Inside Diana’s enduring influence as world pays tribute on 25th anniversary of her death

Diana was the "People's Princess", and her life and legacy remain hot topics.

Diana was the "People's Princess", and her life and legacy remain hot topics. Photo: EPA

In the months before she died, Princess Diana’s daily life was, as always, playing out like a graphic novel in the tabloids.

Whether coming out of an Earl’s Court gym, strolling a high street, or holidaying abroad with her “new love”, Egyptian film producer Dodi Fayed, Diana, Princess of Wales, was snapped and splashed on a front page.

So when she died, along with Fayed and their chauffeur, Henri Paul, in a car accident in a Paris tunnel just after midnight on August 31, 1997, there was a sense of professional mourning among England’s tabloid editors.

“They said, ‘Oh God, that’s the end of our front-page photographs,’ ”
former Guardian royal correspondent and Royal Inc author Stephen
Bates told The New Daily.

“There was a feeling of ‘She’ll no longer sell any magazines or newspapers.’

‘‘How wrong they were.’’

Princess Diana on a visit to the Liverpool Women’s Hospital in November 1995. Photo: Getty

In fact, 25 years after her shocking death, Diana’s popularity and
influence rolls on, and she remains a reliable source of news, and
entertainment – including for the 2021 film Spencer and the Netflix series The Crown.

There are also three new documentaries marking the 25th anniversary:
HBO’s The Princess, British Channel 4’s Investigating Diana: Death
in Paris and Foxtel/Binge’s Diana: The Ultimate Truth.

It was as if in death, the Princess “became a sort of secular saint,”
observed Bates.

What is it then about Diana, that sees the forever 36-year-old still reign
as a popular global celebrity?

1981: The Prince and Princess of Wales on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on their wedding day, July 29. Photo: Getty

A modern-day fairytale

It all began with the fairytale, according to royal expert Giselle Bastin,
an associate professor of English at Flinders University who has studied
the British royals.

In 1981, Lady Diana Spencer, a 20-year-old uneducated nursery school
assistant who lived in a London shared flat, got engaged to the future
king and became the most talked-about and most-photographed woman
in the world.

She wed Prince Charles in a televised ceremony viewed by an estimated 750 million people.

“Diana represented the commoner, the girl next door, albeit she was an
aristocrat,” Dr Bastin said.

“This is a major factor in the endurance of Diana’s popularity.”

Diana helping Prince William with a jigsaw puzzle in his playroom at home in Kensington Palace. Photo: Getty

Every mum

That allure continued in motherhood, as Diana showed a hands-on
approach to raising the couple’s boys, William and Harry.

She often eschewed nannies (a staple for the posh) to do the school run
(albeit with a chauffeur and security), took the kids on excursions, and
broke the royal norm by bringing baby William along on the couple’s first
royal tour, to Australia and New Zealand.

“Her sons were brought up in a much less constricted and constrained
way than their father was,” Bates said.

Princess Diana

The princess provoked international debate when she walked alongside minefields in Angola in January 1997, meeting casualties of the country’s 20-year civil war. Photo: Getty

Queen of Hearts

But perhaps her most enduring asset is her well-documented empathy
and kindness.

The “People’s Princess” rallied behind charities that helped the sick and

And she was a powerful activist, drawing attention to the AIDS epidemic (during a time of aggressive homophobia), the horrific problem of landmines in Angola and Bosnia, and the plight of those with eating disorders (Diana suffered bulimia).

“People took her as sincere and good hearted,” Bates said.

As Diana told Martin Bashir in her famous BBC interview in 1995: “I’d
like to be a queen of people’s hearts. I lead from the heart, not the head
… but someone’s got to go out there and love people and show it.”

That legacy of love lives on today both through The Diana Award charity,
and her children, who continue to advocate for the sick and less
fortunate and have become patrons of charities their mother supported.

Kate Middleton Meghan Markle

Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle showed a united front at Wimbledon on July 13, 2019. Photo: Getty

Kate and Meghan

Further sustaining Diana’s untouchable brand is the mainstream media’s
routine of drawing parallels with her daughters-in-law.

Kate “will inevitably be compared to Diana,” Dr Bastin said.

Take Tatler’s decision to declare the Duchess of Cambridge its best-
dressed woman of 2022, citing a polka dot dress she wore to Ascot in
June that apparently channelled “’80s-era Princess Diana”.

And in July, under a headline about how the Cambridges were “Modelling Diana’s Parenting Style”, a source told People that “Kate likes to keep an ordinary life”.

As for the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan “does not enjoy the same popularity as Diana,” observed Dr Bastin.

Particularly since her and Harry’s 2020 split from the Palace.

“Diana represented the acceptable face of commoner-cum-royal,” said

“Meghan has rejected the role of submissive princess, and she’s paying for it in low rates of popularity.”

William, Harry and their father Prince Charles visit the memorial outside Kensington Palace after Diana’s death. Photo: ABC/Reuters

New Royal brand

The royal family suffered its own bout of unpopularity following
Diana’s death.

After being wronged by Prince Charles, who was having an affair with his old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles (now the future Queen Consort), Diana and Charles divorced in 1996 and Diana was shunned by the royal family and stripped of her coveted Her Royal Highness title.

When Diana died a year later, “there was a feeling of abandonment, of
how badly she’d been treated,” Bates said.

“There was a sort of collective outburst of hysteria in England.”

On the wave of that emotion, the public turned on the Firm, which
ultimately changed the way the Windsors spruiked their brand.

“I think Diana had more effect on the monarchy than she realised,”
Bates said.

“The royals are now more empathetic themselves.”

Dr Bastin agrees.

“Diana’s shadow still looms large over the present-day British royals,” she said.

“After the Princess’s death, there were real signs that the Windsors were
taking some of the lessons learned from the Diana years seriously: a
more accessible royal family, a family wishing to be seen as more
personal and ‘caring’, more inclusive.”

princess diana death

A multi-coloured sea of floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, outside the gates of her London home on August 31, 1997. Photo: Getty

‘Waning emotion’

And lest we forget Diana is the mother of a future king, and as Prince
William makes his journey to the throne and beyond, people will always
look for traits of his mother, Bates said.

Yet, as strong as her legacy is, Bates believes that the notion of devotional fans “bearing a candle in the wind” for Diana won’t last forever.

“I think a quarter of a century is a long time to maintain mourning,” he

“I’m sure her death will be commemorated at anniversaries, but it strikes
me that the tabloids are a bit more perfunctory each time.

“It remains a story, but it’s a story whose outcome everyone knows. I think this is a waning emotion.”

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