Diana: The Icon in a time of magic
In the heady summer of 1997, Diana Princess of Wales was on a roll. She had found a new love in Dodi al-Fayed, son of the billionaire owner of Harrods, the luxury store located in London’s Knightsbridge. The two were on an island-hopping holiday in the Mediterranean. When the long lenses of the paparazzi caught the two lovers in a clinch in the sea, a British tabloid put the image on the front page with the headline, ‘The Kiss’.
The photos from her last summer were magical. Diana in blue on the deck of a yacht, ripples of water below and a bird in flight overhead. I saw images of her on some island, surprisingly busty for her frame – long, healthy limbs and a golden tan. I marvelled at how vital she looked, how beautiful still, so ready for that future she seemed eager to grab with both hands. Then an uncertainty crept into my vicarious anticipation of that future – the nearest I came to a premonition.
When the phone call came that she had met a most untimely end, I was in Newport, Wales. In the first trimester of the pregnancy of a child born into a post-Diana world, I was woken from sleep by a phone call in the early morning. “Ah, Diana ti ku!” a friend’s voice said in Yoruba. I was at the top of a stairway, and in my shock, I tripped and fell down the stairs. It was that much of a rupture in my world as I knew it.
On the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, the BBC interviewed some who had come to pay tributes at her former residence, Kensington Palace – where a sea of flowers made for an unforgettable scene in 1997. One of those paying tribute was a woman who said she had travelled down from Wales with her dog, named Camilla. I laughed in spite of myself. Only true Dianaphiles could understand what makes a devotee of the princess name a dog after her nemesis – an act of such character as is now known on social media as ‘pettiness’.
I am a Dianaphile. I had followed Diana since 1981 when I watched the so-called ‘Wedding of the Century’ live on Nigerian television. My cousin Ronke and I, our heads swirling in Mills and Boon romance tropes, daydreamed about the certainty of love – as Prince Charles would say, “Whatever that means.” In a sense, Diana’s death crystallised my abiding cynicism, the awareness that things are never what they seem. The inevitability of life not following the trajectory as mapped out. A fairytale princess marries a prince; what could go wrong? Everything, because the fairytale is dead. Diana’s passing took the sheen off the gilt-edge of things. She lived in a time of magic, and to mourn her is partly to express a longing for the dream that died – a nostalgia that goes beyond Diana herself.
Days ago, an interchangeable celebrity, Kendall Jenner, whose name I mention despite my aversion to doing so, was named ‘Fashion icon of the Decade’. An aberration possible in a Trumpian world and its assault on words and meaning. It shows how far we have fallen from the electrifying wattage of the Diana era when celebrities were truly so, and the princess was the most famous person in the world. Andy Warhol was prophetic: now everyone can be famous for 15 minutes. Back in Diana’s time, you sort of had to have it, and she had it in spades.
Diana was a pop culture icon like no other. Her most famous dance was with John Travolta at an event in the White House. With a rakish bite on his lower lip, the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ star flipped the princess across the floor. And the joy on her face, a world away from the glum looks as her marriage to Charles drew to its bitter end. Diana, blessed with an outstanding beauty, and flirty pool-like eyes with which she emoted, was actually an excellent communicator. Often without words, she carried the public along with her.
We lived through what the Queen called an “annus horribilis” with Diana, heard her husband say he wanted to be another woman’s tampon in his next life, found out about her doomed love affairs. In the end, it felt like everything was known – and it wasn’t even yet the social media age. Yet – despite heavy revisionism and quiet efforts to douse the Diana flame over the years – I don’t recall any public antipathy to the romance with Dodi at the time. The people wanted her to have this joy, this diversion. The future would take care of itself; and in a sense, it did.
It is interesting to wonder now how her taste for Middle-Eastern men would have played out in the world as changed by September 11. What is certain: the public loved her. As Tony Blair said in the wake of her death, “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.” It was a watershed moment in British life, and the first test for the new, fresh-faced Prime Minister. In this also lay the first signs of his future Iraq War infamy, in the insincere pauses of his reading at her funeral.
Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, had been approached for an Obituary show on British television sometime before she died – something to have in the can in case of whatever. He had been repulsed at the very suggestion. How terrible her death must then have been. Seeing footage of him walking behind Diana’s coffin, his anger is etched in his face. He forgot his aristocratic ‘stiff upper lip’, and delivered a passionate eulogy at her funeral. Now known as ‘The Most Hunted Person of the Modern Age’, it is to be found in compilations of the World’s Greatest Speeches. Spencer’s eulogy drew spontaneous applause from the crowds outside Westminster Abbey. After that, it became normal to hear applause at British funerals. The culture had been changed in so many ways by the life and death of Diana.
Perhaps 1997 was inevitable. Diana’s fame had reached a break-neck speed before that tragic dive into the tunnel in Paris. That year, the icon profiled by Warhol and photographed by Herb Ritts and Patrick Demarchelier, went to Bosnia. She acquired a halo, literally, in images of her walking through the minefields of Angola. The iconography was complete, indestructible.
She was the subject of serious scholarly interest in Camille Paglia’s ‘Diana Unclothed’, shown on British TV years before her death. In death, the unprecedented mourning was eviscerated by Christopher Hitchens, the same way as he tore into her friend, Mother Teresa. Booker prize-winning author Hilary Mantel attacked what she called the Diana myth, days before the 20th anniversary. But the icon will live on.
Diana’s death was prefigured by that of designer Gianni Versace in July 1997. The princess attended his memorial and sat next to Elton John; when the singer started to weep, she was photographed comforting him. In weeks, she would die and it was his turn to sing some comfort into mass grieving with ‘Candle in the Wind’. Diana’s death was bookended by Versace’s and Mother Teresa’s days after the crash in Paris. All these people – including Luciano Pavarotti who was too distraught to sing at her funeral – were part of the spirit of the Diana age.
Diana predicted, accurately, that she would never been queen. She had told Martin Bashir in the landmark Panorama interview that she would just like to be a queen in people’s hearts. And so, she remains.