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People Top 5
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- July 16, 1990
- Vol. 34
- No. 2
Princess with a Purpose
Once Only a Pretty Accessory, Diana Has Forged a Powerful—and Surprising—New Role at the Palace
That September 1980 photo helped fire a fascination with Lady Diana Spencer, now the Princess of Wales, that has continued unabated. Even today, as she approaches the start of her second decade in our consciousness, she remains the most closely watched public beauty since Jacqueline Onassis. And like a hothouse flower, Diana has blossomed under the glare. The guileless girl in the schoolyard has become a seasoned royal performer who, with her elegant silk suits and wide-brimmed hats, not only looks the part, but lives it, forging an emotional connection with her countrymen that few other Windsors have achieved.
It is a touch that extends beyond Britain as well. In May, when Diana and Charles made the first official royal visit to Eastern Europe since before the Iron Curtain, Zsuzsa Goncz, wife of the interim President of Hungary, was so overcome, she began to cry. Confident and caring, Diana simply took her hand.
"Diana was only 19 when Charles began courting her, and a great many people said that she would make him younger," observes Brian Hoey, a former BBC court correspondent and author of Anne, the Princess Royal, Her Life and Work. "The fact is, she hasn't, but she herself has matured. He is a rather old 41-year-old, and she has become the most self-assured 29-year-old that I have ever known. She also realizes that she is one of the most sought-after women in the world, and this gives her tremendous confidence."
Among her most engaging traits: the ability to be thoroughly modern in her role. Relaxed, cheerful, energetic, she has largely disproven Walter Bagehot's Victorian decree that to retain the royal mystique, "We must not let in daylight upon magic." Diana in daylight has rarely revealed a blemish. "Before she met Charles, she was extremely unsophisticated. She used to giggle a lot," says a nonroyal relative. "When I see her now, she acts very down-to-earth and very kind. If royal life has changed her, it has only made her more mature."
Mature enough, observers agree, to sit next to her husband when he ascends the throne. (Diana, like the Queen Mum, will be Queen Consort, the nonruling wife of a monarch.) Although Queen Elizabeth, still robust at 64, shows no sign of abdicating—and, in the tradition of the British monarchy, will probably carry the scepter until her death—Charles and Diana in recent years have begun to shoulder more of her royal duties. While in London, Charles often receives dignitaries such as the Crown Prince Bir Bikran Shah Dev of Nepal and the Crown Prince Sidi Mohamed of Morocco in his offices at St. James's Palace. He and Diana have also been energetically traveling for Her Majesty within the kingdom and abroad. In March, they rushed to North Wales—he from a Swiss skiing holiday, she from their home in Kensington Palace—to comfort the victims of a devastating flood. In addition to their Hungarian foray, they have visited Nigeria, Cameroon and the Philippines in the past year, and a trip to Brazil is scheduled for October. A clear sign of the Queen's confidence in Diana is that the Princess has also been making more solo trips—notably, a visit to New York City in 1989 to attend the American debut of the Welsh National Opera and a forthcoming trip to Pakistan at the invitation of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Still, such stately rounds—and the accompanying new respect—don't preclude the occasional unwelcome intrusion by the press. Last fall, for example, after seven days spent in the stifling heat of Indonesia and Hong Kong, Di was snapped swimming in a red halter bathing suit by a Hong Kong photographer who had gained sight lines to her rooftop pool from a nearby high rise. "The incident epitomizes the dilemma of being Diana," wrote a wryly sympathetic Sunday Times. "How is she ever—short of abandoning her blond highlights, gaining a couple of stone and slobbering around in unprincess-like clothes—to be taken as anything more than an exquisitely coiffed airhead?"
That she has become a great deal more, in most people's eyes, is a tribute to her pluck, persistence and resilience. Taking an ill-defined job and giving it a modern twist, Diana has given the British public a possible model for a 21st-century monarch. Easily, in the Princess who is brave enough to visit victims of an IRA bombing at Enniskillen in Northern Ireland and daring enough to dance onstage at both the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Opera House, we can see a fascinating and remarkable Queen Consort-to-be.
Di on Display: Canny and Caring
An activist Princess, Diana has also taken on such gritty social issues as homelessness and drug abuse. She has visited leprosariums in Nigeria and Indonesia, and her visit to an AIDS ward at Middlesex Hospital two years ago prompted reporter Judy Wade, a member of the so-called rat pack that covers the royal family, to tell Vanity Fair, "Shaking hands with an AIDS patient is the most important thing a royal's done in 200 years."
