12/25/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
Once the world thought it had the Princess of Wales pegged—beautiful, besieged and, yes, slightly dim. Although known as a woman who likes to have her way, she had reached a détente with a husband who admitted to adultery. Back in the fold after her 1993 retreat from public life, Diana was cutting ribbons even as Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles started stepping out in public.
Then, of course, the princess shattered the peace and bared her soul to the BBC. On a segment of the news show Panorama aired on Nov. 20, an emotional but startlingly articulate Di, 34, confessed that she had been unfaithful with former Life Guards officer James Hewitt, 37—and went on to portray herself as an innocent persecuted by her husband and his courtiers. Avoiding sticky issues, including her flirtation with rugby captain Will Carling, she spoke of Charles's "devastating" infidelity and how it thrust her into a state of "rampant bulimia."
By the time Panorama was over, Diana had proved that she was no pushover. And while some royal watchers saw her move as self-destructive, the public disagreed: In a Nov. 24 poll, an astonishing 66 percent of respondents said that they admired her for speaking out. Never mind, says royal author Brian Hoey, that Di probably "rehearsed with a media professional"; she seemed sharp as well as sympathetic. "Never again," he said, "will anybody accuse her of being thick as a plank."
After the interview came the deluge. Opinion makers have demanded that the Waleses divorce and attacked the couple for making confessions that will embarrass Princes William, 13, and Harry, 11. Recognizing Di as a formidable adversary, the Palace made an extraordinary offer to meet with her "to see how we can help her define her future." Three weeks later she Concorded to Manhattan to accept Humanitarian of the Year honors from the United Cerebral Palsy of New York Foundation. Air-kissed by Henry Kissinger (who introduced her at the Dec. 11 gala), she made a self-assured speech about compassion—soldiering on even when a heckler called out, "Where are your children, Diana?" ("At school," she promptly shot back.)
Although a divorce is likely, Di is betting that she will remain onstage. Determined to become "queen of people's hearts," as she told the BBC, she is lobbying to become a kind of Minister of Good Works. Time will tell whether the Palace will allow a malcontent to serve as an ambassador. But it is unlikely to underestimate her ever again. As the princess herself put it, "I'll fight to the end, because I have a role to fulfill.... I don't think I've been given any credit for growth. And my goodness, I've had to grow."