This story was originally published in the August 2017 Princeton Echo.
‘Think of her as the Girl Next Door, a blue-eyed blonde with a peaches and Devonshire cream complexion.” Those are the first words ever to appear in People magazine about Princess Diana — back in February 1981 when she was still Lady Diana Spencer. Over the next 16 years this dewy eyed schoolteacher would become the most famous woman in the world — the living symbol of celebrity excess and the weaponization of gossip. She appeared on the cover of People 57 times — a whole year’s worth of weekly magazine covers — and more certainly await us during the 20th anniversary of her death this coming August 31.
As the head editor of People, Princeton resident Landon Jones followed Diana from her courtship by Prince Charles when she was 19 to her death in a car crash in Paris at 36. As we talk, he spreads out an array of People’s Diana covers on my kitchen table. Suddenly I am being judged by 57 different Dianas. Here she is shy, there she is angry, here she is anxious, there she is glamorous. Here she is teary, there she is radiant in an evening dress. I read the insistent headlines, “Home Alone,” “Battle for the Boys,” “He Never Loved Her,” “Diana on the Edge,” “Malice in the Palace,” “The War of the Wales.”
At the last two headlines, Jones begins to smile. “Yes, yes,” he says. “We had a lot of fun thinking up headlines for our Diana stories. She was in all respects a gold mine for People and the rest of the media. In a way, Diana was the first reality show: the Real Housewife of Kensington Palace.”
Jones believes that “Diana defined the first stage of the modern celebrity period — when the relationship between media and celebrity became mutually beneficial. She manipulated the press to make it work for her. And we were glad to cooperate. We used to say that the ideal People cover story was about a young woman with a problem —and with Diana we had a very glamorous woman with a very big problem. To put it another way, we did cover stories about three things: death, diet, and Diana. She pushed all three of those buttons.”
As I browse through the huge pile of magazines on my kitchen table, it’s like looking through her personal photo album. I see the years flashing by in highlights. This album begin with Shy Di, the fairy-tale marriage, the birth of her two sons. Then the tone darkens — there is gossip, the cold in-laws, the straying husband, the marital quarrels, divorce, sadness, bulimia, death. This picture album is filled with sadness, yet always decorated with the most breezy captions. It is painful to imagine what the album would look like had she lived to become a 56-year-old grandmother today.
The last charity Diana was working on before her death was the removal of deadly landmines from battle zones like Bosnia and Angola. In one of the final stories about her work, she wears protective gear as she walks through such a minefield. The symbolism is spot-on. It is impossible not to think of her ex-husband, his family, the press, and all those who benefited from her misfortune as the landmines she tried so hard to maneuver around.
I look at her in her bulletproof vest and plastic face shield, standing next to a warning sign with a fierce death’s head on it. This is not the fashionista who appeared in so many magazines. This is a woman with a problem.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” has just been published in the United States. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.