What Actually Happened to Princess Diana–and Why It’s Not Happening to Meghan Markle

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What Actually Happened to Princess Diana, Why It's Not Happening to Meghan Markle

Shutterstock; Getty Images/E! Illustration

The royal family is on high alert, though not all for the same reasons.

Prince Harry is pulling out all the stops—filing lawsuits, planning a lengthy overseas trip, considering a permanent move, tugging at the nation’s heartstrings—to protect his wife, Meghan Markle, who despite being aware that she’d signed on for scrutiny was ultimately shocked to find out how merciless the U.K. press could be.

Kate Middleton wants to help, though with three children and her own royal future to attend to, she can only do so much. Then there’s Prince William and Prince Charles, Harry’s brother and father, who are by turns worried for their loved ones and troubled by more practical concerns by Harry and Meghan’s all of a sudden very public outpouring about how tough the media have made their lives.

We’ll pause for a moment to note that these people, all of whom serve the crown at the pleasure of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II—aka Mum and Granny—aren’t making the tough choices currently facing Great Britain. They’re not deal-or-no-dealing in Parliament. But for as long as they’ve reigned, and for so long as they continue to do so in the future, they will represent something uniquely important to the British people, a solid link to history going back centuries as well as a real-life fairy tale in their midst. (Or, depending on who you ask, a useless relic of the past.)

And so their relevance, or the argument over their relevance, seeps out to the rest of the world, making the royals—especially the younger ones like Meghan and Kate and the babies they’ve borne—global celebrities, with all the perks that entails but also weighted down by a series of seemingly unattainable expectations by a public that’s constantly moving the goal posts.

None of which is new for this family, but the specter of history possibly repeating itself looms large.

“I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person,” Harry said last month in part of a lacerating statement explaining why he had taken the rare-for-royals step of taking legal action against the Mail on Sunday for publishing a letter that Meghan wrote to her estranged father, Thomas Markle. “I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”

They’ve also filed suit against the owners of The Sun and Daily Mirror, accusing the publications of phone hacking.

Princess Diana, Crowds

PA Images via Getty Images

The 35-year-old prince was 12 when his mother, Princess Diana, was killed along with Dodi Fayed in a car crash that occurred when their driver, speeding through Paris’ Ponte de l’Alma tunnel with paparazzi in hot pursuit of more, more, more of the 36-year-old Princess of Wales, lost control of the Mercedes and smashed into a pillar. Still alive when photographers crept up to the wreckage and continued to snap pictures, Diana was pronounced dead several hours later at the hospital.

It remains a wonder that William and Harry don’t flash double birds to every photographer they encounter.

Both princes, while wielding as much control over the public environments they must operate in as possible, have long since begrudgingly accepted that undue interest in their actions and words was part of the deal. But Harry, who as the fiery younger brother inevitably attracted more of the scrutiny, admittedly had a harder time. He made headlines in 2004 for shoving a camera back in a pap’s face after a nightclub outing, not long after the papers had complained about not getting enough access to the princes. 

Just last month Harry admitted to ITV that his mother’s death is still “a wound that festers. I think being part of this family, and this role, and this job, every single time I see a camera, every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash, it takes me straight back.

“In that respect… it’s the worst reminder of her life as opposed to the best.”

The best reminders are to be found in the happy personal memories, the opportunities Harry and William have to work on causes close to their hearts and try to make differences in people’s lives, even by doing something as simple as having a conversation, as Diana used to do.

Comparisons between their mother and the women they chose to marry were inevitable, from the superficial things like their clothes to their habits, passions and pursuits, and how they conduct themselves as public figures.

Kate bore that brunt alone for 10 years, from the solidifying of her relationship with William, up through their engagement and 2011 marriage and into motherhood. Overall, though she’s been nitpicked at plenty, judged for sticking it out with William as just-his-girlfriend for years and hounded to the point that the palace had to intervene, the Duchess of Cambridge has generally received very high marks in her role as future queen.

And when Meghan came along, Kate’s ease with which she flawlessly conducted herself (after years and years of practice, mind you) earned her next-level appreciation.

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle

Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/PA Wire

Meghan initially was hailed as nothing less than the potential second coming of Diana—an effortlessly charming humanitarian with impeccable, slightly boundary-pushing (for royals) style who, as a preexisting public figure, already had a preternatural ability for connection. The American divorcée, the daughter of a white father and black mother, was also immediately heralded as someone who would further modernize that dusty old monarchy, as Diana first set out to do 35 years ago. 

