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Diana, Still Full Of Surprises

By Tina Brown
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page C01

Every time Princess Diana's ghost returns for another haunting, as it did this week on NBC's "Dateline," our perceptions of her change. The only thing that stays the same is the revolving cast of clapped-out courtiers, posh lowlifes and fleabag turncoats who continue to cash in on her memory.

Most of them haven't turned out too well. The caddish Maj. James Hewitt, he who kissed and told, was arrested last July on suspicion of cocaine possession and a firearms negligence charge. Last week a court deemed him "a danger to the public peace and safety" who should be barred from keeping weapons.

Paul Burrell grew close to Princess Diana and then cashed in on those connections after her death. (File Photo)

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Patrick Jephson, the princess's erstwhile private secretary, who published a rancid memoir in 2000 and recycled it in a new book this month, discovered that selling out his royal boss rendered him unemployable in the PR world of Top People he hoped to conquer. He has since gone bankrupt, and on "Dateline" the former buttoned-down naval officer appeared to have developed a volcanic shock of wild gray hair.

Then there's poor Paul Burrell, the whispering butler who would have been happy to stay in the fold if only the Family had not been too cheap to pay him off with a royal cottage or some little sinecure in the gift shop at Windsor Castle. His memoir featuring a letter from Di that predicted her own death from foul play came and went last year. Now he's roughing it with nine other B-list personalities in a jungle clearing in Australia for the British reality show "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here."

Only bio-porn king Andrew Morton has flourished, perhaps because as a journalist he was never confused about whose side he was on (his own).

Now comes the newest Diana snitch, Peter Settelen, the princess's voice coach. After a legal wrangle with the Spencer family, he wrested back the 20 intimate videotapes he made of the princess that had somehow gotten into Burrell's stolen stash and then flogged several of them to "Dateline." Settelen offers the same old phony rationale for selling Diana out as all the others -- some version of "setting the record straight" -- but you can tell why she opened up to him. He's a hammy ex-actor with a chatty manner and just the right amount of psychobabble about the need to "find her true passion." In no time he has the princess unloading about her sex life, her relations with the queen, and her eating disorder as the camera rolls.

Why would a woman hounded by press spies breezily confess so much to a near stranger? Perhaps because by this time Diana had morphed from royal prisoner to celebrity creature. Her confidants were now the same breed as the confidants of Elizabeth Taylor or Madonna or Britney Spears -- the celebrity servant class of hairdressers, acupuncturists, tarot readers and colonic irrigationists who made up the bulk of her Christmas card list. Settelen was just another audience.

The latest tapes were made in 1992 and 1993, after Diana had talked to Morton but before the famous BBC "Queen of Hearts" interview with Martin Bashir, when her huge shadowed eyes swam in her haunted face as she confided to the world, "There were three of us in this marriage." Only nine months ago we were chilled anew when Morton released the audiotapes he had based his book on, and we heard the dead princess's eerie, accusatory voice floating over the inevitable TV B-roll of her younger blushing self: "My husband made me feel so inadequate in every possible way that each time I came up for air he pushed me down again." Unfeeling blackguard! Royal swine!

What's fascinating about the Settelen seance is the new insight it gives us into the Diana myth. You suddenly glimpse why the royal family was so afraid of her witchy power. Coquetting with the camera, she comes off as a performing charmer, a practiced seducer, a faithless, shrugging rich girl -- more Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca than the sad wraith of the BBC. You can believe the improbable parade of discarded lovers who keep surfacing in ever-increasing number. There's a dangerous brittleness to her here, as if having practiced her story once on Morton she's now ready to turn her tribulations into shtick. "I went to see the Top Lady" -- frisson: the Queen of England! -- " 'What do I do?' " and she said, 'Charles is hopeless' " -- frisson: the monarch! Talking about the heir to the throne! You can feel the calculation of effect in her narcissistic little giggle. Then there's the triumphalist edge when she talks about first catching Prince Charles's eye at the age of 16 at the Spencer estate, Althorp, during a weekend party when he was dating her elder sister, Sarah. "I remember him and feeling desperately sorry for him, that my sister was wrapped around his neck, because she's quite a tough old thing." Meow.

Which is real, you long to know: the wounded eyes of the dignified royal lady explaining to a reporter as she visits an AIDS hospice, "I'm only trying to highlight a problem?" Or her answer to Settelen's question about why she does so much charity work -- "I've got nothing else to do!" followed by a screech of airhead laughter?

The poignancy here is the memory of the insecure little girl who was neither of those things. The one who, when she was 6 and her mother left, sat on the step for days, refusing to speak or eat or sleep or bathe. The one who had a look of baffled hurt when Prince Charles, asked by a reporter on their engagement day, "Are you in love?" followed Diana's "Yes, of course" with his killing caveat "Whatever in love means." That old wedding reel of her traipsing down the aisle at St. Paul's with that preposterous creamy train seems doubly sad now that we know her sideways look into the congregation was not for a friendly familial smile but for the sight of the woman she already knew was her deadly rival.

Diana lived among phantoms all her life. No wonder her ghost is so brilliant at keeping us guessing.

©2004, Tina Brown

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