From the archives | September 1, 1997

Princess Diana never lost the sympathy of world’s public

KEVIN LAMARQUE/reuters/file
A mourner added a bouquet to a floral memorial near the gates of Kensington Palace.

This story is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on September 1, 1997.

To be deified, then devoured: That is the fate awaiting the famous in an era that has substituted celebrities for heroes, and that is the fate met by a young kindergarten teacher who would become known to the world as Princess Diana.

The cult of celebrity has engulfed public figures as various as Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Onassis, Elvis Presley, and Madonna. Some have reveled in it; some have fled it; Diana did both during the 16 years when she became the most photographed, and arguably the most famous, woman in the world.

Diana seemed the exception to one iron rule of celebrity, which is that the public will applaud your fall from the pedestal as lustily as they cheered your climb. Through her divorce from Prince Charles and her battles with Britain’s royal family, the public remained solidly on her side.


Seldom has there been a celebrity who seemed more vulnerable to the newly unleashed excesses of the culture, epitomized by the paparazzi who may have literally chased Diana to her death.

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And seldom has there been a celebrity who awakened such protective feelings among millions of people who did not know her, but felt - thanks to People magazine and “Entertainment Tonight” and other chroniclers of the celebrity culture - as if they did.

“She was this lovely child. That is why there really is a genuine sadness about her death,” author David Halberstam said yesterday. “There is this sense of this nice young woman, in over her head, who never really had a chance at a life, that she’d had it stolen from her.”

Agreed author Calvin Trillin: “You saw the young princess unhappy, as in fairy tales, so there was a natural sympathy for her. People felt there was something human about her, because she seemed to be suffering.”

That sense of a personal connection was so widespread that newspaper headlines needed only “Diana” to convey the news of her death.


But unlike most celebrities, Diana managed to create a mystique without ever seeming remote or inaccessible to the public.

When a Vanity Fair photographer confessed doubt about what he should call her during a photo shoot, Diana grinned at him and said, “Then by all means, call me Diana.”

Few, if any, other public figures today would provoke as large an outpouring of sorrow by their deaths. Diana, whom British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday called “the people’s princess,” was also the people’s celebrity.

That public affection, of course, carried a huge price: The loss of her privacy, to an extent known by few other celebrities. The public may have loved Diana, but its hunger for any scrap of detail about her, any fleeting picture of her, helped create the media frenzy she found so suffocating.

Trillin noted that in New York City, famous politicians and movie stars can walk relatively unmolested, or can mollify fans with a quick autograph or photo, whereas Diana was constantly hounded by hordes of paparazzi, and created pandemonium wherever she went.


Why? Theories abound. Her sheer likability and genuineness made people root for her. She was the princess with a common touch, struggling to hold her own against a husband and a royal family who seemed to have all the personal warmth of a barrel full of mackerel.

Diana’s luminous presence also contributed to the mystique; the camera that was her tormentor was also her best friend. Like Jackie O., Diana was remarkably photogenic and telegenic in a way that went far beyond mere glamour.

“You can’t find any bad pictures of Diana,” remarked Annick Cojean a correspondent for Le Monde, on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday morning.

Diana’s importance also became magnified because the public projected its own fantasies onto her, from her “storybook” wedding to Prince Charles in 1981 to the recent auction of her gowns.

In the view of Dr. Steven Berglas, author of “The Success Syndrome,” the public fixates on celebrities and tries to live vicariously through them out of “a need to create idols,” stemming from “a lack of self-esteem.”

“This is where we try to merge and create an identity with celebrities, as if a string of cheap pearls that Jackie O. wore, bought at an auction, makes you a member of Camelot,” said Berglas. “What we need is what the youth used to say: Get a life.”

Some analysts say celebrities loom even larger in the popular imagination because many people, struggling in a flat economy with stagnant wages, need the diversion celebrities offer. The media have been only too willing to offer that diversion: In what Halberstam calls the “celebritization” of the culture, “tabloid television” has pushed aside more traditional forms of news coverage, feeding the public “infotainment” instead.

“It seems like the Enquirer-ization of the world,” remarked Maurice Stein, a professor of sociology at Brandeis University. “We’re more interested in Bill Clinton’s golf scores and his waistline than in his policies.”

Added Halberstam: “Celebrities have become our proxy lives. We love the glamour of them on the way up, and we love the fact that sooner or later we’re going to see them on the way down because they’re not going to live fairy-tale lives - because there are no fairy-tale lives.”

“This whole thing makes any journalist, any civilized citizen, aware of the excesses of contemporary tabloid journalism,” said Halberstam.

“There’s been a quantum change in the last 10 or 15 years, with this predatory new environment of tabloids,” he added. “It’s a demented kind of thing.”

However, some wonder if the excesses of the paparazzi and the tabloids aren’t fed, in part, by the public hunger to both live vicariously through celebrities and to bring them down.

“The people who said, ‘Poor little thing, why don’t they leave her alone?’ in many cases were the same people who bought the papers with ‘The Kiss,’ or other pictures of her,” observed Trillin.