And that take on Meghan hasn’t changed, for those whose take it is.

Those who get to meet the Duchess of Sussex in the course of her royal duties have had glowing things to say about her, most recently the employees at the Luminary Bakery in Camden, which helps women who’ve been victims of violence and exploitation get back on their feet. The bakery was featured in the September issue of British Vogue that Meghan guest-edited (and was simultaneously applauded and booed for her efforts).

“One of the things I have realized since being here [in the UK],” Meghan told the ladies, per the Telegraph‘s Bryony Gordon, “is that people have an expectation when I’m coming somewhere, so I’m like, let’s just be really relaxed, keep everyone nice and chilled, because at the end of the day we’re all just women. We all have a story to tell, and I feel honored that I am getting to hear yours.”

The visit took place a couple of weeks after Meghan and Harry returned from South Africa, where they both gave the ITV interviews heard round the world and prompted Harry’s family to wonder if they needed to be in crisis mode. 

Gordon has had one of the more humanistic takes on Meghan, treating her as a woman who sometimes feels sad and less like a loose cog in a machine that’s threatening to send the whole system crashing.

“Then, as in the interview, her eyes glistened when I asked her how she was,” Gordon wrote. “But if I have learnt anything about Meghan in the time I have known her, it is that she is a doer, not a wallower. She lives in the solution, not the problem. She told me that she didn’t want people to love her—she just wanted them to be able to hear her. I have found that this is what the Duchess of Sussex stands for: using her voice to help give one to people less privileged than her.”

Meanwhile, Meghan’s many, many fans and defenders—including the likes of Elton John, George Clooney and longtime friend Serena Williams—have gone to bat for her time and again to implore the media to just knock it off.

They’re all wondering what, exactly, is the press trying to achieve by constantly taking the opportunity to try to knock Meghan down a peg?

Because the flip side of the overwhelming interest in Meghan and admiration she inspires as a biracial, self-made career woman who, long before she met Harry, was already using her platform to help lift up others and has been outspoken about the challenges she has faced and the lessons she’s learned, has been an obnoxious amount of criticism, most of it local and nearly all of it inconsistent with everything she actually does and says.

She’s become the royal version of Anne Hathaway circa 2013—winning all the awards and yet still somehow doing it wrong and ending up in need of a retreat from the public eye.

“Does she conquer or divide?” asked the cover of a recent issue of Tatler. (Though only 54 percent of those polled had an opinion, 55 percent thought she’d been good for the monarch.)

“I think it’s a little unfair at times when—I’ve seen it when the press can turn on you for sort of ridiculous reasons and for almost nothing, and it seemed to me to be a little unjust since she hadn’t done anything except just happen to live her life,” Clooney, who along with wife Amal has become close to Meghan and Harry (and who provided the tequila at their wedding) said on Good Morning Britain in March. “She’s a really kind and smart and intelligent young woman.”  

Meghan Markle, Prince Harry

Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage

Clooney’s observation was down a notch from February, when, on the heels of the Mail on Sunday publishing the letter from Meghan to her father that it’s now being sued over, the actor told Who, “I do want to say, they’re just chasing Meghan Markle everywhere. She’s been pursued and vilified.

“She’s a woman who is seven months pregnant and she is being pursued and vilified and chased in the same way that Diana was, and it’s history repeating itself.”

“We’ve seen how that ends,” Clooney added. “I can’t tell you how frustrating that is, just seeing them broadcast a letter from a daughter to a father, she’s getting a raw deal there and I think it’s irresponsible and I’m surprised by that.”

Elton John also invoked Harry’s late mother when he took to Instagram to defend Harry and Meghan after they were lambasted for enjoying a luxurious vacation at John and husband David Furnish’s home in the south of France, complete with a private jet ride (that, the singer said, he paid for). The usual suspects in the press had already been on high alert for missteps after Harry said that they planned on having two children at most for ecological reasons and then proceeded to fly privately to the Google Summit in Sicily this summer and give an impassioned speech about climate change.

“Prince Harry’s mother, Diana Princess of Wales was one of my dearest friends,” John wrote. “I feel a profound sense of obligation to protect Harry and his family from the unnecessary press intrusion that contributed to Diana’s untimely death.”

Ironically, the current generation of a press machine that was no less than obsessed with Diana, was outraged that John—who was indeed very close to Diana and sang at her funeral—should resort to namedropping when all they were simply trying to do was drag the Duke and Duchess of Susses.