Diana has learned how to use her high profile to boost the bottom line of the causes she supports. She is the patron of 44 charities and last year made more than 180 visits on their behalf, significantly increasing their fund-raising power. "I think she has realized her position can be of great advantage to people who need help in life," says London TV personality Mike Smith. "Her patronage has a commercial value."
It also comes with a personal touch. "The patients always remark afterward how human she is," says Debbie Newbury of the charity Turning Point, which deals with alcohol and drug abuse. "One client said she felt like his sister."
Although Diana is thoroughly briefed before each public appearance and has been coached in public speaking by film director Sir Richard Attenborough, her royal style seems straight from the heart. "There's a question of how bright she is. But I believe that what she lacks in academic capability, she more than makes up in charm and other qualities," says a palace source. "Diana is prepared to speak to the old and young for hours on end, week after week, and do it delightfully and give them a tremendous boost in life."
Last year the Princess became patron of Relate, Britain's leading marriage counseling agency, after attending a training session in which counselors acted out the roles of a couple arguing. "She was riveted," recalls David French, Relate's director. In February Diana gave a moving address to a crowd of about 200 at Relate's Family of the Year ceremony. "Marriage offers stability, and maybe that is why nearly 7,000 couples a week begin new family lives of their own," said Diana. "Sadly, for many, reality fails to live up to expectations. When that happens, most couples draw on new reserves of love and strength."
Public Peace, Separate Lives
Unfortunately, the Princess knows only too well about such realities. In recent years Charles's disenchantment with the wife all others adore has become painfully apparent, and Diana's vision of her role as Princess has lost many of its fairy-tale edges. "She is prepared to make sacrifices to maintain her position, the main one being marital happiness," says a palace source. "If she was in love with Charles once, I don't believe she is now."
The problems in the marriage seem to stem not so much from the 12-year age gap but from their different interests, social incompatibility and Charles's refusal to accommodate anyone beyond himself. "Diana has to turn a blind eye to the fact of how incredibly selfish Charles is," says a close observer. "He is a man who insists on getting his own way and gets cross and bad-tempered and childish if anybody thwarts him. He expects everybody to kowtow to him, to bow and scrape, and he has tried to treat his wife in the same way."
Strain in the marriage first became apparent after the birth of Prince Harry in 1984 but grew to embarrassing proportions in the fall of 1987 when the British tabloids started marking the days the couple spent apart. The publicity became so overwhelmingly negative that the Queen reportedly summoned the couple to her quarters one evening to address the problem. While the conversation that night will never be known, after the meeting Charles and Di did appear more civil in public.
Intimates, however, say the state of the marriage remains unchanged, and these sources further hint that Charles follows the royal tradition of seeking companionship with discreet women within the royal circle. "He has made very little concession to the fact that he's married with two children," says a palace source. "If he wants to go off fishing in Scotland alone for six weeks, he just does it. And it doesn't cross his mind that Diana might in fact quite like him to be at home."
On average, Diana goes out socially two nights a week—without Charles. Her favorite haunts are the movies, the ballet, the theater and the opera (further proof of how far she and Charles are estranged, since he is an opera buff but both usually choose to attend solo). "For three years she was very subservient to him. Now she is far less so," continues the source. "Now she'll say, 'Fine, you go ahead and give your dinner parties at Kensington Palace with all these stuffy old men, but I'm not going to be there. I'm going to the cinema with my friends.' "
Those same friends, though, expect some renewed warmth in the future—if only for the sake of the succession. "I want three more babies, but I haven't told my husband yet," Diana was overheard confiding to dinner companions last fall. When a rash of unfounded pregnancy rumors followed, one palace wag quickly quipped, "The biggest news would be that they are actually sleeping together."
Reining in the Princes
If Charles doesn't often share the bed with Diana—he frequently sleeps in the single bed in his dressing room—son Harry may. His and Wills's rooms are on the second floor of Kensington Palace, and Diana, like many an indulgent mom, is said to allow the 5-year-old Harry to climb into the couple's four-poster when his sleep is troubled. During the school year, Diana drops the boys off at Wetherby School shortly before 9 and tries to finish her appointments by 3 so she'll be home when they return. "Her children," says someone who sees her often, "are the overwhelming priority in her life."
