Diana, Queen of people's hearts

 

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Category: Profiles Date: 04 Sep 97


“She was a diamond in their dull gray lives, that’s the hardest kind of stone, it usually survives.”   Evita

 

I’ve spent the last few days soaking up Princess Diana’s death - flicking channels for hours for a new picture, more information, neglecting chores, shuffling in the lethargic way you do when you’re at a loss, taking it personally. Unable to do much. Like millions of others.

 

You know she’s dead. You hear the latest, but you see her emerge on TV from a limo sleek in a short white dress, or sexy in a beaded black number walking to the podium, or shouting with laughter in an amusement park with her children, or classic in a blue suit and you don’t believe it. But as the newscasters move on to a non Diana story the full loss hits you. She is already becoming the past.

 

My husband looked puzzled at what he thought was my inordinate reaction to the death of someone who was essentially “a nice,supermodel type who wasted taxpayers money on trips to the South of France.” I went back to the TV. I couldn’t defend the fact that she never had to worry about money, that her one dress could feed a poor family for a lifetime, and one jewel several villages, that she didn’t have an O’level subject, that she was a jet setter who never wore a designer dress twice, skied on the Alps, soaked in the sun in the South of France and frolicked on yachts.

 

“And who is this Santa Evita, why all this howling hysterical sorrow, what kind of goddess has lived among us, how will we ever get by without her?” Evita

 

The world dimmed the day the princess died. “The whole of Britain is crying on the streets. We’ve never seen anything like it, nor will we again,” said my cynical BBC friend on the phone (who once said the monarchy was a waste of time), sounding as shocked as the elderly 71-year-old grandmother from Caripachima, who was as shaken as President Clinton, who was as grieved as Mother Theresa, who felt just as much loss as the weeping Elizabeth Taylor, who was as tearful as the big black man clutching the palace rails, who felt it as much as the mother of five as she added her lilies to one of her growing monument of flowers.  Sorrow and rage at her death spread like lightening across continents. “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made,” intoned the Archbishop of Canterbury in the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral as three quarters of a billion people in 74 countries watched as the Princess swathed in 40 yards of silk, with a 25 foot long train, and her prince in his Royal Navy commanders uniform pledged to stay together for the rest of their lives.

 

Even more people will watch the funeral on Saturday from Berlin to Argentina. The fairytale is not supposed to end with the princess in a slim coffin stored in a cold room in St James Palace. Since her wedding day in 1981, she became part of life for millions. Ordinary people, couldn’t get enough of her - they lined up to see her in almost every country of the world.  She had a thousand expressions, each tantalising. She could be bashful or brazen, somber or sultry, poised or playful.  Her face appeared 44 times on People magazine alone.

 

But it can’t have been her beauty alone, or her clothes although she was to become a diva of style or the well toned body, or the jewels, or the famous layered blonde crop of hair she spent TT$140,000 on yearly. Or the fact that she was born an aristocrat, married royalty, looked, lived and dressed like a superstar. Or that she was the princess who had it all.

 

She wanted to dance with John Travolta. “Sure,” said former American President Reagan, “I’ll organise it,” and invited Travolta to a ball in the White House to dance with the princess. Her sons wanted to meet models Claudia and Naomi so she invited them to tea at Kensington Palace. As magnetic as her formula was, it alone could not account for this universal sorrow - for the feeling as one woman put it, that her death was a personal tragedy. “In all the world your heart was the most human.” - mourner’s note to Princess Diana.

 

Let us then peel off the layer of tinsel and look at the heart that was the most human. Like every bride she married with “tremendous hopes in my heart.” But very early she learned that her prince was unfaithful, that the palace expected her to deliver an heir and be quiet. The prince criticised her clothes, and her plebeian activities like visits to McDonalds and taste for Michael Jackson’s music. The Queen Mother expected her to put up with infidelity - a small price to pay for being queen one day. But we admire her because she didn’t toe the line. She cried in public when she was moved, shouted off photographers, and took her children to Disneyland and to visit AIDS patients.