It’s all become very unnecessarily convoluted.

Princess Diana, Crowds

Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

On one hand, no one sneaking into the classroom where a 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer was a kindergarten aide or angling for a glimpse into her London flat, or simply going gaga over her off-the-shoulder dress with a mildly plunging neckline, thought that they were aiding and abetting an eventual tragedy. 

There is certainly a common thread running between the sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t attention that Diana received from the moment she got engaged to Prince Charles in 1981 until her death in 1997 and the litany of “think” pieces about Meghan’s perceived peccadilloes and the vitriol on social media that prompted the palaces to band together to issue behavioral guidelines earlier this year.

And conceivably it’s a slippery slope between hateful words and the circumstances that led to Diana’s unthinkable death, which resulted from a perfect storm of bad decision-making but also had some wondering if more nefarious forces had been at play. A six-month inquest featuring testimony from 278 witnesses finally determined, over a decade later, that Diana and Dodi Fayed had been unlawfully killed by the “grossly negligent driving” of Henri Paul, who had been drinking and was speeding, in response to the trailing paparazzi.

At the same time, the series of events that led Diana to being in that car in Paris that night may as well have taken place in a different universe from the one Meghan finds herself in.

Thanks, in no small part, to the fact that she’s married to Diana’s son.

Harry, who understandably has no love lost for the media and their at times shameless tactics, has not shied away from closing ranks in order to protect Meghan, physically or emotionally. The first official confirmation that they were even dating came in 2017 via a statement from the palace politely demanding that reporters and photographers respect her privacy, combined with a sterner reprimand in response to some blatantly racist coverage, such as the Daily Mail‘s announcement that “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton.”

The Duke of Sussex’s latest moves to force accountability from the tabloids also aren’t surprising, as Harry and Meghan had already successfully won damages and an apology from a photo agency after it sold to The Times aerial shots of the cottage where the couple enjoyed a weekend getaway in the Cotswolds.

“To stand back and do nothing would be contrary to everything we believe in,” Harry said last month in explaining the litigation.

Princess Diana, Crowds

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

In contrast, when Diana was a newlywed, as a future queen she was under more pressure to accept her new lot in life and just deal with it, and she was very much alone.

Or at least she felt that way.

Those either employed or otherwise tasked with helping the young princess, who was 20 when she and a 32-year-old Charles wed at St. Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981, adjust to royal life later took issue with her recollections that she was just thrown into the deep end without a life jacket, but the very real issues that Diana did have were left unattended during the early years of her marriage.

Diana suffered from bulimia starting at a young age and suffered from depression so dire she threw herself down the stairs when she was pregnant.

“Charles said I was crying wolf [about severe morning sickness],” she told biographer Andrew Morton, “and I said I felt so desperate and I was crying my eyes out, and he said, ‘I’m not going to listen. You’re always doing this to me. I’m going riding now.’ So I threw myself down the stairs.”

Diana also later revealed that she had self-harmed. She had postpartum depression after William was born and lamented that she was basically labeled unstable by her husband’s family and friends, and she had started to wonder if they were right.

“When no one listens to you, or you feel no one’s listening to you, all sorts of things start to happen,” she told the BBC’s Martin Bashir on Panorama in 1995. “For instance you have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help, but it’s the wrong help you’re asking for. People see it as crying wolf or attention-seeking, and they think because you’re in the media all the time you’ve got enough attention.”

Princess Diana, Crowds

Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

Describing her cycle of bingeing and purging to the, Diana said, “If I’d been on what I call an away day, or I’d been up part of the country all day, I’d come home feeling pretty empty, because my engagements at that time would be to do with people dying, people very sick, people’s marriage problems—and I’d come home and it would be very difficult to know how to comfort myself, having been comforting lots of other people, so it would be a regular pattern to jump into the fridge.

“It was a symptom of what was going on in my marriage,” she continued. “I was crying out for help, but giving the wrong signals, and people were using my bulimia as a coat on a hanger: they decided that was the problem—Diana was unstable.”

The cause of the breakdown of her mental health within her marriage, Diana concluded, “was the situation where my husband and I had to keep everything together because we didn’t want to disappoint the public, and yet obviously there was a lot of anxiety going on within our four walls.”

