This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 4, 1995
Princess Di Tells All
There were those who believed - and how naïve it seems in hindsight - that she would take the high road with her husband, be circumspect about the in-laws, and spare Britain's tattered monarchy a further ripping. How very, very wrong they were. By the time Diana, Princess of Wales, wound up her 55 minutes of televised psychotherapy (technically, a special edition of the British Broadcasting Corp.'s current affairs show Panorama), the Palace was a shambles. Diana threw the china. She kicked the antique furniture. Then, she rolled a grenade or two under the throne before storming out, slamming the drawbridge behind her and vowing - no, warning - that she would be back.
Shy Di no more. This was Hurricane Di, giving a devastating performance of a wounded, troubled, yet clearly combative princess who will not, as she put it, "go quietly" into exile. The interview, taped in the drawing room of her Kensington Palace home and later syndicated around the world, was the first chance to hear Diana's well-rehearsed version of what went wrong with her fairy tale marriage-of-the-century to Prince Charles. The answer, it seems, is not far from the unofficial version that she and "close friends of the princess" have been leaking to Britain's tabloid press for the past four years.
She said that her husband (it took 23 minutes before Diana called him "Charles" and she never did again) had been unfaithful, jealous of the fact that her popularity was greater than his, and uncaring about her struggle with bulimia. The princess said that she no longer expected to be queen - and left no doubt that she thought Charles ill-suited to be king. There was a pithy sound bite on the prince's affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, which he confessed in a TV interview that was last year's instalment of this tit-for-tat marital war. "There were three of us in this marriage," Diana said with a mournful smile, "so it was a bit crowded." But she "admired the honesty of his confession," and so went on to candidly acknowledge an adulterous affair of her own. "Yes, I adored him. Yes, I was in love with him," she said of her relationship with cavalry officer James Hewitt.
Since details of the affair had been published last year in the syrupy, kiss-and-tell book Princess in Love, the confirmation should hardly have surprised anyone. But the British tabloids professed to be shocked, shocked, to learn of infidelity behind palace walls. And some members of the House of Commons, who have themselves so generously contributed to the annals of British sex scandal, sputtered demands that the couple divorce. As for Hewitt, the proper punishment was death by hanging, according to Tory MP Neil Hamilton, citing the Treason Act of 1351, which makes it illegal to "violate the wife of the heir to the throne."
Hewitt went into hiding after the interview and will probably survive, but the Waleses' marriage clearly seems headed for divorce, despite Diana's protestations that she does not want one. "What about the children?" she said. "Our boys - that's what matters." Left unanswered was how any child could expect to benefit from the continued union of parents who parade their marital crises on television (after which the public is polled to ascertain who is most to blame). Speaking out, said Diana, was a way to reassure "the people that matter to me - the man on the street - because that's what matters more than anything."
The effect was as if 21 million British viewers - and millions more around the globe - had been invited to squeeze onto a corner of the couch as the patient unburdened herself to her doctor. (In royal parlance, it "was said" that Charles did not watch.) With interviewer Martin Bashir required to do little more than prod her along with questions like: "Why do you think that?" or "What happened next?" Diana showed off what she has gleaned from her recent years of media training and assorted therapies. She has cultivated a circle of savvy advisers like Australian TV personality Clive James and iconoclastic British businessman Richard Branson, and sampled treatments ranging from holistic massage to colonic irrigation.
Her evidence that Charles thought of her as unstable? "There is no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it," she explained, chin tucked firmly into her collarbone. The reason she lacerated her arms and legs during the depths of her unhappiness? "You have so much pain inside yourself," she replied, "that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help, but it's the wrong help you're asking for." Low self-esteem had made her bulimic, she said. But throwing up food was just a symptom of her bad marriage. "I was crying out for help," she now believes, "but was sending out the wrong signals."
It was a breathtakingly fearless performance that provoked a sandbox response from one of Charles's closest allies. "I found it toe-curling and dreadful," said Nicholas Soames, the prince's former equerry, adding that Diana's comments smacked of "advanced stages of paranoia." Soames was not the only pop psychologist. "My instant reaction was that she is completely unstable," said Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine and author of seven royal books including the 1989 biography Diana. "She's undergone a great deal of analysis and I kept thinking, 'That's her shrink speaking.' How can she go on TV and say these things?"
But Seward held the minority view last week. Most instant opinion polls were sympathetic to Di's demolition job on the Royal Family. A MORI poll found that 72 per cent of Britons agreed that the Windsors had badly treated the princess, up from 49 per cent two years ago. "This was a resounding victory for Diana, end of story," said London's leading public relations guru Max Clifford. "All those cynical commentators who said beforehand that she was committing suicide by granting this interview have been proven totally wrong. She did a brilliant job. She knows the British people better than they do, and the British people are right behind her."
