The Princess Diana myth that everyone wants to ignore
THE 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death is more than a month out, yet the current atmosphere of 2017 seems all Di, all the time.
Three prime time network specials have already aired. US Weekly published a special bookazine that same month; People plans one for July 21.
A repackaged edition of Andrew Morton's 1992 blockbuster expose Diana: Her True Story hits shelves this week; National Geographic publishes Remembering Diana: A Life In Photographs in August.
HBO has announced its own Princess Diana documentary, and the Weinstein Company, working with AMI Media, has their own August project for TLC.
As The Post reported last week, a Princess Diana musical is likely coming to Broadway. The second season of Ryan Murphy's anthology Feud will retell Diana's acrimonious 1996 divorce from Prince Charles, heir to the British throne.
"It's about that pain, of the dissolving of a fairy tale, particularly for Diana," Murphy said in April. "It starts with the filing of divorce papers and takes you up to her death."
Though there's nothing revelatory here - no new information, no counter-narrative - the collective hunger for all things Diana remains.
Her story clearly is a story we like to be told over and over again, a postmodern parable about the vicissitudes of wealth, fame, beauty and idolatry - everything that goes to the true power of myth.
Yet amid all these retellings, one inexorable truth will be ignored: Diana actively created her own mythology.
Not since Jackie Kennedy's masterful post-assassination theatre - from deplaning in her blood-spattered pink Chanel to staging her husband's funeral to demanding that her Camelot anecdote, which was a total lie, end the interview she granted to Life magazine days later - had a postmodern public figure so assiduously crafted her own narrative.
Like Jackie, Diana claimed to hate the press while expertly manipulating it to her own ends.
Both became global celebrities through their first marriages, and when those marriages ended, each used the mass media not just to maintain their status but enlarge it, crying victim all the way.
"My life is just torture," Diana said in 1992, a complaint that made tabloid headlines in the UK. Her marriage was unravelling, and she was plotting her life after Charles. "Bloody hell, after all I've done for this f**king family ... I'll go out and conquer the world ... do my bit in the way I know how and leave him behind."
Diana often lamented her lack of intellect, but she was an intuitive genius, a savant at branding and marketing.
Here she was, the latest member of an institution whose leaders had, among other things, beheaded wives, imprisoned relatives, executed staffers, and abdicated the throne while sympathising with Hitler, yet she somehow transformed her husband's pedestrian infidelity into the biggest scandal facing the monarchy ever.
Her famous pose outside the Taj Mahal in February 1992, a forlorn and lonely princess at the world's largest monument to love, laid the groundwork for her story arc - no matter that Charles was actually on the trip.
"Diana, driven to five suicide bids by 'uncaring' Charles," read the headline of the UK's Sunday Times on July 7, 1992. "Marriage collapse led to illness; Princess says she will not be Queen."
Given how stringent libel laws are in the UK, and the institutional power that the monarchy exerts over the British press, these headlines were bombshells in one sense only: They had to be coming from inside the house. For the first time since the invention of the printing press, a top-level member of the royal family was committing a form of treason.
Diana had, in fact, spent most of 1991 secretly working with British reporter and admirer Andrew Morton on a book, one that would ostensibly reveal all. Here too, her particular genius is on display: Diana presaged confessional culture by years.
She understood that by stripping away the royal artifice and revealing her dirty little secrets - bulimia and self-harm, suicide attempts and a sexless marriage - the public would love her more, not less.
Princess Diana was the first "Real Housewife," and as all the best housewives do, she understood that survival depends on scripting and selling your narrative.
On July 16, 1992, Diana: Her True Story was published. Shrewdly, Diana had never met with Morton face-to-face, which gave her plausible deniability - yet as even Morton acknowledges in a new foreword, Diana easily defaulted to her fawn-in-the-woods act.
"It was a part she played with aplomb," Morton writes.
"The author and TV star Clive James fondly recalled asking her over lunch whether she was behind the book. He wrote, 'At least once, however, she lied to me outright.
"I really had nothing to do with that Andrew Morton book," she said.
"But after my friends talked to him I had to stand by them."
She looked me straight in the eye when she said this, so I could see how plausible she could be when she was telling a whopper.'"
Whopper indeed: In his new foreword, Morton reproduces Diana's own handwritten line-edits.
Just as she depicted herself as a lamb to the slaughter on her wedding day, a 19-year-old virgin victimised by a bloodless cabal of royals, Diana knew well before her wedding that her fiance was in love with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
An aristocrat herself, she knew that royals, especially monarchs and monarchs-in-waiting, had affairs more often than not, and she went ahead with it.