Prince Charles had been groomed to not openly discuss much of anything personal at all—concluding, at least by the example set for him, that it just wasn’t something a future king did. Unfortunately, despite very real concern and affection he had for Diana, who he could see was really struggling, he just didn’t know how to make anything better.

By the time he and Diana were giving unprecedented access to biographers in the early 1990s, and what were widely thought to be ill-advised interviews, their marriage—though they didn’t divorce until 1996—was for all intents and purposes over, leaving them dealing with the fallout from their respective candor separately.

In 1992, Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words, utilizing tapes she had made for the biographer, scandalized the royal family, which would announced that December that the Prince and Princess of Wales had separated. They were similarly horrified in 1994, though, when Jonathan Dimbleby—commissioned to write “a complete riposte” to the Morton book—conducted a televised interview with Charles.

Charles & Camilla, Camilla Parker-Bowles

David Hartley/Shutterstock

It was largely about his working life on the occasion of it being 25 years of his investiture, but it also featured Charles’ admission that he had been unfaithful. Camilla Parker-Bowles was “a great friend of mine…she has been a friend for a very long time and will continue to be a friend for a very long time.”

More than 13 million people watched, while Diana got dressed to the nines in what came to be known as her little black “revenge dress” for a scheduled engagement at the Serpentine Gallery.

The following year, Diana would famously tell Bashir in her first post-separation interview that having “three of us in this marriage” made it “a bit crowded.” More than 20 million people watched.

It was at once the best of times and worst of times, absolute catnip for the masses but also the biggest blunder possible for Diana, and a real black eye for The Firm. The director-general of the BBC almost got fired, and the chairman resigned two months later. In fact, knowing how explosive it would be, Bashir and a small group kept most of their bosses in the dark, according to the 2005 documentary The Princess and Panorama.   

But aside from what that culture-rattling interview did to the family behind the scenes, less than two years later Diana would be dead, and the Morton book and the Bashir interview would constitute almost all of the firsthand perspective we were to ever get from the Princess of Wales.

Two decades later, Harry opened up about his own mental health journey to Bryony Gordon in 2017 with Meghan’s full support—at her urging, in fact.

And they may have been greeted with mixed reactions after acknowledging to ITV last month that, yeah, it sucks when the media treat you unfairly and publish your private correspondence, but they are totally in it together.

That really does make all the difference in the world, being on the same page—especially when so many people are chiding you for going off-script.

Tom Bradby, who conducted the interviews with the royals for the ITV special Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, told Good Morning America that he talked to both of them beforehand off-camera, and advised Harry to “go out and tell the truth as you see it.”

“The thing about Harry is,” he added, “whether in private or in public, if you ask him an honest question he’ll give you an honest answer, for better or worse.”

Meghan Markle, Prince Harry, WellChild Awards

Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

So damned if they seem stilted or closed off, and damned for being too honest?

Which, on the scale of buttoned-all-the-way-up to flashing a nipple on Instagram, Harry and Meghan registered at about a 5. For the royal family it was a lot, though—enough to hearken back to a time when people were losing it over Diana’s 1995 sit-down with Bashir.

Asked toward the end of their lengthy talk why she had consented to the interview, the princess said then, “Because [Charles and I] will have been separated three years this December, and the perception that has been given of me for the last three years has been very confusing, turbulent, and in some areas I’m sure many, many people doubt me.

“And I want to reassure all those people who have loved me and supported me throughout the last 15 years that I’d never let them down. That is a priority to me, along with my children.”

Meghan, at least, has the chance to say what she wants now, seemingly with the full support of her husband.

“Look, any woman, especially when they’re pregnant, you’re really vulnerable,” Meghan told Bradby, “and…so that was made really challenging. And then, when you have a newborn, you know…” She and Brady shared nods of recognition. “And especially as a woman,” she continued, “it’s really, it’s a lot, so you add this on top of just trying to be a new mom or trying to be a newlywed, it’s… well, yeah, I guess, and also thank you for asking, ’cause not many people have asked if I’m OK. But it’s a very real thing.”

Meghan also memorably said, “I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair. And that’s the part that’s really hard to reconcile.”

It’s unclear why she ever thought it would be fair. 

“Was this documentary Harry and Meghan’s Panorama moment”? inquired a Telegraph headline proceeding a column by veteran journalist Angela Levin, who was one of numerous people to conclude that “our abiding memory [of their Africa trip] will not be of any of the causes they championed, but of the pair lamenting their own troubles in one of the poorest parts of the world.”

Princess Diana, Crowds

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Levin, meanwhile, wrote a whole book about Harry that came out in 2017 after he granted her interviews and authorized access to his life (to an extent, of course) and talked more candidly than ever before about Diana’s death, so it seems an odd choice to criticize the couple for not being more calculated in their timing or measured in tone. Then again…

Everybody else is doing it.

“Diana rarely fell out with the press,” wrote Levin, describing how, watching Meghan’s tearful appearance on ITV, she had been reminded of the bombshell Panorama interview. “She courted them as a weapon in her war with Charles, and if she was upset by something they wrote she would invite them to tea at Kensington Palace and invariably win them over—but she certainly fell out with senior members of ‘the firm.’

“The leading question is, are the Sussexes in danger of doing both?”

Those who think the queen bumped Harry and Meghan’s engagement photo from its previous place of prominence at Buckingham Palace might think so.

“He’s got to stop feeling sorry for himself and look at the positives—shut out the criticism, just ignore it as his father has done, and get on with the work, get on with the job,” royal biographer Penny Junor told the Press Association in response to the documentary. “The royal family has always in the past very successfully pursued this policy of keeping their head down and saying nothing.”

Even President Trump, asked by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage for his expert opinion on Meghan saying the media has treated her unfairly, said that he didn’t know the duchess, but he had seen her interview and he could tell she’s “been taking it very personally. I guess you have to be a little bit different than that, but she takes it very, very personally.”

He “can understand,” he added.

Meanwhile, a nonpartisan coalition of 72 women in Parliament expressed their support for Meghan in an open letter this week, writing, “On occasions, stories and headlines have represented an invasion of your privacy and have sought to cast aspersions about your character, without any good reason…Even more concerning still, we are calling out what can only be described as outdated, colonial undertones to some of these stories. As women Members of Parliament from all backgrounds, we stand with you in saying it cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.”

They asked that the national media ”have the integrity to know when a story is in the national interest, and when it is seeking to tear a woman down for no apparent reason.”

The only problem is that Meghan’s biggest critics think they have a reason, be it the importance of stiff-upper-lip tradition, squelching perceived hypocrisy or wanting more bang for the taxpayers’ bucks.

Meghan Markle

Shutterstock

“If this documentary has an outcome I do hope that it’s that everyone—including them—takes a really deep breath and maybe thinks pretty hard about how the future may play out,” Bradby told GMA, cautioning everyone involved with shaping the Harry and Meghan narrative that they’re approaching clusterf–k territory.

Of course any well-off celebrity can be criticized all day and night for daring to claim to have problems when there are billions of other people who have real, pressing, easily identifiable struggles. And the royals are particularly delicious targets, considering their work—which at its best inspires and does some real humanitarian good and at worst is window dressing—doesn’t resemble work as most people know work to be.

But everyone who covers the royals, or who has covered them in decades past, should know by now that, no matter how many tiaras they pile atop them, they’re never going to get anything other than flawed humans at the end of the day. (Minus the queen, who’s practically perfect in every way, of course.)

Meghan Markle, Prince Harry

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

To be honest, it was far more comforting to assume that, for all the hot takes out there, Harry and Meghan remained unaffected by the chatter, blissfully unaware or at least impervious to criticism—because what did it matter, really? They’re friggin’ royalty, after all.

“If things are fair, that completely tracks for me if things are fair,” Meghan said. “If I do something wrong I’d be the first one to go, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I would never do that,’ but when people are saying things that are just untrue and they’re being told they’re untrue but they’re allowed to still say them, I don’t know anybody in the world who would feel that that’s OK. And that’s different than just scrutiny. That’s, what would you call that? That’s a different beast. It’s really a different beast.”

Apparently the first rule of media scrutiny is you do not talk about media scrutiny. Hence the intimation that all this could be over if Harry and Meghan would just be quiet.

“Perhaps just a little stiff upper lip could be useful, if what you say will be hurtful to your family and astonish the public who pay for the life of privilege you perceive as a gilded cage,” Levin wrote.

But Meghan says that she tried that. ”I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a ‘stiff upper lip,’ I really tried,” she told Bradby, “but I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.”

Maybe getting called out so pointedly was a shock, one that perhaps left some members of the U.K. press feeling as if they’d been caught with their hands in what they thought was a bottomless cookie jar.

Which, has indeed put a crimp in the unspoken directive to be less human, a command that Diana already proved was impossible to abide in all her messy, outspoken glory.

How soon people forget.

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