In fact, Diana portrayed the royals as an even more dysfunctional family than had been imagined. According to the princess, no advice was ever offered on how to handle the royal ropes; no praise was ever given for a job well done. "But if I tripped up, which I invariably did because I was new at the game, a ton of bricks came down on me," she told Bashir. Her postnatal depression after the birth of Prince William was ignored, she alleged. Wilting under the stress and with no one in the household willing to hear of her depression, she "dove into the bulimia." The Windsors' response to her illness could have been lifted from the script of Mommie Dearest: "I suppose you're going to waste that food later on," was how Diana quoted their reaction.
As several prominent British women noted, opinion on the princess divided partly along gender lines. "She has managed to get the women of the world behind her, at least the unhappily married ones," said an admittedly perplexed Seward. "Yes, she's disturbed, egotistical, utterly bloody-minded, and speaks in that psychobabble," said Carmen Callil, founder of the respected women's publishing house Virago Press. "But women do seem to identify with her because of her troubles." More men, on the other hand, found her behavior bizarre and confusing. That attitude was perhaps best expressed by the middle-aged man who, when confronted by one of the TV crews that blitzed London pubs for instant reaction to the broadcast, described Diana as being "slightly on the wrong side of eccentric."
But this is not so much a war of the sexes as a war of rival courts, as Diana herself made clear in her constant references to Charles's camp as "the enemy." Her charges were stunning, if unproven: "they" had stolen her mail, tried to discredit her by bugging her phone and leaking transcripts of conversations with other men to the media. There is more evidence for another allegation: that Charles's friends and staff have spent the past few years whispering to sympathetic journalists that Diana was "unwell," or in a "volatile emotional state." Her "retirement" from public life in December, 1993, surprised her husband's advisers. "I'm a great believer that you should always confuse the enemy," she said.
They were probably even more confused when she unretired within weeks. But that is nothing compared to the quandary ahead for the Royal Family: how to deal with a self-declared enemy who will not play by the old rules and has far more popular support than they do. The House of Windsor is a family rooted in tradition, where the source of power has always been explained simply by pointing to a drawing of the family tree. The Queen Mother, now 95, last felt compelled to give an interview in the mid-1920s. The abdication crisis in 1936 was resolved by casting Edward and the twice-divorced Mrs. Simpson into exile and shuffling the crown sideways to brother George. Cocooned in this world, the Windsors plainly believe Diana's public persona should derive only from her formal role as wife of the Prince of Wales.
Now, she has demonstrated to even the most blinkered royal courtier that she is a media star in her own right. "Until Diana came along, all we ever heard from the Royal Family was the same speech from the Queen every Christmas," said PR man Clifford. "But Di learned early that she could work the media to her advantage, and she is dragging the royals into the 1990s. The monarchy's only hope for survival is to harness their wagon to hers, to talk to the people she talks to."
Last week, Diana was freely offering advice on how the monarchy should change. "I would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people," she said, and then described in language more often heard at beauty pageants what she meant by that. "I think the British people need someone in public life to give them affection, to make them feel important, to support them, to give them light in their dark tunnels," she said. And: "Someone's got to go out there and love people and show it." And, less modestly: "I've got a tremendous knowledge about people and how to communicate, and I want to use it." And, more weirdly: "I'd like to be an ambassador for this country. As I have all this media interest, let's not just sit in this country and be battered by it. Let's take them, these 60 to 90 photographers who follow me, out to represent this country and the good qualities of it abroad." So, off to Argentina she flew last week, photographers in tow - though how the royal rat pack will improve British-Argentine relations is open to question.
There were hints last week that Buckingham Palace, unable to bury Diana, might be willing to praise her. The palace would support the princess in her wish to become an ambassador for Britain, said a spokesman. Of course, the role would have to be "defined," the spokesman added (mindful, perhaps, that when Diana appointed herself as the unofficial mascot of Britain's international rugby team, she struck up such a close friendship with team captain Will Carling that his marriage fell apart because of it). "I think the Queen is frightened of what Diana has become," said Majesty's Seward. "She is experienced enough to see the danger of Diana. But it is sad because, by criticizing the monarchy, Diana has criticized the Queen who was always her one big supporter when the rest of the family were turning away."
As usual, there was endless analysis of whether the monarchy could survive the antics of Charles and Diana's generation. "It is terrifying that the British people, who purport to so love their monarchy, accept such drivel from this unhappy girl, and thus put it all at risk," said publisher Callil. No longer derided as "unpatriotic," leaders of Britain's tiny republican movement were welcomed on television panels to offer their opinion on the sordidness. "The Windsors invented the family monarchy to keep themselves going and it is clearly not going to work after this," chortled Stephen Haseler, chairman of the group called Republic.
In the end, there is the ironic possibility that the celebrity machine may, in fact, help save the monarchy from disappearing. Having discarded the role of demure consort, this Rollerblading, publicity-hungry princess, who would be comfortable emoting on the most lurid of North American talk shows, did her bit to counter her fear that people are becoming "indifferent" to the crown. But there are worse things than indifference. The British monarchy, for all its flaws, has served as a symbol of stability over the centuries. Now, it has become a TV-and-tabloid battleground for the self-absorbed set, and the Charles and Di show threatens to run on and on.
Maclean's December 4, 1995