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To Di For

Why I love the pop princess

Princess Diana at the 1993 men's final at Wimbledon
Brendan Monks/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Princess Diana at the 1993 men's final at Wimbledon

“Oh, I’ve got that one! I loved it! Unfortunately, my husband disapproves of my reading taste. He doesn’t like me reading light novels.”—Diana Spencer, 1986, on seeing a Danielle Steele novel on the bedside table of a hospital she was visiting.

Besieged by the press during her engagement, Diana Spencer said, “Don’t make me sound like a bookworm, because I’m not. But I’ll read almost anything I can get my hands on, from women’s magazines to Charles Dickens. I read because I enjoy it.” Historically. this attitude to books is found among the naturally bright more often than is the pathetic, phony, posey cramming of Solzhenitsyn and Kafka that characterizes Princess Diana’s now estranged husband. Their I.Q.s were perfectly compatible: the difference was that he was pretentious and she was not. Were we really to believe Prince Charles craved “intellectual companionship” when the woman he rejected his wife for was Camilla Parker Bowles?

The difference between Charles and Diana, above all, was cultural. It was not the case that Princess Diana was the first “modernizer” of the royal family—Queen Victoria in the last century and the present queen in the ’60s went a good way toward making the dynasty the Family Firm it is today, with their attention to media and public relations. But Diana was the first royal icon raised on and sustained by pop culture. She was the Pop Princess. This went far further than the string of spats with her husband over her reading habits, her lack of interest in the visual arts and her love of cheap music—most memorably, when she came onstage during Wayne Sleep’s 1985 Royal Opera House show and did a three-minute routine to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” This included several “high kicks” over Sleep’s head, which made the unprepared Prince Charles “nearly fall out of the royal box,” the dancer laughed later.

The princess’s popness was ultimately seen in her immediacy, her fresh and open emotions and her impatience with protocol—in fact, everything that made her so lovable and loved. (Just before the end, she overtook the queen for the first time as the most popular member of the royal family.) There was the feeling among the British that she was the one member of the ruling house who was actually happier among the people than among her people. The only member of the royal family not to wear gloves when shaking hands—though, interestingly, she wore them at family occasions; this was not a phobia, but a choice—she endlessly took on new public engagements and played hooky only on family leisure time, especially when incarcerated at Sandringham or Balmoral. Her smiles of elation and tears of compassion when with the young, old or sick were a stark contrast to the look of sheer boredom that clouded her face during family parties. Like all great stars, she was only truly alive when performing.

Faced with this strong, charismatic figure as his wife, the Prince of Wales (does Bill Clinton come to mind?) acted like a true wimp. When he said jokingly on the eve of their wedding that Diana was “far more English than me,” he wasn’t joking. She may moan to her men friends on the cellular phone, but in public she epitomizes the mustn’t grumble refusal to take oneself too seriously that characterizes the best of British. There was, contrarily, something Not Quite Our Type about him and his behavior, a horrible hybrid of American psychobabbling self-pity, German pomposity and Scandinavian introspection. Knowing full well that he is not possessed of anything like a first-class mind, he settled into a sort of permanent whining restlessness that dumb people consider makes them seem “deep.” But being dissatisfied and being deep are not the same thing.

Diana rose effortlessly above this, her life becoming a hot, modern, media career, accelerating while her husband’s pathetic curriculum vitae dribbled into irrelevance. In him, all the anal-retentive agonizing of po; in her, all the unpretentious energy of pop. She was particularly pop in the way she handled the press. The family has used the press to leak bulletins before. But no one member of the family had ever used the press against another member; as the POW did. After the initial post-honeymoon-period tantrums and tears, she settled into a mutually supportive arrangement with the media that seemed to give her far more pleasure than her actual marriage. on one Egyptian jaunt, she threw a cocktail party for them; when the elderly Sun photographer Arthur Edwards fell ill, she took him medicine. When she noticed a missing face, she asked if the reporter or photographer had moved on to greater things. “You won’t need me, now you’ve got Fergie,” she teased a hack pack after the York’s marriage.

Her preference was for the tabloids: “You’re from the Financial Times? We took that at home,” she told a preening hack. “Yes, I believe we used to line the budgie’s cage with it.” On one occasion when amazed assembled newsmen by asking them if they remembered what a large bosom she had had as a young woman. When Edwards derided a gown she had worn before, she shot back, “Arthur, I suppose you’d prefer it if I turned up naked.” “Well, at least I could get a picture of you in the paper that way,” he countered.

She is their creature, and with them she conspires to win even more power. At times, it could be a more refined, relaxed Madonna talking: “Oh, you should have seen those Arabs going ga-ga when they saw me on the Gulf tour,” the journalist Judy Wade once heard her swank to a group of hacks. “I gave them the full treatment, and they were just falling over themselves. I just turned it on an mopped them up.”

It is ironic that the woman held up as the ultimate wife and mother was actually more domestic before her marriage. Statistics show (she said) that the careers of women in bad marriages get better; the careers of such men get worse. But Diana’s very success became her next challenge: Where does it go from here? After having the love of the world, is there any way that isn’t down? Diana, dead on an unmade bed at 33 with dirty fingernails after last rites of Southern Comfort? No; Diana has lived a pop star’s life but would never die a pop star’s death. Breeding, you see.

She is now a model, modern single parent—and seems quite happy that way. Far beyond being a Windsor, Diana has become an icon of sexy saintliness—the Church of England at play, in high heels—a living rebuke to the tired, stake Britain that the rest of the royal family represents. Her marriage to Charles was thus doomed from the start. This is the man who, when asked if he was in love with his radiant teenage fiancée, said, “Yes—whatever ‘love’ means.” And this is the girl who, to soothe the nerves of her dressers as she stepped into the Glass Coach that would take her to St. Paul’s Cathedral, serenaded them with a jingle from an ice cream commercial.

When asked by bigots if one approves of “mixed” marriages, it is always a good move to raise an eyebrow, smile archly and reply: “But aren’t all marriages mixed—involving as they all do a man and a woman?” Yes, all marriages are mixed—but few were as mixed as the marriage of Windsor and Spencer. Display—scarlets and purples of robes and gowns—has always been a crucial part of the British monarchy; with Diana, it spoke in an idiom the world understood, the language of Bellville Sassoon, Catherine Walker and Jasper Conran. Charles was a link in the past—but Diana was the Windsors’ lifeline to the future. When they cut it, they cut their own throats as the Roundheads had hut the throats of royalty before them.