From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
ON HER HONEYMOON SHE RAIDED THE GALLEY of the royal yacht, Britannia, for ice cream. At Windsor Castle a footman caught her scarfing down an entire steak-and-kidney pie. During an evening of bridge, friends saw her devour a pound of candy. And at a 1989 charity dinner in Manhattan, a guest watched with alarm while Princess Diana "hunched over her food and shoveled it in, broke the roll with her teeth, and used her finger for a pusher. It was astonishing."

Hardly what one would expect from a lithe specimen like the Princess of Wales—who, at 5'10", weighs in at about 127 lbs. But while she may have a humongous appetite, Diana. 31, has weathered two pregnancies, countless state dinners and 11 demanding years in the spotlight while keeping herself trim—and, at times, even gaunt.

Her secret, as revealed this summer with the publication of a trio of best-selling biographies, is not a pretty one. Though only Diana and the therapists who reportedly have treated her know for sure, the Princess is believed to have suffered from bulimia nervosa—the binge-and-purge syndrome that afflicts millions of American women. (See page 70.)

Since the palace cold-shoulders inquiries about her condition and few intimates are talking, details about her struggle are elusive. Insiders disagree about when the disease appeared, how severe it was and whether it is under control. Most, however, note that becoming a high-profile royal seems to have set off the bulimia and that marital difficulties aggravated the problem.

Lady Colin Campbell, author of the best-selling Diana in Private, claims the condition surfaced in 1981, when Diana, an enthusiastic nosher who then weighed about 145, was getting ready for her wedding. "She saw engagement pictures of herself looking heavy, and she promptly went on a diet," says Campbell. "She ate practically nothing, but she [eventually] went on binges. Then she'd make herself sick."

After a staff member witnessed one such incident, the Princess "was open and amusing about it at first. She said that she'd found this wonderful new way of dieting. But then it became a problem, and she was trapped in a downward spiral."

In his book Diana: Her True Story (excerpted in PEOPLE, June 22), Andrew Morton asserts that it was life with cold-fish Charles that sparked the disorder. Morton now says, "I think she slimmed before the wedding as a result of nerves, and then the whole thing was triggered during her honeymoon, when her husband put his arms round her and said, 'You are a bit chubby, darling.' "

Although Diana's stepgrandmother, romance novelist Barbara Cartland, calls Morton's book "a lot of rubbish," she has acknowledged that Diana "was very ill when she married." Even Penny Junor, Charles's biographer and most vocal apologist, doesn't deny that Diana suffers from bulimia. Junor absolves the Prince of responsibility, however, and claims that Diana's troubled childhood is the cause of her eating disorder.

Although it seems surprising that a personage as public as Diana could conceal her disorder for so long, one of Britain's leading experts on bulimia contends that bulimics are highly skilled at hiding their problem. "Patients are quite capable of continuing their business life," says Dr. Hubert Lacey, professor of psychiatry at St. George's Hospital Medical School in London. "Indeed it's usual for even husbands not to know anything about it."

Lacey refuses to comment on Diana's case, but the patient profile he describes is rife with similarities to the Princess' life: "Bulimia tends to occur in families where there are more girls than boy's, he says. "There [are] often problems in the parents' marriage, and a significant minority have fathers who have problems with alcohol.

Diana, of course, has a brother and two sisters—the eldest of whom, Sarah, was treated for anorexia in 1977, while Sarah was dating Prince Charles. Her parents divorced and began an acrimonious custody battle when Diana was 7, and though he was never publicly described as an alcoholic, her father, Earl Spencer, "had a drinking problem at times," says Campbell.

The disease is triggered, says Lacey, by "either the onset or the breakdown of [the victim's] first major emotional relationship, and usually [her] first sexualized relationship." According to all three biographers, Charles was Diana's first lover, and the relationship broke down shortly after its onset.

Suicide attempts, says Lacey, are not uncommon among bulimics. In his book Morton describes Diana issuing cries for help with shallow slashes on her chest and thighs. "If they cut themselves, they will usually do it where the cuts will not be seen," Lacey notes.

By Morton's account, Diana's problem was so pronounced by the late '80s that even her husband noticed. At mealtimes, he claims, Charles would sneer, "Is that going to reappear later? What a waste."

Campbell says that Diana refused treatment until 1988, insisting that she had no problem. When former flatmate Carolyn Bartholomew learned that her friend's depression and exhaustion might be caused by potassium depletion, she reportedly forced the Princess to seek help by threatening to tell the press.

According to both Morton and Campbell, in 1988, Diana began a course of treatment with Maurice Lipsedge, a fashionable physician and consulting psychiatrist at Guy's Hospital in London. By one report, he convinced her that her illness was a symptom of depression and that it could best be countered by attacking the depression itself.

Has the Princess been cured? Campbell has her doubts. Morton says Diana "has bouts from time to time when she feels under stress, but that is very rarely. It used to be every day, then it went to once every three weeks last year, and now she is just about clear."

As painful as it may have been, the Princess' struggle may have had an ironic benefit. "Diana herself is far more balanced and mature [now]," says Morton. "Having suffered much, she is now able to empathize with those who suffer far more. Whatever happens to her personally, it must be heartening for her to know that thousands of women have gone for help as a result of the publicity."