It’s been 20 years since Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a Paris tunnel following a car accident, so why are there still countless TV specials and documentaries, tributes and songs, montages and testaments dedicated to her, even now?
Simply put, why aren’t we able to let her go?
Diana was the People’s Princess
While Diana wasn’t exactly born into poverty — her aristocratic family, the Spencers, definitely had royal blood — she was still viewed as “outside” the English monarchy. Growing up, her parents divorced and she went to public school, and she experienced things many other people her age were experiencing. This was ultimately one of the keys to Diana’s appeal: even if she had been given some of the finer things in life, the public viewed her as one of them.
After leaving school, she got a job as a nanny and part-time cook, and later became an assistant kindergarten teacher. These aren’t jobs normally held by royals, not by any stretch. She first met her future husband, Charles, at age 16 while working at the school, and the rest is history.
Post-marriage, Diana frequently did things in the public eye that were out of the ordinary and shook the very foundations of the typical royal protocol. Aside from raising her two sons, William and Harry, as “normally” as possible, perhaps her most notable action was in 1987, when she shook the hand of an HIV-positive man. Up until that point, no one had ever done that on TV, and HIV/AIDS phobia was at its peak.
“My first impression of Diana is that she was warm, sophisticated, elegant and smart,” said John O’Reilly, who worked at London Middlesex Hospital, where Diana visited. “This was Diana, Princess of Wales, coming in gloveless and shaking everybody’s hands, our patients as well as ours. That was very moving. If a royal was allowed to go in and shake a patient’s hand, that means somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same. I think she really educated people.”
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Diana also intersected with celebrities and was the first royal family member to do so. It elevated her into the fame stratosphere.
“She was one of the first non-pop culture celebrities to really intersect with pop culture, especially music,” said Max Valiquette, a marketing strategist and VP/Head of Planning. “I think that has an impact because of the celebrities who were close to her. We remember her more because we also remember Elton John remembering her, George Michael remembering her. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Margaret Trudeau at Studio 54. The culture of fame shines a reflective light, too, and it makes those subjects glow even brighter. Brad Pitt is famous, and Angelina Jolie is famous — but Brangelina were really famous. A princess who also hangs out with rock stars? That’s something bigger than just a princess.”
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Amanda Alvaro, president of Pomp & Circumstance PR, agrees.
“From the moment her mega-wedding was watched by over 17-million people, she was coined a style icon and became the most photographed woman in the world,” she said. “And because of that, she appeared more ‘Hollywood’ than ‘royal’ — glamorous, gorgeous and yet accessible. People fell for it, they fell for her. And once they did, they couldn’t get enough of her. She was media savvy and media gold.”
Diana bucked authority
Diana was only 20 years old when she married Charles in a massive, extravagant wedding. She was the first Englishwoman in 300 years to become the spouse of an heir apparent and was also the first-ever royal bride to have paying employment before her engagement.
From the start of the pair’s union, rumours swirled that Queen Elizabeth wasn’t very enamoured with her son’s choice of spouse. The media ran with that assumption and still does, though it’s unclear how much truth there is to it.
The story goes that Diana never fully embraced the royal life, and because of her more “common” upbringing, always longed to go back to a life out of the public eye. This is why she strove to raise her sons the way she did, and this reportedly perturbed the Queen.
Diana seemed to actively resist royal instruction, like calling the security personnel by their first names (instead of their last names), throwing typical schoolboy birthday parties for Harry and William, and chatting with chefs in the Buckingham Palace kitchen. For comparison, consider that Queen Elizabeth visited the kitchen once a year, and met all the chefs lined up in a row.
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Perhaps most daring of all was Diana’s interview with BBC reporter Martin Bashir in 1995, which humiliated the royal family on international TV. Diana spilled the beans on her affair with her riding instructor James Hewitt, she spoke candidly about Charles’ infidelities and perhaps worst of all, described Charles’ side as the “enemy” and said the monarchy was outdated and needed to be modernized.
Things soften with time, and in 2016, when the Queen was talking to a royal reporter, the subject of Princes Harry and William came up, and she allegedly said, “Perhaps, after all, we have rather a lot to thank Diana for.”
