An image – or a life? How remembering Princess Diana warns us of the dangers of celebrity icons

By Juliette Holland

While the press were busy examining Princess Diana through their camera lenses and photographs as she reached the height of her public adulation, they failed to recognise her real tragedy. Hounded and goaded by the media in the months leading up to her death, the world had obsessed over her status as icon, yet failed to consider the person behind the character which they had constructed.

The very same photographers captured photos of her whilst she was dying; for them, this tragedy was a story, and not a life. Twenty years on, it is apparent that this culture has far from disappeared: it has only become more prevalent, now extending beyond the press itself to the mediatisation of our individual lives.

Photographers captured photos of her whilst she was dying; for them, this tragedy was a story, and not a life.

When Princess Diana died on 31st August 1997, along with Dodi Fayed and driver Henri Paul, their car had been travelling at high speed in an attempt to evade the paparazzi pursuing them. In the days that followed, press publications largely consisted of attempts to inculpate the paparazzi. This created a bizarre juxtaposition as newspapers were forced to question their own and their photographers’ accountability, whilst they profited from the situation that such behaviour had created. Independently of these internal conflicts within the world of the press, the legal inquest concluded that, while the cause of the crash lay in the inebriation of the driver, intense paparazzi pursuit had been a contributing factor.

Yet for those closest to her, the circumstances that had prompted her death were far from unexpected. Only a few days later, Diana’s brother Earl Spencer gave his damning verdict: informing the assembled crowds of his conviction that the press would kill her somehow, and stating that everyone who had encouraged her excessive pursuit had played a part in her death.

Recently, the extent of this harassment has been revealed by the documentaries detailing her life. Her son William, a child at the time of her death, harrowingly recalls many incidents of Diana’s distress at press intrusion in the BBC’s recent commemorative documentary. In particular, he recalled a particularly perturbing episode in which she was shouted at and spat on. Some even suggested that she had considered leaving the country in the year before her death, in an attempt to regain her lost liberty.

Today, the situation has barely changed: cameras still continually pursue members of the royal family, with photographers going to disturbing lengths – such as using other children and even hiding in vehicles – in attempts to capture photos of the youngest Prince. This problem is not restricted to the royal family, either; the press continues to harass famous figures and intrude on people’s privacy, showing no consideration for the repercussions on those involved. Notably, the News of the World phone hacking scandal of 2011 left a further indelible indictment on the industry.

Following Diana’s death, and the public’s backlash (a public who were hypocritically indignant at the ironically publically-fuelled press conduct), the media was faced with a dilemma. Should they choose to criticise their own industry, or attempt to justify their behaviour? Their eventual decision to incriminate themselves, however, was not a case of self-acknowledgement and a pledge to change their behaviours; it was merely another example of their giving in to insatiable demand, to write what the public wanted to read. Indeed, Earl Spencer’s words were hauntingly relevant when he accused everyone who obsessed over her of ‘having blood on their hands’; he was not only referring to the press, but to the very source of ‘Dianamania’ – her adoring fans.

As such, the society in which Diana’s iconic status developed was one deeply and troubling responsible for her demise too. The 1990s maintained a celebrity culture in which individuals idolised public figures to a disturbing extent – for instance, Diana’s death caused the streets of London to become awash with public grief. This was in a resoundingly harsh contrast to the response from the royal family. With their societal position designating them responsible for providing stability, Diana’s sons were forced to confront crowds of people overtly mourning a woman they had never met; they had to appreciatively and stoically admire her floral tributes as they internally mourned their mother. Even as young teenagers, they were celebrity figures, and therefore forbidden to display their raw emotion – in the same way as their mother had struggled to publicly reveal her unhappiness without the threat of media ridicule. A perverse and disturbing scene, it is a time of their lives that William and Harry have continued to recall in recent interviews.

This reveals where the problem of celebrity culture lies: the maintaining of an image to the detriment of humanity. Literature has long romanticised the tragic figure in an attempt to deny the reality of an emotional turmoil that is not aesthetically pleasing. Whilst the press has been condemned as an intrusive, exploitative and vindictive industry, there is an undeniable public thirst for the information it pursues and the vicarious reality its stories provide: it is crucial to realise that this is a societal problem. Today, many obsess over their appearance on social media – ultimately, over a superficial portrayal of life. So, 20 years on from the death of one of the world’s most famous icons, perhaps it is time to finally recognise the reality behind the icon, and fight against a culture that denies emotion for the sake of image.

Image: Leonora (Ellie) Enking via Flickr and Creative Commons

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    Sep 18, 2017 - 10:25 AM

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