This time Princess Diana was the hostess. That role fitted her well. It gave her gestures, an extra grace, and placed flashes of joy and a bust of boldness in her royal-blue-eyed gaze. Yes, the princess would see me at 11:00 a.m sharp, the fax specified, and if not for that cab driver who drove me straight to a hotel with the same name as Kensington Palace, the princess's residence, I would have been on time.
Le Monde journalist Annick Cojean
But the princess didn't impose the
punctuality of a queen who counted her
seconds and withdrew her smile as if she
were taking off a hat. The princess was at
home, relaxed, independent. It was probably
the only place where she didn't risk being
targeted by camera zooms. She was wearing a
short, sleeveless dress, matching her eyes,
unless they were reflecting its color. She
wore a necklace of large pearls, high heels
and a quite assurance demonstrated by her
smile and her friendly way of proffering her
hand. Above all, she seemed free, and her
simplicity was a nice surprise coming from
someone whom protocol dictates should be
addressed as "Ma'am."
But, after all, she had accepted the idea of an interview focused on a photograph of her. The idea entranced her, she replied upon receipt of the letter of request. She was ready to play the game. As for the choice of photos, there was an embarrassment of riches. She was certainly the world's most photographed person. Since each shot of her was reprinted a thousand times, we decided to make an exception to the rule and to let her pick from a selection we offered her.
Diana led us to a private reception room on the second floor, a warm, feminine room decorated in pastels and beiges, with a few pieces of antique furniture and comfortable armchairs and, everywhere possible, wood and silver framed photos. They were mostly of her two sons, William and Harry, and also of her two sisters and brother, and her late father, Earl Spencer. It seemed that the princess had drawers full of pictures. But it was our selection that interested her immediately - no stolen, private or intimate shots, but known pictures of the public personality that reinforced the legend of the warmhearted princess focusing on a social problem or a humanitarian cause.
The picture that the princess selected during the interview
Diana looked at them one at a time, giving a spirited account of each: where, when, with whom. "I pay a great deal of attention to people, and I remember them," she said. "Every meeting, every visit is special."
She passed in review a children's hospital,
a shelter for the homeless, a jobless
centre, an AIDS research lab, a battered
women's hospice, a leprosarium tent in
Zimbabwe, a nutrition camp in Nepal. Then
Diana stopped at a photocopy of the picture
that was taken in 1996 in Pakistan. "That
little boy died," she said, staring fixedly
at the image. "I had a foreboding before
taking him in my arms. I remember his face,
his pain, his voice. This photo is very
special to me."
She put it aside on the sofa and continued to look somewhat distractedly through the other pictures. She laughed out loud occasionally over some that caught her being too formal. But she returned to the picture of the child. "If I have to pick one out, without any hesitation, it's this one," she said. What was there to explain? It was neither self-flattery nor calculation. The photograph moved her "because it's genuine." That was all.
Surrounded by the relatives of other little patients, the princess felt she was playing her proper role, in harmony, in sympathy, in communion with the group that day of February 1996. Her feelings were not posed. Her contemplativeness was deep. The heartbeats of the little boy were, she said, at that moment, the most important thing. She would have liked to communicate to him her strength, her good health, her love. How do you depict a princess at work? The photo showed a human experience, not an official duty.
"It's really a private moment in a public event, a private emotion that a photo turns into public behavior. It's a curious coming together of things. Still, if I had the choice, it's in that kind of surrounding, where I feel perfectly in harmony, that I prefer to be photographed."
Private, public, where's the distinction? The princess created confusion by shattering the borderline between the two spheres, by introducing privacy into the public space. She put feeling and emotion into her official duties and obligations. There was no defensive outer armor. The commitment was sincere and she put her best into it.
It was also risky. The public had felt it from the start, under the spell of her compassion and her identification with common people. The Establishment, the politicians and princes of appearance were far less appreciative. In a flash, the princess revealed their coldness, their distance, their cynicism. Look at her gestures with the Bosnian grandmother she took to her bosom, with a young man afflicted with AIDS whose hand she held between hers so long, with the little one-legged Angolan child that sat on her lap. She kissed, caressed, embraced.
"Yes, I do touch. I believe that everyone needs that, whatever their age. when you put your hand on a friendly face, you make contact right away; you communicate warmth, show that you're close by. It's a gesture that comes to me naturally from the heart. It's not premeditated." She didn't play Lady Bountiful, didn't care about protocol, ignored the officials, rejected anything that might have been humiliating for the people she visited.
Her enthusiasm had raised many Royal Family eyebrows. The Lady Di style was laid back, especially when it became clear that beyond projecting a more modern image, it reflected a new relationship with people. The young woman had to hold herself back, and she sometimes had doubts about her role. "From the first day I joined that family, nothing could be done naturally any more."
