“I’ve watched it since I was little,” said Christine Tomsovic, 52, who was visiting a traveling Princess Diana exhibit at Tysons Corner mall in Northern Virginia on a recent Saturday. “I watched her get married. I watched everything until her tragic death. I’m just a huge fan. Diana, she explained, was ‘caring, compassionate and loving’. She was humanitarian. And she was different from other members of the royal family: “Her personality broke the mould. She was to. She didn’t let anyone tell her what to do.
Tomsovic’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m just sad that she’s gone.”
Gone but never, never forgotten. If anyone thought Diana’s death on August 31, 1997 would finally quell endless drama and tabloid stories, they were sensationally wrong. An estimated 2 billion people attended his funeral, and the ensuing quarter century has only served to enhance his reputation. Her story has been told and retold – most recently in Netflix’s “The Crown” and last year’s film “Spencer” – with the historical narrative solidly in Diana’s favour: Charles as a careless and loveless husband, the family distant and controlling royal, and Diana as a romantic, innocent and loving mother, a betrayed wife and forever, triumphantly, the people’s princess.
This fictionalized portrayal of her is literally on display on this melancholic anniversary. Tomsovic was one of Diana’s admirers – much older, some young, almost all women – who paid $25 for the guided tour of over 100 oversized images: Diana the Fashion Legend, Diana the Pioneer, Diana the model.
Diana lived her life “with love, not by rules”, said Mariana Orozco, 26, who was from Mexico. She was just a baby when Diana died, but she grew up fascinated by her. Recently engaged, she wore a small blue stone on her left hand: “All my life I’ve said, ‘I want a sapphire like Diana’s.’ ”
“Her beauty and her style draw people in very quickly,” said exhibit curator Cliff Skelliter. “Then there are a lot of connectors to what feels like a fairy tale – we love fish out of water stories because they allow us to easily protect ourselves in character. So when someone like Diana arrives, all these women who were around the same age, now in their 60s and 60s, projected themselves onto this young woman and forged this strong bond.
The eight-foot photos were taken by Anwar Hussein – one of several royal photographers who covered Diana’s every move during her 16 years in the public eye – and her two sons, who photographed Prince William and the Prince Harry and their families. Most of the famous images have already appeared in newspapers, magazines and books, but together they recall the short and dazzling trajectory of his life.
“We could tell these anecdotal stories about Princess Diana to really build a picture of her humanity, that she was this real person who was learning in front of a whole bunch of cameras and the whole world was watching and wasn’t necessarily perfect, but figured her way through,” Skelliter said.
My God, she was so young. There’s a photo of a rosy, newly engaged, delicious Diana with charisma beyond her years. In another, Charles and Diana leave the church after their marriage in 1981; more than 750 million people around the world attended the ceremony and the famous balcony kiss. The groom was 32 and in love with another woman; the bride just weeks after her 20th birthday.
“I felt sorry for her. I remember thinking, ‘Do not do it,‘” said Lois Wren, 67. Like so many of the women at the show, Wren remembers waking up at 4 a.m. to attend the royal wedding. She was old enough to worry about the new princess entering the lion’s den. “So tragic,” she said, shaking her head. “So tragic.”
Her 31-year-old daughter Laura watched Diana’s funeral as a youngster, and what she remembers now is that Diana walked out of that lion’s den without bowing. “I think she was awesome,” she said. “She didn’t look snobbish, like other royals. She seemed like a really genuine person. She pointed to a picture of Diana cradling a sick child. “No other royal does this, not even celebrities don’t, maybe not even a decent human does, but she did.
“We’ve always been very intrigued by the royal family,” said Maria Melgar, 25, who came to the exhibit with her mother, Martha. “You hear Diana’s name everywhere. She had such a way of connecting with people. She introduced herself as someone you could relate to, one of us.
Diana and the media: she used them, and they used her. Until the day she died.
The story is an unreliable narrator, and many of the nuances of Diana’s life have faded in favor of a simpler story. She was not Cinderella: her family was aristocratic and friends of the queen. She moved in rarefied circles and was destined for a prestigious marriage, although a match with the Crown Prince was a coup for the Spencer family – Diana was the first English woman to marry an heir to the British throne in over 300 years.
When that union fell apart, Diana could have retired to live a quiet, low-key life apart from her husband – but that wasn’t her personality. The unspoken truth in her life (and in the photos) is how much Shy Di loved the attention and used the spotlight — first, because she loved it, and later in her ongoing battle with Charles and the Royal family. The constant paparazzi ultimately proved to be a Pandora’s box she couldn’t close, but her public service was both a true expression of compassion and a way to win the PR war.
The exhibit includes the infamous photo of Sad Diana alone at the Taj Mahal (paired with another of William and Kate at the same location), and Sassy Diana wearing the sexy black ‘revenge dress’ the night Charles publicly admitted his infidelity . Separation, Affairs and Divorce: The end of the fairy tale marked the beginning of Diana’s emergence as a modern role model. She was beautiful and stylish, but it was her vulnerability, her disappointment, her shipwreck that made her accessible.
“At first I wasn’t at all interested in her,” said Margaret Kizis. “Once I read Andrew Morton’s biography, I realized it wasn’t all about glamor and beauty – that she was in a lot of pain.” What Kizis admires the most is that Diana turned that suffering into helping others. “We’re all trying to ease our own pain and that’s not a bad thing to do. The sad thing is, I don’t think she realized how much people loved her back.
The 76-year-old has a treasure trove of books, magazine articles, figurines and porcelain about Diana which she hopes to one day auction off for charity. “She brought kindness into the world, and she touched so many people who needed love, who needed kindness, and who needed a little humanity.”
How Britain and the world mourned Diana, the ‘people’s princess’
This legacy was passed on to Diana’s sons, both of whom survived their mother. William, 40, has looked more like his father over the years – not surprisingly for a man who will one day become king. Harry, who turns 38 next month, has always had his mother’s touch and – now freed from the weight of royal duties – her defiance and sensitivity. The exhibit includes images of the brothers and their families, a nod to her influence then and now and what might have been had she lived.
“I think she was a woman ahead of her years, especially for women,” Taylor Stephens, 29, said. “She did a lot for women in that time – you can see that in the way she raised her boys. It set a precedent for the rest of the royal family – you can see that with Kate, you can see that with Meghan. She took what was a very reserved royal family and made them more human.
In the end, history will remember Diana in broad strokes: a beautiful princess, a lonely marriage, a champion of the wounded and disenfranchised, a woman who touched the untouchables.
“One of the things that I hope people will bring out is that they aspire to represent something good in the world,” said Skelliter, the exhibit’s curator. “Because Princess Diana did that, didn’t she?” She showed us how to be this committed grandma and how to navigate through an extraordinarily difficult scenario in a very delicate world that isn’t perfect. The world is still like that, and if we could look at her and say, ‘Okay, there’s hope for us’, that’s a net positive.”