She was insider cast as outsider, a role the media was complicit in propagating. Diana branded herself the only member of the royal family who cared about the little people - no matter that her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, had braved the Blitz - and she could be clueless and bitchy while doing so.
She wrote to Morton of her vision for the royal family, her dream of hosting garden parties at Buckingham Palace for "all the handicapped and wheelchairs - which we did just before we got married - people who've never seen Buckingham Palace let alone been on the grass. But they are not allowed too many wheelchairs because it ruins the grass."
She told friends she considered "POW" short not for Princess of Wales but Prisoner of War - not a good look for a burgeoning humanitarian.
Diana also refused to take any blame in the collapse of her marriage, to acknowledge that her increasing hysteria - her constant self-harm, suicide attempts and rage-filled tantrums - were enough to push anyone away. Instead, she told Morton of her shrink's succinct diagnosis upon first meeting.
"He said: 'There's nothing wrong with you; it's your husband.'"
More crucially, Diana hid key information from Morton: She herself had cheated on Charles, with more than one man, early and often.
There was her bodyguard, 37-year-old Barry Mannakee, in 1986; car salesman James Gilbey, circa 1989, followed by Oliver Hoare, a married art dealer who broke it off, only to have Diana stalk him, calling his home up to 300 times.
When came rugby player Will Carling and, most famously, James Hewitt, who publicly claimed he was involved with Diana from 1986 through 1991.
Yet as this information slowly dripped out, public opinion remained heavily pro-Diana.
An ageing palace couldn't grasp how to dismantle her swift-moving character arc.
Post-separation, Diana was photographed in workout gear, driving to and from her London gym, picking her children up from school, taking them to Disney for vacation - just another modern single mom on the go, albeit one making sure her boys wouldn't be contaminated by the crown.
It took Prince Charles two years to give his version, sitting for a prime time interview with star journalist Jonathan Dimbleby.
This was an unprecedented move for a future king of England, and Charles, looking and sounding uncomfortable, admitted to cheating on Diana only after the marriage had "irretrievably broken down, us both having tried."
But Charles couldn't win. The British public felt no sympathy; instead, they felt he'd debased himself and the monarchy.
The same night Charles' interview aired, Diana scored another coup with what came to be called "The Revenge Dress": For a party at the Serpentine Gallery, she wore a tight black strapless cocktail dress, cut well above the knee, neckline plunging.
"She wanted to look a million dollars," said Anna Harvey, Diana's stylist. "And she did."
Diana made Charles' admission look feeble and weak, and, more importantly, knocked him off the front page. Her message: You may prefer the older, haggard Camilla, but to look at me, the rest of the world will never understand why.
Diana did it again in 1995, granting a wideranging interview to Martin Bashir. Dressed in a smart black suit, eyes rimmed with kohl, Diana sought to blunt her own infidelity by volleying right back at Charles and Camilla.
"There were three of us in this marriage," she said, damp eyes looking up from a bowed head. "So it was a bit crowded."
More than 25 million people watched the interview, which was announced on Charles' 47th birthday and aired on Queen Elizabeth's 48th wedding anniversary - another piece of non-verbal jujitsu.
In it, Diana also claimed to be a victim of palace backstabbing, of orchestrated attempts to depict her as mentally ill, and as a target of sinister plots to get her to "go quietly." The knife twist: Diana claimed her husband wasn't fit for the British throne, his sole purpose in a life otherwise spent in purgatory.
As for herself, Diana said she had no more humble aspiration than to be "a queen of people's hearts."
After the couple divorced at the Queen's insistence in 1996, Diana reinvented herself again, this time as a globetrotting humanitarian. Now her focus was on sick kids and landmines and meeting with Mother Teresa rather than movie stars - but still, she fought hard to retain her title.
In the summer of 1997, Diana allowed paparazzi to catch her on vacation with Egyptian playboy Dodi al-Fayed, though she was fresh off a secret, two-year relationship with Hasnat Khan, a Pakistani heart surgeon she called "the love of her life."
She'd even visited Khan's extended family in Pakistan in May 1996, proof that she could live a private life when she chose.
In the weeks and months after Diana's death, chased through a Paris tunnel by paparazzi, there was much recrimination of the media.
Even today - even as those who knew Diana admit she used the press to cover her romance with al-Fayed, hoping to make Khan jealous - the prevailing narrative paints Diana as pure victim, hounded by a soulless media, consumed by our own prurient interest. Why couldn't we all just leave her alone?
That, truly, is the biggest fairy tale of all, and one much more interesting to hear.
This story originally appeared in the NY Post and is republished here with permission.