How Princess Diana redefined modern monarchy

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CNN’s Royal Correspondent Max Foster shares how Princess Diana continues to make a mark in the lives of the British Royal Family and people around the world, 20 years after her untimely death. In photo: Prince William with Diana, in a clip from the documentary "Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy." Screenshot from HBODocs/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Max Foster, CNN’s Royal Correspondent in London, distinctly remembers where he was 20 years ago when the news broke that Diana, the Princess of Wales, died. A local radio reporter back then, he was out late at a party when he heard the news. “A friend came back to the party and said, ‘Diana has been involved in a car crash,’” he recalls. “We were all totally shocked. It’s one of these stories where you remember where you were when it happened.”

The news shocked even those who did not follow the activities of the Royal Family, or those who did not feel strongly about the monarchy at all, Foster shared in a phone call with CNN Philippines Life. “I think that was something about Diana, that she was part of our lives,” he adds. “In the next few days, the country did sink into this communal grief, and I think the nation really struggled to make sense of that.”

Somehow, the untimely death of the princess tapped into the nation’s conscience, says Foster. “And there was a tragedy involved, because she was also so young, and it was a car crash, and then you imagine the children … no one quite then realized that they would react that way, and even the Royal Family didn’t know how to react either.”

Diana, dubbed the “People’s Princess,” was 36 years old when she died, and was born Diana Frances Spencer on July 1, 1961, to a noble family. She was wed to Prince Charles in 1981, after which she became a British global icon — her life and death changing the way the world saw royals. “I don’t think people realized how important she was to the nation until she died,” Foster says.

Foster shared to CNN Philippines Life his thoughts on Diana’s enduring legacy, 20 years after her death on Aug. 31, 1997, and how the world remembers her. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

In your interviews with the Royal Family, how do Prince Charles and Prince William remember Princess Diana? Why did it take her relatives so long to share how they felt to the world, as evinced by the documentaries now featuring interviews with them?

I think what’s interesting about the documentary [“Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy,” which aired a few weeks before the 20th anniversary of her death] is [Prince] Harry speaking about how, during the funeral, he was watching lots of people cry, but he’s only ever cried twice for Diana. I think they both really struggled to come to terms with her death. Harry didn’t talk about it for years; William said he hasn’t spoken about it with Harry for a very long time. It was recently that they’ve spoken to each other about it. And only after that they were able to speak to the public about it.

I think it’s purely young children grieving and losing their mother at a young age, combined with the fact that she was the biggest star of the world. It’s very difficult to talk about something you haven’t talked about with your family.

Diana Our Mother.png Princess Diana with her two sons, William and Harry. Screenshot from HBODocs/YOUTUBE

In what ways does Princess Diana still influence discussions about the Royal Family or how people see them?

She was a very big star, [while] Prince Charles isn’t a big star. She’s got a lot more charisma. I think that would always define how people think about the royals. When you speak about the Duchess of Cambridge, she’s often compared to Diana even though she’s very different. Whenever people talk about William and Harry, they always talk about Diana — so it’s constantly coming up somewhere in the nation’s consciousness.

I remember when she died, being in London, and being completely overwhelmed by the public reaction. I don’t think anyone really expected the reaction that they did have, really, to Diana, and it’s still there, it’s still very much in people’s minds. And she did redefine modern monarchy — she spoke about how she found it very difficult, being in the Royal Family. She didn’t have much control about what she did, she didn’t have much control over her wedding. Whereas William was allowed to marry who he liked … he was allowed to set up his own court at Kensington Palace, which he runs himself. Prince Harry is going out with someone who’s not even in the aristocracy.

I don’t think that would have necessarily happened in the past, because the palace system would have been far more involved. What Diana did was shake up the whole system; show you can’t control someone coming in to the family, you have to allow them be themselves. And I think that’s one element of how the palace system has responded to the younger royals as a result of Diana.

Max Foster.jpg "Whenever people talk about William and Harry, they always talk about Diana — so it’s constantly coming up somewhere in the nation’s consciousness," says CNN anchor and London correspondent Max Foster. Foster covers important stories about the British Royal Family as its royal correspondent, having field-anchored at the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, among many others.

Also, William and Harry have a completely different relationship with the media because of what they saw their mother was exposed to. I think William suddenly feels his mother got too close to certain members of the media, and … he thinks he shouldn’t become too close to members of the media, and the media shouldn’t be allowed to get too close to him.

You can see that in the way he handles the media. He protects his children fiercely; if ever there was a moment to catch them on camera, it’s very strictly controlled. And most of the access we have to the children are from pictures the Duchess of Cambridge has taken …. He thinks they have a right to privacy and normality, and that’s what he really fights for.

That is all response to Diana, because William and Harry grew up under this immense media pressure, and [William] saw his mother suffer, and my feeling probably is he saw Harry suffer. William is also a very senior royal … he’s redefining the idea of monarchy in the public perception, all because of Diana.

How can we still make sense of Diana as a global icon, 20 years on?

I think she epitomizes the idea of a princess. If you look at fairytales — if you talk about fairy tales which Disney movies are made of, in every culture, a lot of those fairytales exist and no one knows how far back they went. They were passed on by word of mouth and eventually they became Hollywood movies. I think that’s so ingrained in our culture. As young children, we were given the sense of someone living in a castle and living this fantastical life. And as part of that, you got the commoner as well.

I think Diana, she wasn’t a commoner — but many people related to her, to her person. I think what she did was make monarchy relatable. There’s something deep in people’s consciousness about fairytales which she made come alive. She personified the idea of a princess in fairy tales. Even young boys relate to that, because they have those fairytales too. And then she was this megastar. And then there was scandal, which put her in tabloids as well, and then there was this amazing authenticity to her. 

"What Diana did was shake up the whole system; show you can’t control someone coming in to the family, you have to allow them be themselves." — Max Foster

She had a natural talent, which was a natural charisma on camera, which people don’t always have. And I think Prince Harry has that as well. She came across well in the media, I think she had an amazing story … especially after the divorce. For women, the way she was so strong coming out of that, and owned her future — that was really inspiring.

Men found her attractive [laughs]. She has the basic attributes that made her a megastar, and I think as part of the British Royal Family, as I say, which is a global institution, made her a global star. And I don’t think it’s ever going away.