 

They tried to restrain her - cancelled trips and gave her pressure. Her husband became cold and disapproving after it was apparent that she was more popular than he.  She suffered from intense loneliness. When her mother-in-law the Queen learned she had bulimia she said it was a waste of food. Before and after her divorce the “palace” controlled the children, leaving her alone one Christmas to watch TV. But she was always there for sons William and Harry on the first day in school, for the forehead that needed stitches, teaching them laughter and love for ordinary people. She was isolated but instead of buckling she fought back. She eschewed dull Harrods suits, slicked back her hair wore defiant little dresses by Versace and Catherine Walker. They took away her title “Your Royal Highness”.

 

She gave a frank interview to the BBC, revealed she had an affair and her captive audience understood. And sympathised. When her husband gave a rejoinder she wickedly wore a little black number and took away attention from him. All eyes were on her. She single-handedly popularised and modernised the British monarchy. She beat them at their own game. And her triumph was a triumph for everyone who suffered. But she remained the outcast, the dispossessed in her royal environment. She found love amongst the people. She wept openly in a hospice, cradled HIV positive children in her arms, held hands of people with AIDS at a time no one would go near them, touched lepers, visited the bereaved in council houses, talked to battered women, and bent down to talk to the disabled and the old.

 

In giving and receiving love among them, she found her vocation and came into her own. She was humble enough to need the people and the people loved her for it. She eschewed ladling soup to the poor and instead took up the fight against land mines in Somalia. Others may have done more but Diana alone had the power to popularise the plight of those in distress. And she did it. She took her weapons of style and popularity and used them to raise millions of pounds for charities. All she had to do was to be there. So she became the people’s princess. She belonged to them and they to her. And her glitter rubbed off on the people. And their love on her. So that when she died, the people lost their glitter and mourned. The princess with the common touch. Was she a spiritual leader? Yes if you define spirituality as someone who cared about the dispossessed.

 

She remained a single woman, essentially alone, although she flirted with many. Finally she found someone she might have loved. But in four weeks she died tragically in a car accident. People said there would never be another like her yet they could not say why.  It is as if she was predestined to become immortal. Her death has been likened to a Greek tragedy.  She is the ‘90s legacy to posterity - Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis and Evita Peron rolled in one. Her short life cut at 36, will contribute to her immortality. She will always be young beautiful glamorous, compelling. She will not fade away, as she predicted in a 1995 interview with the BBC.

 

People are saying world reaction has been similar to the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, John Lennon. They speculate that her final resting place in her childhood estate Althorp will become a shrine. Already money is pouring into the charities she supported. Whether the paparazzi (not mainstream media - freelance photographers who can command as much as a million pounds for a photograph of Diana) had a direct hand in her death as her brother said or not, they have ironically also been instrumental in immortalising her.

 

Modern culture (much of it dictated by American values spread by cable TV) created the paparazzi.  In an age of flash and conspicuous consumption, of a widening gap between rich and poor, ordinary struggling people use celebrity icons as a means of escaping their dreary lives. The one cycle encouraged the other. Even as the rich and famous needed to inject new pleasures to make a high life interesting, the poor and the obscure needed to see it.

 

Soon it was not enough to get pictures of the formal events, but the street pics, the gym, the real life ‘Young and Restless’. At times the princess courted them to outshine her husband, to raise money for charity, to revel in her fame and beauty. They used her too. Perhaps the answer to the question of who used the other more will be clearer when the paparazzi take their final shots of the woman who was always running from them out of the gym, out of coffee shops, shielding her children, crying “I’m a parent-leave us alone” and covering a camera lens with her hand.

 

When they snap the funeral procession of the woman who had her photo taken a minute after she was informed of her fathers death, who once cried from frustration after yet another photo was taken in a private moment. Perhaps it will take the shot of her lying lifeless once and for all to put an end to the debate of when to draw the line. The drunk driver has already paid the ultimate price for her death. Up to press time, the remaining royals have not acknowledged the mountain of mourners flowers, nor put up the flag at Buckingham palace at half mast, but they can’t deny Diana, Queen of people’s hearts, her proper send off. The people will give her that.

 

“I think the biggest disease this world suffers from is people feeling unloved. I can give love; I’m very happy to do that, and I want to do that.”

Diana, Princess of Wales - (1961-1997)

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur