Currency of celebrity
Diana showed a whole different way to be a princess.
Photo: V. Sudershan
Veteran journalist Tina Brown on The Diana Chronicles and her fascination with “the people’s princess”.
Fascinated by Diana: Tina Brown.
At 25, Tina Brown became editor-in-chief of The Tatler; reviving the 270-year-old magazine. Subsequently, she moved to Vanity Fair in the same capacity and became the first female editor of The New Yorker; turning the course of both publications. That was before she launched her own magazine Talk, but this time her “Midas Touch” didn’t work. All this is of academic interest now, as Brown rides the success of The Diana Chronicles, which has been billed “the book” on Diana. In Delhi recently, Brown spoke at length about the “people’s princess” whom she saw graduate from a “schoolgirl hanging on Charles’ every word” to a global superstar of cover-girl elegance. Excerpts…
Can you explain British obsession with the monarchy?
Today, the currency of celebrity is so debased, so common; everybody is famous, nobody is very interesting. Though we know a great deal about the royal family, when they close those doors of Kensington Palace, Balmoral, there is still a mystery.
Is the fascination growing?
No. The more daylight is being let into the magic of the monarchy, the less interesting it has become. Diana was a meteor that hit the royal family. The royals were the eternal verities; they didn’t have to justify or promote themselves. Diana showed a whole different way to be a princess. She transcended the ceremonial role; brought humanity to it.
How much did Diana add to the obsession with the royal family?
The Queen and Prince Philip were immensely appealing and had a lot of attention when they were young. They believed the interest in Diana was of the same order and it would settle down. It never did. They didn’t know how to cope because they had in their midst a superstar, a rock star. It was like marrying Madonna. They couldn’t handle it; in fact, they are still dealing with it. They listened to her for the first time when she died. The public of England forced them to listen. The only church in the British Isles that didn’t mention Diana when she died was the one the royals attended. Diana belonged, at that point, to the people and you had to be tone deaf to not understand that. Today, courtiers close to the Queen refer to that week as the “revolution”. They see it as the moment when the Crown tottered, and admit privately that it changed a lot of things.
Any particular instance?
The Queen visiting the victims of the 7/7 London bombings was a first. This may seem gestural but gestures are important. Diana understood the power of gesture better than most people. Her enemies say she was a publicity hound. Perhaps, but when she grasped the hand of an AIDS victim without gloves in 1986, it made a statement.
What was Diana looking for?
At first it was all about love; later it became more about desiring a role.
Within the monarchy or…
In public life. She walked away from the monarchy but desperately wanted an important role in the world because she realised the upside of her celebrity status was the spotlight it could bring to the causes she championed. I interviewed 250 people and expected to find she wasn’t always authentic but couldn’t find anyone who didn’t feel she wasn’t 100 per cent authentic in her care.
Did you start the book as a fan?
I was fascinated but worried that I would find her too shallow. By the end, I liked her enormously. She wouldn’t have been as appealing if she was perfect. She could be vain, mean, impulsive, vindictive and narcissistic, didn’t always tell the truth… but she was also very warm, kind and brave. I admired the way she took on the royal family. When you take a stand against the royal family, the establishment lines up against you. She was very shrewd; using the only lever she had: her celebrity status. Her divorce, for instance. Diana hired a media lawyer because she knew it was going to be a battle fought in the media. But, I have tried to make the book a human story.
I actually like Prince Charles. He’s very decent, weak but worthwhile. Rather visionary with his interest in organic farming and global warming. He was laughed at then but, now, he seems pretty smart. I can see, from their point of view, she was absolutely maddening and a possible problem but it was a great story to report.
How would you describe the book?
A social history because it’s as much about the Diana era as about Diana. It’s about London in her time, celebrity culture, the media and how it evolved. There’s a lot about Diana’s impact on the media, how she manipulated it and ultimately ruined by it.
You have called her the most artful practitioner of the media game…
Diana was very acute about understanding the impact of media. She kept the media at a distance but made them feel charmed. When she entered the royal family and found herself powerless within, she saw how her popularity with the public through the media meant she had more power in her life. In many ways she got from the media an affirmation she never got at home.
Is she really a mystery, as the blurb of your book suggests?
No, she’s a fascination; that’s because she’s a very complicated girl. And, she died young. The three great icons who are obsessively interesting are Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Diana. They all died young and beautiful.
What makes you so sure that Diana was at the point of “casting off the toxic elements of celebrity culture and use her fame as collateral for daring social activism”?
I don’t think she would have ever given up her glamorous image, but she understood that celebrity could be leveraged to bring the spotlight on the causes she championed.
The trouble was that she was a fascinatingly split personality; so just when she was doing this she was also off on a boat with Dodi. She just couldn’t get her private life in order.
The question is how she would have done in life if she had lived. Would she have resigned to being a woman without much of a private life or was she going to continue to search for love in an unrealistic way? That’s something we will never know.
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