Diana faced adversity
Sure, she was wed into the royal family so you could argue that any adversity she faced paled in comparison to the average person.
But Diana’s life wasn’t all roses and carriage rides: she famously battled bulimia, struggled with postpartum depression and self-harm, cheated and was cheated on — among other things — all while under intense media scrutiny. These ordeals made Diana relatable to the public and somehow separated her from the rest of the royals.
As her brother Charles Spencer said at her funeral, “Diana remained throughout [her life] a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others, so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness.”
Patrick Jephson, Diana’s former private secretary, agrees with Spencer, and believes she was able to overcome all of her personal strife by thoroughly dedicating herself to others.
“Part of [her] appeal is that her experiences – love, motherhood, betrayal, divorce, renewal – are understood and shared by millions worldwide,” said Jephson in January 2016. “What’s more, her courage in adversity and her unswerving devotion to humanitarian causes despite her personal unhappiness make her a role model for all those – women especially – who aspire to see good things come from misfortune. Duty, beauty, and sacrifice are powerful cross-cultural images and Princess Diana will always be celebrated as the graceful embodiment of all three.”
Diana was the first modern-day “ex-royal”
When Diana and Charles separated in 1992, she was charting unnavigated waters. In modern-day, a royal on that scale has never departed the royal family, especially someone so well-known around the world. In late 1993, she announced that she was withdrawing from public life.
In her speech, she said that her top priorities were her sons and her own privacy. Generally, the public was accepting of her request, though cameras would follow her and flash behind her for the rest of her days.
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In July 1996, the couple officially divorced. Buckingham Palace said that Diana would always be a member of the royal family because she was the mother of the second and third in line to the throne, and post-divorce she returned to her double apartment in Kensington Palace. She still had access to many royal perks, including a rather large monthly stipend from Charles, but in the public’s eyes, Diana had split herself from her oppressor and was now free to live life as she chose.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple, but Diana did pare down her life in many ways. Her friends, her flashy style, and personal extravagance all dwindled visibly after her divorce, which, somehow, drew people to her even more.
Diana died suddenly, and tragically
Most people can point to what they were doing when they found out about Diana’s accident and then, shortly afterward, her death at the age of 36. The mysterious elements and questions surrounding her death — was the chauffeur really that drunk? Did the paparazzi get too close? Would she have survived if she was wearing her seatbelt? Was she pregnant with Dodi al-Fayed’s child? — only add gasoline to the inquisitive fire.
When a famous person dies, the public is likely to make them into a martyr, but what happens when that person is already pretty close to sainthood in the public’s eyes? In death, Diana became an almost otherworldly figure, an icon on the level of Mother Teresa or Gandhi.
This was made clear by the crowds of people lining the street as her coffin passed by. There were audible cries of sorrow, voices shouting “Diana! Diana!” and roses thrown on her coffin, materializing from what appeared to be thin air.
Witnesses describe it as being so silent you could hear a pin drop, despite the literal thousands of people in the crowds.
“The tragedy of her death and the conspiracies that surrounded it made the public even more obsessed,” said Alvaro. “She very well may have been more popular in death than in life, spurring a story and legacy that has captured our rapt attention for two solid decades.”
Even if she somehow managed to survive that car accident, Alvaro believes her fame would still be just as strong.
“Given the public’s continued interest and intrigue of the royal family (and ex-royals), Diana would have continued to dominate headlines with her relationships, style and humanitarian work,” she said. “And her reported interest in moving to the U.S. would have only compounded the paparazzi’s attraction and access to her.”
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Interestingly, when she died is also as important as how she died.
“She died when there was still a monoculture, but there was also the internet and cellular,” said Valiquette. “This is critical: She was of a time in which there were still a limited number of media channels and outlets, comparatively, but there was also an internet that allowed a lot of us already to share information. We hadn’t fractured the celebrity landscape… yet … but when she died we were able to share information more quickly. Being one of the most famous women in the world meant something different than it does now, because there were far fewer famous people. But we were able to talk about her with more people about it more easily.”
Diana may have died on that fateful day in 1997, but she has never truly died in our hearts, and as we’ve seen over the last two decades, she’s nowhere close to being forgotten.