Diana's reputation as a concerned parent extends to a hands-on approach that caused some controversy last month at a school sports day she attended with Prince William, 8. When Wills ignored Di's summons to leave, recalls photographer Jim Bennett, "She followed him onto the field, caught up with him and gave him a smart slap to his backside. William just started crying. The Princess was clearly angry."
The paddling was not William's first. While Harry is a loving, often clinging child, Wills has the reputation of a hellion. At school such pranks as pretending to grab his teacher's bottom earned him the nursery school nickname Billy the Basher. Spanking may be the only way Diana can tame him. "She sounds pretty human," said the prominent American pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, when told of her response. "What Princess Di did, and what I probably would have done, too, is to react in a way that lets the boy know that you really mean it."
Charles, on the other hand, would seldom engage in such a public display of pique—or affection. The dignified and distant relationship he has with his sons reflects the Prince's own relationship with his father, Prince Philip, a notoriously stern parent. Unlike Diana, Charles seems to have had little experience with close family feeling. Because his mother ascended the throne when he was only 4, Charles and his sister, Anne, spent most of their time in the care of nannies. And Philip's main interest in Charles was to toughen him up.
In Charles's defense, there are small indications that he is taking more of an interest in his sons as they grow older. In May the boys' new nanny, Jessie Webb, took them to watch Charles play polo while Diana stayed behind at Highgrove, their weekend retreat. While Charles galloped up and down the field with his team, the boys played their own makeshift game of polo—sans horses—on the sidelines. Apparently impressed by what he saw, Charles slid off his horse between chukkers, shouted to his sons, "Come here!" and gave them both a kiss on the head. Though Diana taught the boys to swim and play tennis, it was Charles who taught them to ride. (The boys were absent two weeks ago, when the Prince toppled off his polo pony and fractured his arm in two places.)
Despite their marital standoff, Charles and Di are in accord about the boys' upbringing. They decided to send William to boarding school at Ludgrove Prep in Berkshire, 30 miles west of London, rather than the Cheam School in Surrey, which Charles attended, because Ludgrove allows the students to go home on weekends. The couple also work together to shield their young sons from the relentless eye of the press. When the tabloid The People published a picture of William relieving himself against a bush, Charles and Di issued a rare public statement deploring the publication of the pictures as "intrusive and irresponsible."
Charles, however, bows out when it comes to the hiring and firing of the boys' caretakers. "The royal nannies just don't stay the way they used to, and I think that Diana quite encourages that," says a palace source. "I don't think she wants someone taking over her role with the children, which is what tends to happen if a nanny stays long-term."
Family Ties, Palace Politics
As for her own family, Diana is intent on making sure her children's lives aren't dominated by the Windsors. "Diana is keen on the children remembering their maternal grandparents and likes them to see their grandmother Frances Shand-Kydd regularly," says a palace source. "She considers her side of the family to be every bit as important as the royal side."
This past April, when Diana took a week-long holiday on Necker, a private Caribbean island owned by Richard Branson, chairman of the $2 billion Virgin empire, she invited her family along. Joining Di, Wills and Harry (Charles, as usual, kept away from the sand and sun) were her mother; her brother, Charles Althorp, and his wife of 10 months, Victoria; Diana's sisters, Sarah McCorquodale and Jane Fellowes, and five of their six children.
Of her two sisters, Diana is closest to Jane, 33, whose husband, Sir Robert Fellowes, was recently appointed the Queen's private secretary. Diana and Sarah, 35, went through some awkward moments after Diana married Charles because Sarah was a former girlfriend of the Prince's. Because of chilly relations with her stepmother, Raine Spencer, Diana avoids her father's home, Althorp House, but Earl Spencer is often seen slipping into Kensington Palace to spend time with his grandsons.
Within the royal family, Diana has carved alliances purely her own. Charles, close to his mother, spends little time with his father. In contrast, with her quick smile and fresh beauty, Diana has become a favorite of Philip's but is no closer to the Queen now than when she married Charles nine years ago. "There's a great deal of respect for each other, but I don't believe there is any warmth," says a palace source. "They have different likes and dislikes. Diana doesn't go riding with the Queen, for instance." Author Hoey emphasizes that, logically, Diana would feel closer to Philip: "They both came into the family from outside. They both realize they have to walk two steps behind their spouses."
