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The Princess and the Press: A Dance Ending in Death

Diana in London/AFP
Diana leaves an official engagement in London in March 1996. (AFP)
By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 1997;
Page D01

LONDON, Sept. 3—She died in battle, but Diana won the media war against the royal family.

After 16 years of photo opportunities, tearful interviews and carefully timed leaks, Diana has been transformed from the face that launched a thousand tabloids to the innocent victim of rabid paparazzi. But the truth is much more complicated: The most famous woman in the world had an intense love-hate relationship with the press.

No other celebrity courted and manipulated the media with as much savvy and charm. And no other celebrity protested longer and louder when the cameras followed into her private life. But the chase that ended in her fatal accident began long before Saturday night.

"Whatever else is said about Diana, Princess of Wales, in this dreadful week, let it not be said that she lacked sophistication about the media, her use of it and its use of her," said Times of London Editor Peter Stothard.

Only six hours before she died, Diana called her favorite royal correspondent, Richard Kay of the Daily Mail. She laughed, she pouted, she sighed. She confided that she was thinking of withdrawing completely into private life -- except she still wanted to be an international humanitarian. Maybe she would marry her new love, Dodi Fayed. Then again, maybe not.

She knew that parts of that conversation would find their way into the newspaper. But any suggestion that Diana was in any way responsible for the constant crush of reporters and photographers around her is now a taboo subject. Fleet Street royal expert James Whitaker was forced to make a public apology today for even mentioning the intricate dance between Diana and the press in an interview following the accident.

"I regret now if I said anything that caused offence to anybody listening to what I thought was a balanced appraisal of Diana and her complicated life with photographers," a grief-stricken Whitaker wrote in today's Mirror.

This, apparently, is not the time for balanced appraisals. Kay and Whitaker have been ordered by their editors not to comment on the relationship between the press and the late princess.

From the very beginning of her public life, Diana exhibited a talent for celebrity and an uncanny instinct for driving the press mad with desire. Her lips said, "No, no," but her photo-ops, complete with lowered eyes peeking up alluringly, said, "Yes, yes."

"Shy Di" refused to talk to reporters but posed in a sheer skirt that displayed her long legs. On her first formal appearance after the engagement to Prince Charles was announced, the preppy 19-year-old upstaged everybody -- even Princess Grace of Monaco -- by wearing a spectacular strapless silk gown that displayed her flawless bosom.

Diana was an overnight superstar. Not only had she married the heir to the throne, she was also beautiful, glamorous and, best of all, unpredictable. The cameras were always trained on her because no one wanted to miss her next great moment.

She made news every time she went out: kissing Charles -- gasp! -- in public, hugging an AIDS patient, running barefoot at her son's school race. It was inevitable that she would upstage the rest of the royal family. And she did, repeatedly. What nobody would say out loud is how much she enjoyed it.

But it was not until her marriage fell apart completely that Diana's natural talent for playing the fame game was revealed.

In 1992, Andrew Morton released "Diana: A True Story." The book included stunning revelations about Diana's bulimia and suicide attempts. The details were so precise and intimate that it was clear the book had been written with Diana's approval and enthusiastic help. Suddenly, it also became clear that all the quotes of "friends of the princess" were ones that reporters had probably obtained from Diana herself.

Three years ago, Times Editor Stothard received a crash course in Diana's press strategy at a cozy private lunch.

The two were virtual strangers, but within minutes Diana had revealed very private details about herself, Charles and his mistress. Stothard discussed subjects with the princess that he had never broached with his closest friends. Then she mentioned that she had "saved" a tramp that morning, and mused on how photographers could assist in her escalating battle with Charles.

"She made it clear that she alone, she felt, could manage her image, her job and her family," Stothard says. "She felt that her husband's friends were manipulating the press against her . . . and her only recourse was to fight like with like."

The mother of a future king did not intend to fade quietly out of royal life or lose her beloved sons to the cloistered confines of Buckingham Palace. She believed that the only way to fight the vast power of the royal family was to become a beloved figure in the eyes of the public.

