

I can remember watching footage of a young Diana Spencer, essentially a womb in a frumpy blue suit, announcing her engagement to Prince Charles. At one point, his meaty hand fell on her neck, as if momentarily possessed by the ghost of his ancestor, Henry VIII. To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being Queen.

Over the years, I witnessed the narrative arc of Diana’s headlines, beginning as a Disney princess, then moving steadily, as it were into HBO-type drama territory, with post-marriage tales of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. (Well, all right, Elton John. But still.) 


Even as she appeared to run from the press, she kept peering back to ensure they were following her. In the wake of her divorce, Diana courted the media to enlist the support of the public, whose appetite for news of her grew, which in turn increased press coverage. What we now flippantly refer to as the Car Crash of Celebrity became her actual fate.

As my sister once sagely remarked, why have a temper tantrum if there’s no one there to witness it? Equally, at Diana’s funeral, 25 million people lined the streets of Britain, weeping and wailing. But behind them were 25 million more, completely indifferent. The cameras, however, were not interested in them. They did not sell papers nor bolster television show ratings.

Conveniently photogenic and unlucky, Diana grew up, as Walter Cronkite phrased it, in the early days of the Age of the Camera. Whereas the Kardashians make love to it, Diana was more inclined to the flirtatious glance. Still, that unholy alliance between a celebrity, the press and the public had found its poster girl. 


The legacy of that relationship might best be summed up by Alice Jones, TV critic with The Independent, on a recent episode of BBC Radio 4 The Now Show.

She was asked to spot which of three program ideas was not a genuine show. Of the notably whacky examples, she rightly declared the fake concept to be the one using a surgical camera to determine the identity of a celebrity participant by their intestines.

"But I’d watch that," she said.


Read more about women in the British monarchy.


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