The Queen can also get agitated with Diana. This past Easter she made it clear that she wanted the Princess to attend the traditional morning service at Windsor Castle with the rest of the family when she returned from Necker. Diana got back in time but decided to rest instead. "That would irritate the Queen, because when the Queen says I'd like something to happen, it isn't a request, it's a command, and Diana disobeyed it," says a palace source.
Dressing for the Limelight
When Diana married Charles, she was accustomed to the Sloane Ranger uniform of Laura Ashley dresses, cardigans and loafers. Thrust into the limelight, she needed a wardrobe—and quickly and unfairly gained a reputation as a shopaholic and spendthrift. What Diana does spend on clothes can't easily be determined, because of the private arrangements she has made with designers who are only too happy to let her have their clothes at cost or less. One source estimates that, "in a hectic year," her clothes might cost £35,000 ($60,000). Others, citing much higher costs, value the royal wardrobe at more than $2 million.
In the early days Diana made some fashion blunders—the unattractive ruffled collars, odd-shaped hats with veils, or such inappropriately sexy items as skintight leather jeans or stockings with seams. With age has come a sure fashion sense, and the mature Princess has settled into an elegant round of coatdresses, monochromatic suits and evening sheaths, managing to look regal without adopting the dowdy Windsor duds of the Queen. Apparently, Diana didn't happen onto this style alone, but sought fashion advice from the editors of British Vogue. "If they told her to wear red gloves, she wore red gloves," says one stylist. "If they told her to wear blue shoes, she wore blue shoes. Let's just say she doesn't have a lot of imagination."
Certainly Diana—who supports British fashion by wearing Bruce Oldfield, Edina Ronay and Catherine Walker—has achieved a consistent style. Hemlines may go up and down, but hers stay circumspectly below the knee. And not everyone admires the look. "Diana is stuck in an absolute time warp," says the fashion editor of another British magazine. "She could wear smart little suits, but instead she wears these frumpy Dallas-and Dynasty-inspired power dresses. She looks 10 years older than she is."
For a would-be Queen, many might argue, the error should be toward age. Diana is coiffed daily by Richard Dalton, but she always applies her own makeup. The trademark line of electric blue eyeliner inside her lower lid is her invention. One style point Diana hasn't mastered is her nails—like a nervous teenager, she chews them down to the quick.
After her engagement, Diana quickly dropped two dress sizes to a size 8 and has retained her figure through a vigorous exercise regime—the first royal to take such a modern approach to fitness. In fact, Di became so slim after the birth of Harry that onlookers were concerned that she might be anorexic. Now the 5'10" Princess weighs a healthy 133 lbs., keeping fit with early morning laps in the pool at Buckingham Palace or aerobic workouts with a personal trainer who visits her at Kensington Palace.
Diana's Formidable Future
That day is probably at least a decade away, but when Charles ascends the throne, the couple will move from Kensington Palace, a private home where little royal business takes place, to Buckingham Palace. Because the latter serves as the headquarters of the British monarchy, it is steeped in more tradition, such as the Changing of the Guard. Not only will Diana have to deal with more pomp and circumstance, but with a staff of 400. In addition to maids, footmen and the rest of the domestic staff of 200 will be such employees as Mistress of the Robes and Woman of the Bed Chamber, antiquated titles given to the Queen's principal ladies-in-waiting.
As Queen Consort, Diana's presence will be required at investitures and formal meetings with heads of state and other dignitaries. When the King is abroad, she may be asked to officiate in his place. She will have to attend the opening of Parliament and other state affairs. "She will be less free to pop around to friends, go shopping or make spontaneous visits to her charities," says Charles Kidd, editor of Debrett's Peerage. "However, she seems to favor the informal approach, which I am sure she will try to maintain."
And Charles's subjects will bless her for it. Though widely admired for his civic spirit and social conscience, the future King does not have Diana's intuitive touch with the public. What kind of Queen will she be? "Diana's her own woman and knows exactly what she wants to do," says Hoey. "I think she's going to provide the backbone, the steel to the monarchy."
—Mary H.J. Farrell, Terry Smith, Janine di Giovanni, Elena Bowes, Susie Pearson and Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey in London
- Terry Smith,
- Janine Di Giovanni,
- Elena Bowes,
- Susie Pearson,
- Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey.
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