At first, she was Shy Di. But over time, she became a high-wattage celebrity royal whose personal struggles and open way with everyone she met seemed to make an emotional connection with many who watched from far beyond palace walls.
It all took on a mythic tone, yet 20 years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it seems that not much has changed, as images and stories of her life again fill magazines and TV screens on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Diana was a person who resonated with the public because she combined glamour and vulnerability,” says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based author and royal historian.
“There is this sense of this very fashionable public figure who at the same time was very open about her problems and empathized with the problems of others, so the public really responded to her.”
They still seem to be responding, if the flood of glossy magazine covers and TV documentaries ahead of the 20th anniversary Thursday of her death at 36 is any guide. Floral tributes have also appeared again outside the gates of Kensington Palace, where she lived in London.
It’s a response many see being fuelled in part by the interest her sons William and Harry, who took part in two of the more restrained documentaries, have shown in ensuring Diana’s memory lives on even as the House of Windsor looks toward the future.
“William and Harry … made clear they want their mother to be remembered,” says Harris.
In 2010, William gave his wife-to-be Kate his mother’s engagement ring (from her ultimately ill-fated marriage to his father, Prince Charles). William and Kate’s daughter Charlotte has Diana as one of her middle names.
‘Channelling their mother’
There’s also a sense that Diana’s openness about her problems and willingness to embrace issues that weren’t high on royal priority lists — homelessness or support for HIV/AIDS awareness — have echoes today in the lives of William and Harry, who are focusing attention on mental health, among other causes.
“We’ve bought into the marriage of the young royals who are channelling their mother and channelling the fact that by hook or by crook their mom changed the Royal Family … forced them into a new way of communicating,” says Mark Borkowski, a British public relations expert who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Mikhail Gorbachev.