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Why Princess Diana still fascinates us

When the news of Princess Diana's death broke, it seemed unbelievable and unthinkable. Yet, ten years on, it seems not much has changed. We are still reporting on it and the world is still fascinated by her legacy. NBC News' Chris Hampson reports from London.
Diana At Nemazura
Princess Diana visits the Nemazura feeding center for refugees in Zimbabwe in July 1993.Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

LONDON — I was walking back into the newsroom when a colleague rushed past me and, over his shoulder, turned and said: “She’s dead.”

And I said: “Don’t joke. She can’t be.”

It took a while for me to grasp what had happened. It was too big, too unthinkable.

At that moment, and in the hours and days that followed, my own reaction was multiplied many millions of times, as the news sank in around the world.

Princess Diana was young, beautiful and brimming with life. She was a princess. She was the devoted mother of a future king, and was once destined herself to be queen of England.

Surely my friend was mistaken?

The next days were long and largely sleepless, as the tragedy of that crazed, deadly dash into a tunnel in Paris unfolded piece by piece, and the world’s media reported around the clock each and every development in the unfolding drama.

Ten years on, it seems not much has changed. We are still reporting it. Still talking about it.

Still fascinated
There are some moments you truly never forget. For millions of people — whether they liked her or loathed her — Diana’s death is one of them.

In those strange days and months that followed, there began an outpouring of public grief that my country has seldom, if ever, seen. Though we have lived through many disasters, both natural and manmade, it was unparalleled.

It was as if we’d been cheated of something.

There are, of course, those who say: “Move on. Too much fuss. We don’t care.” There are many who are embarrassed by the outburst of sentimentality that followed and persists to this day. Others, a far fewer number, say: “We never cared.”

But many — here and around the world — are still fascinated, still moved, some perhaps even still grieving, for the woman Prime Minister Tony Blair memorably described on the morning of her death as “the people’s princess.”

I remember his words at the time, and the effect they had. It was as if he was validating the nation’s immediate — and continuing — emotional involvement. In three words, he put a title on the legend that Diana had become.

Royals — aloof, distant figures
For my part, I confess, I have never much loved the royals.

There is in my country, without doubt, a widespread respect for the institution and what it represents. But to my hard-working parents and to me, they were distant and detached, living behind the high walls of their palaces and country estates, while the rest of us muddled through as best we could.

Other than having to stand up whenever the national anthem was played in public, the royals didn’t much impact my life. They were figures in the landscape.

The newspapers largely used to keep their distance, too. The royal family was protected, respected, their lives lived mostly on a pedestal. No paparazzi then. Not much reporting of their private lives. It simply wasn’t done.

That’s not to say the public wasn’t fascinated by them, or that they were perfect.

Queen Mother Elizabeth was known to have a taste for gin and a love for the horses.

The queen’s sister — the late Princess Margaret — was famously flirtatious. (And she, too, liked a drink.) At 43, married and a mother, she fell in love with a garden designer 18 years her junior. Their affair scandalized her family and much of the country. Five years later she became the first member of the immediate royal family to divorce since King Henry VIII.

For the most part, however, the royals remained aloof, cocooned from their subjects.

Suddenly, something different
Then, into this starched and diamond-encrusted world, burst Diana like a gust of wind blowing over a desert. She was natural, shy and pretty. The man she was to marry, on the other hand, was awkward, restrained and older than his years. It seems strange now that anyone might ever have thought them well-matched.

But they fell in love (“Whatever 'in love' means,” as Prince Charles revealingly told a TV interviewer on his engagement to Diana) and the country fell in love with them. Their wedding in 1981 was a giant street party across the United Kingdom. Never were the words “fairy-tale romance" so overused — or undeserved. 

Charles was already committed to Camilla, and never wavered. As Diana famously later said: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

What made this truly different was the media’s — and thence the public’s —obsession with the royal couple. Was there ever a woman more photographed than Diana, or ever so much interest in a marriage? And was there ever a breakup played out so much in public?

It was unprecedented and bloody. In 1994, after years of unhappiness, Charles went on TV and confessed his adultery.  A year later the princess gave her own interview and admitted to hers. It was astonishing, tit-for-tat, toe-curling stuff.

A doe-eyed princess talked of her husband, his affair, her own misjudged extramarital relations, her depression, her bulimia, her in-laws.

We’d never heard a royal talk this way: “Friends of my husband's were indicating that I was unstable, sick and should be put in a home of some sort to get better so I wouldn't be an embarrassment."

And, tellingly, this: “The most daunting aspect was the media attention, because my husband and I, we were told when we got engaged that the media would go quietly, and it didn't; and then when we were married they said it would go quietly and it didn't; and then it started to focus very much on me, and I seemed to be on the front of a newspaper every single day … and the higher the media put you, place you, is the bigger the drop.”

She didn’t know how right she was. As she dined at the Ritz Hotel in Paris on Aug. 30, 1997, she was surrounded yet again by the press.

The role photographers played in her ensuing death in the early hours of the next morning is still disputed. But what seems certain is that she was trying to get away from them when her car drove at high speed into the narrow Alma tunnel by the Seine.

As the world now knows, her driver, Henri Paul, lost control, smashed into a concrete pillar and bounced into the wall at close to 80 mph.

Ten years on, the fascination seems barely to have diminished.

Legacy continues
Some weeks ago I attended the Concert for Diana at London’s Wembley Stadium and watched as two young men spoke nervously to a crowd of thousands and a TV audience of millions.

Prince William and Prince Harry have grown up since we saw those two young boys walking with great dignity behind the gun carriage carrying their mother’s casket.

On the stage at Wembley they spoke proudly and warmly of their mother — and the crowd embraced them for it.  The cheers that greeted their every appearance seemed to me to speak as much about Diana as of them. They truly are her boys.

The concert was punctuated with video of the princess of Wales doing what she wanted to be best known for — meeting people during her work for charities. 

What struck you was her genuine compassion. In one scene she allows a blind man to move his fingers over her face.  In another she hugs an AIDS patient — in one simple action cutting through the ignorance and prejudice that surrounds this condition.  Here, for the first time, was a royal who truly was in touch with ordinary people.

The contrast was never more stark when, in the first days after Diana’s death, the queen seemed not to understand what was happening among her subjects.

When she did emerge from behind the palace gates, and saw for herself what was going on right outside her windows, she responded by addressing the nation on TV.  Not just as their queen — but as a “grandmother.”

The use of that simple word, identifying herself as an ordinary person as much as a monarch, marked in my view a turning point in the public’s perception. You could almost feel their anger beginning to recede.

Legacy lives on in her sons
If Diana could have chosen her legacy, she could not have done better than her two boys. William and Harry are her ambassadors, championing the causes she supported.

They have a strong and affectionate bond with their father, who rose to the challenge of raising them after Diana’s death. Their generous acceptance of their stepmother, Camilla, has made it easier for the public to accept her too.

Like their mother, they continue to attract the unrelenting attention of the media, sometimes for what the tabloids love to portray as their occasional wild behavior, but what most parents will tell you is pretty normal in men of their age.  And “normal” is not a word long associated with royalty.

As for Diana’s epitaph, she effectively spoke her own in that remarkable TV interview three years before her death when she said: “I'd like to be a queen of people's hearts, in people's hearts, but I don't see myself being queen of this country…”

She was right. Never queen of England. But, although to some she had become more flawed celebrity than royalty, she is still most people's queen of hearts.