Voices: Diana changed what ‘being famous’ looked like — for the monarchy and for Hollywood

·4-min read
Britain Princess Diana (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Britain Princess Diana (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

I’ve been reporting on the British royals in a professional capacity for over a decade. But my interest in the House of Windsor goes back much further. Like many Americans, it began when a shy teenager named Diana Spencer agreed to marry the future king of England, Prince Charles. I was only a small child then, but their love story echoed the Disney fairytales that I — and many Americans — had been force-fed, and I felt drawn to it. At the time, none of us knew that the heroine of the story would eventually lay the groundwork for a whole new kind of narrative, one quite different from what the monarchy, and the world, was accustomed to.

For hundreds of years, the royals worked very hard to uphold the mystique that came with their titles. They strictly regulated their emotions and treated their subjects as little more than that: subjects. But Diana, Princess of Wales, chose to approach her role differently. Rather than simply smile politely while those around her bowed and curtsied, Diana chose to treat her admirers like fellow humans. She laughed with them and held their hands. She got down on the same level as children and played with them. She hugged people living with HIV and AIDS. She volunteered with people who were unhoused.

And this way of conducting herself went beyond royal business. In her private life, she raised her sons not just like future kings but like the boys they were — dressing them in blue jeans, taking them to Disney World, treating them to McDonalds, and teaching them to give back. When she spoke in public, she didn’t just stick with recaps of official visits, but talked openly about everything from her sense of isolation to the ways she was made to feel like a product. And in forging her own path, she chose not to keep up appearances, but instead do whatever she deemed necessary to live life on her own terms — even if it meant airing dirty laundry.

This humanity and vulnerability could not just be put back into the bottle once it was out. It spilled over into the rest of the Firm. Charles was soon revealing his complaints and insecurities, as well. So was Fergie. And in time, Diana’s sons grew up and spoke openly about their own mental health challenges. In Harry and Meghan’s case, they went further — talking about their confrontations with racism, experiences with PTSD, and more. And along with Kate, William and Harry, they launched the Heads Together initiative, to destigmatize and fund mental health services.

Some have argued (particularly Meghan’s critics) that this version of royalty — which talks openly about difficult feelings, and breaks down the barriers between the throne and those previously deemed unapproachable — diminishes the mystery and power of the monarchy. But I’d say the opposite is true. If anything, when our most storied figures reveal their vulnerabilities, they grow even more impressive in our eyes. They strike us as brave. And they become people we can more easily project ourselves onto. They become more like modern celebrities than old-school sovereigns. In 2022, that can only be a good thing.

I suspect Diana understood this. After all, the world embraced her tighter and tighter the more she opened up. And she embraced them back.

Notably, this version of modern celebrity isn’t exclusive to the royals. Since the rise of Diana’s star, we’ve seen many in Hollywood draw from her same playbook: from Brooke Shields revealing her struggles with postpartum depression in her 2006 book “Down Came The Rain”, to Beyoncé telling the Sun in 2011 that her mother urged her to take care of her wavering mental health, to Lady Gaga speaking unapologetically to the Daily Mirror in 2013 about her use of antidepressants. In all these cases, we see glamor mixed with vulnerability. We see relatability in people who are otherwise unrelatable. And we see all these struggles (or, more accurately, all the struggles our idols choose to curate and discuss) expertly packaged and presented to the public — often in interviews with Oprah Winfrey, as when Shields went on her promotional book tour.

Of course, things have come full circle. Fergie, Meghan, and Harry have also opened up to Oprah. And Meghan, a Hollywood star who grew up in a celebrity eco-system informed by Diana, knew the power of relatability long before marrying into the Firm.

And so, it could be said that Diana’s legacy is that she reinvented fame. Or that she blurred the line between sovereign and subject. But I’d say she did much more than that. She made all our struggles a little less shameful, and in the process, ushered in an era in which we can all see each other as a little bit more human.

Kristen Meinzer is co-host of Newsweek’s Royal Report