The public gradually gave her self-confidence. It was the ill, the children, the excluded whom she visited with unprecedented diligence who persuaded her that she had the right approach and a gift for human contact. And it was from the public that she drew a force and almost a raison d'être in the difficult moments.
"I feel close to people, whoever they are. We're immediately at the same level on the same wavelength. That's why I upset certain circles. It's because I'm much closer to the people at the bottom than the people at the top, and the latter won't forgive me for it. I have a real feeling of closeness with the most humble people. My father always taught me to treat everyone as an equal. I've always done so, and I'm sure that Harry and William will follow in my footsteps."
There were values over which the mother of the next king would not compromise. She was a determined young woman, a 36 year old princess who didn't yet know what course her personal life would take but who wanted to maintain her commitment, no matter what. "Being constantly in the public eye gives me a special responsibility, particularly that of using the impact of photographs to transmit a message, to sensitize the world to an important cause, to defend certain values."
As an ambassador? As a prestigious representative? "If I must define my role, I'd rather use the word 'messenger.'"
Her official obligations ended with her divorce and her initiatives became the ones she chose herself. There, again, she showed her independence. "Nobody can dictate my conduct. I work on instinct. It's my best adviser."
Her campaigns against landmines, against AIDS, for cancer research, for lepers were her priorities. The photo showing her holding the hands of lepers did more to demystify the illness than all the press campaigns of the past 20 years. But at the cost of so much controversy, humiliation and talk? "Every single time," she sighed.
When she visited a shelter for the homeless, she was accused of endorsing the Tory government. When, in the early 1980's, she made a tender gesture to an AIDS patient, certain Conservatives saw it as a culpable indulgence for immorality. Her spontaneous contacts with Untouchables in India made the Old Empire Loyalists choke with rage. When she visited a hospital founded by Imran Khan, the husband of her friend Jemima, the press took up the scandalized accusations of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that Diana was helping a political opponent.
When she attended a heart transplant in an African hospital, she was accused of indecent coquettery. The papers homed in on a close up of her wearing a surgical mask. "The press is ferocious," she said. "It pardons nothing. It looks only for mistakes. Every intention is twisted, every gesture criticized. I think things are different abroad. I'm greeted with kindness. I'm accepted as I am, without prejudices, without watching for every faux pas. In Britain, it's the other way round. And I think that in my place, any sane person would have left long ago. But I can't. I have my sons to think about."
The most striking incident was probably her trip to Angola earlier this year. The princess had planned for a long time the visit organized by the Red Cross to call attention to the tragedy of the 70,000 landmine victims in the country and support the world campaign to ban them. She was seen spending hours listening to young people mutilated by mines, to doctors, to mine clearers. She was photographed wearing protective gear to cross mine fields and watch defusing operations. But it was London that set off the headlines, and the polemics got the spotlight once again. Tory circles went wild, the British Foreign Office lurked in the shadows. "A loose cannon," shot an aristocratic member of Parliament. "A totally ill-advised and unrealistic utopian," said another parliamentarian. "Misinformed," said a news announcer, making a dubious comparison to Brigitte Bardot. The subject is much too complicated for her little bird's brain."
Rarely had the criticisms reached such a pitch. Misogyny had never been expressed with such force. The government maintained official silence, but its anxiety was clear, given its insistence that certain types of mines are "effective and necessary for our armed services."
Diana was deeply hurt. But the Tory campaign forced the press to focus on Angola. "The polemics ruined a day's work, but it multiplied the press coverage," she said. So she did not hide her joy over the immediate decision of the new Labor government to join the countries favoring a ban on landmines. "Its position on the subject was always clear. It's going to do tremendous work. Its predecessor was so hopeless. I hope we manage to persuade the United States to sign the treaty ban in Ottawa this December."
For her, it was a long-range commitment. She didn't play politics but "humanitarianism." She intended to follow up, regardless of the nettles she might have encountered. "Over the years, I had to learn to ignore criticism. But the irony is that it gave me strength that I was far from thinking I had. That doesn't mean it didn't hurt me. To the contrary. But that gave me the strength I needed to continue along the path I had chosen."
Diana proved that she would no longer be intimidated, that the paparazzi didn't govern her life, and that she was staying on course. "It all comes down to sincerity," she said, as in the photo in Lahore. "You can't do anything good that you don't feel in your heart." "Nothing gives me greater happiness than trying to help the weakest in this society. It's a goal and, from now on, an essential part of my life. It's a sort of destiny. I will run to anyone who calls to me in distress, wherever it is," she said.