Diana possessed a keen understanding of the power of images. In India, she posed alone and forlorn in front of the Taj Mahal, the monument Charles had once vowed to show her. She became a symbol of the woman scorned, the loving mother, the compassionate working woman.

Whenever public attention shifted to Charles, Diana upstaged him with a photo-op: On the night Charles gave an unprecedented television interview explaining his side of the failed marriage and his adultery, Diana showed up at a charity event wearing a short, sexy black dress. The gown, dubbed the "Up Yours" dress in the press, was pictured in every paper the next day.

Her decision to grant her own television interview in 1995 was perhaps her greatest public relations coup. It was a carefully orchestrated on-air therapy session of a recovering royal: Her life had been awful, but she would bravely soldier on -- with paparazzi in tow, if need be.

Charles was toast.

Diana was so skillful at manipulating media coverage that she fell into a common trap of great celebrity: She thought she could turn it off when she chose. She was infuriated when the press crossed the line into her private life. The problem for most reporters was that she had revealed so much it was almost impossible to figure out what Diana really considered private.

Certainly the pictures taken by a hidden camera during a gym workout were unfair. The tapes of a provocative phone call with a male friend were embarrassing. But the princess was simply unrealistic about the price of fame when she went topless on an outdoor terrace in Spain and then was furious when a local photographer took pictures.

In this respect, Diana was no different from entertainers who become famous and then bitterly complain about the great sacrifices of fame. Diana's death only reinforced their sense of outrage.

Only hours after the fatal accident, Tom Cruise called CNN to say he, too, had been chased down that Paris tunnel. Elizabeth Taylor gave a furious interview to "60 Minutes" comparing her own high-speed encounters with the media to Diana's: "She must have known such fear and it makes me so angry."

In the Times today, Madonna addressed the privacy issue in a long interview on the burdens of celebrity. The singer met Diana just once, at a cocktail party in London.

"I said I had always sympathized with her position, and made some joke about the only person who seemed to get more attention than me was her." News of the princess's death affected her deeply: "Anyone who has ever been chased like that and who has to live that kind of life hit the wall with her." None of the celebrities mentions that a speeding car is more dangerous than a camera.

Yet it is possible for even the greatest celebrities to have a private life. After the glare of the White House, Jackie Onassis decided to live her life as quietly as possible. She hardly ever gave interviews, never posed for photos, made few public appearances.

The royal here who has most successfully juggled her duties with a private life is Princess Anne, the queen's only daughter. "There have been no tantrums, no flirtatious changes of mind, just a stolid and, at times, ruthless determination to keep a part of her life for herself," says royal watcher Ross Benson.

Most celebrities are not that disciplined. Certainly, Diana was ambivalent about her place in the spotlight. One day she would tease and laugh with the press; the next she would glare and burst into tears. At the same time she was complaining about her lack of privacy, she posed for alluring pictures in Vanity Fair magazine and auctioned 79 of her ball gowns.

In the past two years, she used her fame to focus attention on good works: eradicating land mines, helping people with breast cancer or AIDS. A large part of her adored being in the white-hot center of world attention. Even as she vacationed with Dodi in the South of France in July, she couldn't resist teasing photographers with a new leopard swimsuit and news she was about to drop "a major bombshell." Two days later, as Camilla Parker Bowles celebrated her 50th birthday, Diana again posed for the paparazzi.

None of it matters now. Diana died suddenly when she was young and beautiful and tragic.

Julie Burchill, a columnist for the Guardian, summed it up this way: "She leaves the Royal Family with one big ticking gift-wrapped time bomb of a farewell present -- the fact that, for the first time, more subjects of the House of Windsor are against it than for it."

All day today, British television's Sky News has replayed the words of an unnamed woman who stood in line for 11 hours to write in one of the official condolence books at St. James's Palace.

"The palace has been very mean to Princess Diana -- our queen. And they are mean to her when she is dead."

Diana has secured her place as the most beloved royal in modern British history. It is a hollow victory, but a victory nonetheless.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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