Today, on the 26th anniversary of her death, the world is remembering Princess Diana. Still deeply missed by her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, the loss of Diana is also mourned by the millions around the world who felt as though they knew the ‘People’s Princess’. Part of her charm was due to the fact that she genuinely cared for those around her; she was a committed philanthropist who gave herself wholeheartedly to the many causes she held close to her heart. Diana, Princess of Wales was also a trailblazer, unwilling to be held back by convention or tradition. Join us in remembering Princess Diana through seven of her most memorable, boundary-breaking moments.
Dancing with John Travolta, 1985
It remains one of the most iconic photos of the 80s: the unforgettable moment took place in 1985, during Prince Charles (now King Charles III) and Princess Diana’s official visit to the United States, when they attended a gala held at the White House by then President, Ronald Reagan. While the British royals often come into contact with celebrities during their roster of official engagements, the calibre of American stars in attendance that evening would excite even the most jaded of social butterflies (think Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck). Yet it was Saturday Night Fever’s John Travolta who danced with Diana first, telling Esquire Mexico this year: “The whole stage is like a dream. I go up to her, touch her on the shoulder, ask her to dance… And there we were, dancing together like in a fairy tale. Who could imagine that something like this is going to happen to you one day? I was smart enough to register it in my memory as a very special, magical moment.” Photos of Diana spinning across the floor made waves in the global press: an unlikely, yet irresistible, collision between two glamorous worlds, that of Hollywood and royalty, as epitomized by two of their brightest stars. And for Diana personally, it marked her out as more than just a quietly dutiful royal bride – but rather the protagonist of her own story.
Shaking hands with an AIDS patient, 1987
In the midst of the AIDS crisis, a climate of fear and misinformation created a rampant stigma around sufferers. The late Diana, Princess of Wales, however, was an early advocate for AIDS and HIV patients. In 1987, the royal opened the UK’s first purpose built unit, focused exclusively on caring for those with the virus, at London’s Middlesex Hospital. There, with cameras snapping, Diana shook the hand of an AIDS patient, without gloves – debunking the myth that it could be transmitted by touch. A display of compassion and empathy that epitomized why she was later dubbed the ‘People’s Princess’ by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, Diana remained devoted to the cause throughout her life: from speaking at the National Aids Trust’s inaugural Women, Aids and the Future conference in 1990; to meeting with then South African President Nelson Mandela to discuss the AIDS situation in the country in 1997.
Running in a parents’ race at a school Sports Day, 1991
It’s become one of the most widely circulated pieces of footage of the late Princess, showing Diana embodying the determination, spirit and lack of inhibition that made her so beloved – as well as serving as a testament to her commitment as a mother. Captured on the annual Sports Day at Princes William and Harry’s pre-prep school, Wetherby, in 1991, Diana can be seen running barefoot, having abandoned her shoes to make her sprint for victory. The Princess showed that behind her title, she was just another parent, wanting to give her sons as normal a childhood as possible. Rather than hiding behind her royal status, she demonstrated her willingness to get involved; something that has clearly influenced her son and daughter-in-law, today’s Prince and Princess of Wales, who are known for doing the school run, playing with their children outdoors, and otherwise mucking in with the ordinary operations of family life.
Collaborating with Andrew Morton (pictured) on Diana: Her True Story, 1992
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex aren’t the first royals to have wanted to tell their side of the story. Prince Harry’s mother sought to do the same almost 30 years ago, in cooperating with biographer Andrew Morton on his unflinchingly revealing book, Diana: Her True Story. Communicating with Morton secretly to offer her candid personal insights, Diana opened up about everything from the breakdown of her marriage, to her battles with bulimia, and even details of her suicide attempts. The publication of the biography caused a sensation, with Morton initially facing allegations of having fabricated such events, until it came to light that Diana herself had been involved in the creation of the book. While some were shocked to hear such revelations about a Royal Family member, countless others – many of them battling eating disorders and depression themselves – felt seen and validated by hearing the Princess’s experiences. In a stark departure from the royal stiff upper lip of yore, Diana showed her vulnerability and humanity to the public, as well as bringing awareness to the plight of those suffering from mental health issues.
Becoming Patron of Centrepoint, 1992 (pictured on a visit to the charity in 1997)
While the gilded world of royal life may seem a far cry from the plight of those experiencing poverty and homelessness, Princess Diana was able to see beyond her own immediate sphere and recognize the need to address such social issues. They formed a cornerstone of her charity work, with the royal becoming a Patron of Centrepoint in 1992 – a charity aimed at helping homeless young people and seeking to end youth homelessness in the UK. She even took her young sons with her on some of her visits to homeless shelters, recognising how important it was for the Princes to develop a sense of the hardships and injustices faced by so many members of society. Her example clearly had an impact, especially on her sons, with Prince William having recently launched his own ambitious scheme to end homelessness.
Her Panorama interview, 1995
Princess Diana’s famous 1995 Panorama interview has been back in the press in recent years, after the Dyson enquiry found that the BBC’s Martin Bashir used unethical methods to gain access to the royal. Once she did agree to the television appearance, however, what Diana chose to reveal to the public proved seismic, openly acknowledging the affair between Prince Charles, the heir apparent, and Camilla Parker Bowles (now King Charles III and Queen Camilla). In uttering the now-immortal words: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded,” the Princess dispensed with the idea that the private lives of Royal Family belonged strictly behind closed doors – exposing its members as the complicated and fallible human beings they truly are, rather than just symbolic figureheads. She also spoke candidly about her experiences with postnatal depression, self-harm and bulimia, helping to break down the stigma around mental health issues at a time when they were shrouded in secrecy and shame (a mission that both her sons, Princes William and Harry, have continued to pursue).
Walking across a minefield in Angola, 1997
A highly controversial weapon because of their indiscriminate nature – and the devastating repercussions of those left behind after a conflict – Princess Diana was passionately against the use of landmines. In 1997 she visited the Huambo Province of central Angola with the British Red Cross, where she met with the HALO Trust, a charity working to clear mines left during the Angolan Civil War. She met with children who had survived landmine explosions, and, under the eyes of the global media, she walked across a cleared lane in an active minefield, escorted by HALO students and mine-clearance professionals. Using her profile to draw attention to the danger faced by civilians living in affected areas, the royal helped further the campaign for an international ban on landmines. A global landmine treaty, the Ottawa Treaty, was signed later that year, just months after Diana’s death in August. In 2013, the Duke of Sussex became Patron of the HALO Trust’s 25th Anniversary Appeal, before following in his late mother’s footsteps – both metaphorically and literally – in 2019, carrying out his own minefield walk at the same site.
Originally published in Tatler.com