Diana's common touch changed the monarchy forever
In this April 24, 1991 file photo, Britain's Princess Diana, the Princess of Wales, hugs and plays with an HIV positive baby in Faban Hostel, San Paulo, on the second day of her visit to Brazil. It has been 20 years since the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris and the outpouring of grief that followed the death of the “people’s princess.” (AP Photo/Dave Caulkin, File)
There was a time when scenes like this at London's Olympic Park would not have happened: Prince William, the heir to the British throne, sprinting down the track with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and his brother, Prince Harry, to the cheers of other runners in a relay race this year promoting mental health.
It was so human. So accessible. So Diana.
Princess Diana, a preschool teacher thrust into the glare of celebrity by her marriage to Prince Charles, dragged Britain's ribbon-cutting royals into the modern world. She made a direct connection with the public —once running her own race in a flowing white skirt and baggy sweater — and promoted causes far from the mainstream at the time, like land mine removal and AIDS research.
That link lives on through her two sons, who have adopted their mother's more personal approach to monarchy and in the process reinvigorated the institution.
"She was the first royal who really took the public's heart," said Sandi McDonald, 55, from south London, outside an exhibit of the late princess' dresses at Kensington Palace. "I think her sons are the same - the public just loves them."
William and Harry are the most obvious reminder of Diana's impact. They have spoken openly about their own mental health issues over losing a parent while so young and breaking down taboos just as their mother embraced AIDS patients to ease fears about the disease. But the princess' most far-reaching legacy is her popularization of the idea that celebrities can use their ties to millions of people they've never met to effect change.
Having been swallowed up by the royal machine when she was barely 20, Diana found her way in life after realizing that the public was fascinated by her every thought, says sociologist Ellis Cashmore. Diana was able to manipulate that interest to her own advantage, promoting causes such as land mine clearance and telling her side of the story when her marriage collapsed amid Prince Charles' relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, who later became his second wife.
Today's celebrities in every field have adopted that model — created when newspapers and the evening news were the primary sources of information — and pumped it full of steroids in the world of Facebook and Instagram.
"You can sort of trace the molecular chain or genetic chain between Diana and Kim Kardashian," says Cashmore, the author of "Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption." ''Imagine if Twitter or Facebook had been around in her (Diana's) day!"
While every wannabe celebrity today posts their secrets on social media, in the 1990s it was unimaginable that a royal would share personal hopes and fears with the world. But trapped in a loveless marriage, Diana chose to take her message to the people who loved her.
She covertly cooperated with biographer Andrew Morton to get her story out, using an intermediary who recorded tapes of her answers to the author's questions so she could deny ever having spoken with Morton.
"This was a quite remarkable thing that she was doing," Morton told The Associated Press. "Here she was, talking about the most intimate details of her life — about this woman called Camilla, about her eating disorders, about her half-hearted suicide attempts — to me who was a relative stranger. ... She was talking about things which no princess had ever spoken about before."
The gamble paid off. Diana's story was told, and the public loved her all the more. Her funeral featured an unprecedented outpouring of grief and emotion, with tens of thousands lining the streets and mountains of flowers piled outside Kensington Palace. It was a transformative event for both the royal family and for Britain, Morton said.
"No longer were we seen as the stiff-upper-lip, do-not-touch nation," Morton said. "We were seen as a trembling lower lip (nation), not afraid to emote, to shed our tears in public."
After Diana's death, the royals also learned they had to change.
Queen Elizabeth II returned to the capital from vacation in Scotland and gave a speech from Buckingham Palace that quieted days of headlines alleging she had been indifferent to Diana's death. A more accessible monarchy has followed.
Last year, as Britain celebrated the queen's 90th birthday for months, the queen joked at a street party outside Buckingham Palace that while she appreciated the cards and messages "how I will feel if people are still singing 'Happy Birthday' to me in December remains to be seen!"
As William and Harry grew up, they inherited Diana's ability to communicate. To the delight of mental health charities, they and the Duchess of Cambridge have fronted a campaign to persuade people to open up about mental health struggles. One charity, Mind, said the day after Harry spoke about his struggles after his mother's death, their public inquiry line received a 38 percent increase in calls.
"It shows how far we have come in changing public attitudes to mental health, that someone so high-profile can open up about something so difficult and personal," said Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind.
The young royals have also brought other luminaries into the conversation. In one video, Prince William spoke with pop star Lady Gaga, who told of her struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"(Diana) knew, even from an early age, that she wanted to groom them more in the image of modern princes, that they would be able to reach out to people," said Morton. "She did not want a ... do-not-touch sign over the future of her children."
Diana also changed the public's expectations of national figures, Cashmore argues, saying Britons were no longer satisfied with a distant monarchy. Her sons' common touch is one reason for the often-denied speculation that William will take the throne after the queen's death, skipping his less popular father.
Quite simply, Diana changed the royal family, said Jenny Glossop, a fan from Worcestershire who visited the Kensington Palace dress exhibit.
"The royals were always formal and stuffy and didn't have a connection with the public. Diana came along, joined the family and changed the royals forever, because after that even the queen softened, became more approachable," Glossop said. "Her boys have grown to be Diana's boys. Everything we loved about her carries on in the family."