Thursday 23 May 2019

'People's Princess' bridged divides as she fought her personal demons

Diana, Princess of Wales. Photo: PA
Diana, Princess of Wales. Photo: PA

Tony Jones

Diana, Princess of Wales is an iconic and contradictory figure whose appeal still endures 20 years after her death.

She championed the disadvantaged, from those with Aids to the homeless, and was labelled "the People's Princess'' because of her common touch which could bridge social divides.

But she also fought personal demons like her battle with bulimia, and appeared to be a lonely figure troubled by the media attention her looks and status attracted. Her death 20 years ago in a Paris car crash shocked the globe and saw unprecedented expressions of grief from thousands of ordinary people who felt a connection with Diana.

On that day - August 31, 1997 - then British prime minister Tony Blair summed up the mood of the nation when he paid tribute to her.

He said: "People everywhere kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the People's Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.''

Diana's appeal began almost from the moment she appeared on the world stage as an awkward, shy teenager in the early 1980s, who was living in a London flat with her girlfriends and working in a kindergarten.

Her fairytale wedding on July 29, 1981, at St Paul's Cathedral was watched by a television audience of hundreds of millions and turned the self-dubbed "sloane ranger" into a world superstar.

For more than a decade afterwards the Prince and Princess of Wales were regarded as the world's most romantic couple but, soon into their marriage, the cracks had begun to appear.

Diana bore the Prince a son, William, in June 1982, and a few years later another, Harry, in September 1984.

But according to Andrew Morton's explosive book, Diana, 'Her True Story', which revealed the Princess's inner turmoil, Charles had wanted the second child to be a girl. His dismissive reaction to the arrival of a son and departure for a polo game the day after the birth was said to have marked the beginning of the end of the marriage.

Morton wrote: "From that moment, as Diana told friends: 'Something inside me died'."

Diana was haunted by her belief Charles's former lover Camilla Parker Bowles, now his wife, was back in his life.

The marriage was effectively over by the end of the 1980s but the Prince and Princess kept up the public pretence until they separated in December 1992.

That year Morton's book was published and it revealed Diana had suffered from bulimia and had attempted to take her own life a number of times, described as "cries for help", including throwing herself down a flight of stairs while pregnant with William.

A few years later Charles made his own public admission, telling broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby in a television documentary that he was unfaithful after his marriage had "irretrievably'' broken down, but did not identify his mistress. It was later alleged, but never confirmed, that it was Camilla.

Diana made her own TV confession in November 1995 when she told the BBC's 'Panorama' programme she had an affair with Life Guards officer Major James Hewitt. The royal couple divorced in August 1996.

The princess had her critics. She was dismissed by some as a "clothes horse'' for her love of designer dresses while others accused her of trying to emulate the reputation of Mother Teresa through her charity work.

The Paris car crash which killed Diana's lover Dodi Fayed and their chauffeur Henri Paul also ended the life of the 36-year-old princess, but she will forever remain the glamorous icon whose image is preserved for posterity.

Irish Independent

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