Princess Di’s common touch altered monarchy, celebrity

Danica Kirka
Associated Press

London — It was so human. So accessible. So very Diana: Prince William, the heir to the British throne, sprinting down the track at London’s Olympic Park with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and his brother, Prince Harry, in a relay race this year promoting mental health.

Britain's Prince William, his wife, Kate, and brother Prince Harry encouraged runners at a Heads Together cheering point along the route of the 2017 London Marathon in London in April. Heads Together is a mental health charity supported by the three British royals. Princess Diana’s legacy lives on through her two sons, who have passionately adopted their mother’s more personal approach to the monarchy and to the public.

There was a time when such a scene would not have happened.

Princess Diana, a preschool teacher thrust into the glare of celebrity by her marriage to Prince Charles, dragged Britain’s ribbon-cutting royals into the modern world. She made a direct connection with the public — once running her own race in a flowing white skirt and baggy sweater — and promoted causes far from the mainstream at the time, like land mine removal and AIDS research.

That link lives on through her sons, who have adopted their mother’s more personal approach to monarchy and in the process reinvigorated the institution.

“She was the first royal who really took the public’s heart,” said Sandi McDonald, 55, standing outside an exhibit of the late princess’ dresses at Kensington Palace. “I think her sons are the same — the public just loves them.”

William and Harry are the most obvious reminders of Diana’s impact. They have spoken openly about their own mental health issues over losing their mother while so young and broken down taboos just as their mother did by embracing AIDS patients to ease fears about the disease. But the princess’ most far-reaching legacy is her popularization of the idea that celebrities can use their ties to millions of people they’ve never met to bring about change.

Children wait in line as Diana lends a hand to serve the food at the Child Feeding Scheme at Nemazuva Primary School in Zimbabwe on July 12, 1993. She was on of the first to realize that celebrities could use their influence to bring about change.

Having been swallowed up by the royal machine when she was barely 20, Diana found her way in life after realizing that the public was fascinated by her every thought. She was able to manipulate that interest to promote causes such as land mine clearance and to tell her side of the story when her marriage collapsed amid Prince Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, who later became his second wife.

Today’s celebrities in every field have adopted that model — created when newspapers and the evening news were the primary sources of information — and pumped it full of steroids in the world of Facebook and Instagram.

“You can sort of trace the molecular chain or genetic chain between Diana and Kim Kardashian,” said sociologist Ellis Cashmore, the author of “Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption.”

“Imagine if Twitter or Facebook had been around in (Diana’s) day!”

South African President Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana met in Cape Town on March 17, 1997.

While every wannabe celebrity today posts their secrets on social media, in the 1990s it was unimaginable that a royal would share personal hopes and fears with the world. But trapped in a loveless marriage, Diana chose to take her message to the people who loved her.

She covertly cooperated with biographer Andrew Morton to get her story out, using an intermediary who recorded tapes of her answers to the author’s questions so she could deny ever having spoken with Morton.

“This was a quite remarkable thing that she was doing,” Morton told The Associated Press. “Here she was, talking about the most intimate details of her life — about this woman called Camilla, about her eating disorders, about her half-hearted suicide attempts — to me, who was a relative stranger. … She was talking about things which no princess had ever spoken about before.”

The gamble paid off. Diana’s story was told, and the public loved her all the more. Her funeral featured an unprecedented outpouring of grief and emotion, with tens of thousands lining the streets and mountains of flowers piled outside Kensington Palace. It was a transformative event for the royal family and for Britain, Morton said.

“No longer were we seen as the stiff-upper-lip, do-not-touch nation,” Morton said. “We were seen as a trembling lower lip (nation), not afraid to emote, to shed our tears in public.”

After Diana’s death, the royals also learned they had to change.

John Collins, left, a 51-year-old lung cancer patient, met Princess Diana as she toured Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Hospice-Palliative Care Unit in Chicago.

Queen Elizabeth II returned to the capital from vacation in Scotland and gave a speech from Buckingham Palace that quieted days of headlines accusing her of being indifferent to Diana’s death. A more accessible monarchy has followed.

Last year, as Britain celebrated the queen’s 90th birthday for months, the queen joked at a street party outside Buckingham Palace that while she appreciated the cards and messages, “how I will feel if people are still singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me in December remains to be seen!”

As William and Harry grew up, they inherited Diana’s ability to communicate with the public. To the delight of mental health charities, they and the Duchess of Cambridge have fronted a campaign to persuade people to open up about mental health struggles. One charity, Mind, said the day after Harry spoke about his struggles following his mother’s death their public inquiry line received a 38 percent increase in calls.

“It shows how far we have come in changing public attitudes to mental health, that someone so high-profile can open up about something so difficult and personal,” said Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind.

The young royals have also brought other luminaries into the conversation. In one video, Prince William spoke with pop star Lady Gaga, who told of her struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Diana “knew, even from an early age, that she wanted to groom them more in the image of modern princes, that they would be able to reach out to people,” said Morton. “She did not want a … do-not-touch sign over the future of her children.”

Diana also changed the public’s expectations of national figures, Cashmore said, noting that Britons are no longer satisfied with a distant monarchy. Her sons’ common touch is one reason for the often-denied speculation that William will take the throne after the queen’s death, skipping his less popular father.

Quite simply, Diana changed the royal family, said Jenny Glossop, a fan from Worcestershire who visited the Kensington Palace dress exhibit.

“The royals were always formal and stuffy and didn’t have a connection with the public. Diana came along, joined the family and changed the royals forever, because after that even the queen softened, became more approachable,” Glossop said. “Her boys have grown to be Diana’s boys. Everything we loved about her carries on in the family.”