The Diana myth: Why she haunts us still — 20 years after her death

This week's 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, is again focusing attention on a woman who grew from Shy Di to a high-wattage royal celebrity whose vulnerability and willingness to talk about her problems gave her an unprecedented rapport with the public.

Willingness to adopt difficult causes has echoes in lives of her sons William and Harry

Images and stories of the life of Diana filled magazines and TV screens on both sides of the Atlantic in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of her death in 2007. (Denis Paquin/Associated Press)

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."

Diana found a warm welcome from Canadians in Halifax on June 15, 1983. (Andy Clark/Canadian Press)

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.

Diana relaxes with her sons William, centre, and Harry on the steps of the Royal Palace on the island of Mallorca, Spain, on Aug. 9, 1987. (John Redman/Associated Press)

Borkowski has a quick response for why the fascination with Diana has persisted.

"Well, she's preserved in aspic," he says. "She's never aged."

In that, she's like other iconic celebrities who died young — think Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. There's a new generation, Borkowski suggests, "discovering the Diana narrative … the Saint Diana."

But can anyone truly be a saint? Can anyone's character or nature be that idealized?

Author Sally Bedell Smith, who has written royal biographies, says Diana's original appeal stemmed from her "unusual combination of beauty, glamour and vulnerability." She could also connect effortlessly with people from all social classes. 

Diana hugs and plays with an HIV-positive baby in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 24, 1991. (Dave Caulkin/Associated Press)

"But her darker traits remained largely hidden from the public. She was incapable of seeing beyond her intense emotions, or recognizing that her actions could have unintended and destructive consequences," says Smith. "One of her relatives once told me that 'she had a perfectly good character, but her temperament overtook her.'" 

Still, there have been some shifts in the Diana narrative over the years, with more nuanced and analytical views of everything from the tabloid-filling demise of her marriage to the way she interacted with reporters and photographers.

"Now she tends to be viewed in a more complex way in terms of her relationship with the media … and her relationship with Prince Charles," says Harris.

'Re-mythologizing' Diana

Such nuances haven't necessarily been present, however, in the coverage leading up to the anniversary of her death.

"The result of the wall-to-wall coverage has been to 're-mythologize' Diana," says Smith, whose biography Prince Charles, The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, was recently released.

Smith says the portrayals have defaulted "to the mythology created in the '80s and '90s — the innocent exploited by the Royal Family and spurned by her husband, the idealized mother, the victim who emerged as a strong advocate of previously "un-royal" causes such as AIDS and homelessness.

"The facts of her deep-seated emotional instability — by her own admission as well as the observations of those closest to her — have been glossed over."

Smith also sees chinks in the narrative that emerged over Diana's final days, when she was in France with boyfriend Dodi Fayed, son of Mohamed Al Fayed, then the owner of Harrods, the luxury retailer.

Diana and her companion Dodi Fayed walk on a pontoon in the French Riviera resort of Saint-Tropez on Aug. 22, 1997. (Patrick Bar-Nice Matin/Associated Press)

"During the last summer of her life, she was not the mythical 'new woman' portrayed in the tabloids. She was spinning like a top, emotionally unmoored, caught up in the unsavory web of the Fayed family."

The romance with Dodi, "an irresponsible and self-destructive playboy with no real achievements to his name," says Smith, "showed above all how troubled she was, to the very end."

Like no other royal

The mythic nature of Diana's image has little to rival it so completely within the Royal Family.

Some royals have shown elements of it, such as the 1950s and '60s glamour of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth's younger sister.

Princess Margaret easily mixed and mingled with the celebrity set, including the Beatles, whom she met, along with her husband, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, in London on July 29, 1965. (Associated Press)

And when it comes to fashion, something for which Diana was closely watched — and renowned — members of the Royal Family in Tudor and Stuart times were also leaders.

The public outpouring of mourning that came with Diana's death might also have a parallel to another royal who died young. Harris looks back to the 1817 passing of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the prince regent and future King George IV, after she gave birth to a stillborn son.

After Charlotte's death, there was also a need to find a culprit and "the public decided the obstetrician was to blame," Harris says. In that, there were similarities to Diana's death, with crowds shouting at photographers "this is because of you, you hounded her."

Diana arrives at Christie's auction house in London to attend a private viewing and reception in aid of AIDS Crisis Trust and the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund on June 2, 1997. (Jacqueline Arzt/Associated Press)

But no other royal has similarly encapsulated all those elements — the glamour, the fashion, the tragic death at a young age  — the way Diana did.

"She combines all of these different qualities and remains a person who the public finds endlessly fascinating," says Harris. And, she suggests, Diana's children and grandchildren are now being viewed in that same context.

Borkowski sees qualities that attracted attention to Diana 20 or 30 years ago still having an allure.

"She was a Hollywood film star in a way. She had the same charisma," he says. People "felt sorry for her, felt sorry for her being sucked into this unprepared."

And, Borkowski suggests, they still do.

"It's the soap opera of her life that actually people remember."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.