It’s hard to believe that today marks the 20th Anniversary of the tragic passing of “The
People’s Princess,” Diana Francis Mountbatten-Windsor. Her life and legacy is a powerful one, full of love and light, but it’s also a very turbulent one, full of secrets and scandal. No matter, people everywhere loved Princess Diana, and she remains one of the most compassionate, fearless and iconic global figures of the last century. For both women and men.

The morning of August 31st, 1997, is a vivid memory for anyone over 30. The world came to a solemnly painful halt and grievances for the most beautiful Princess of Wales poured out from every corner of the globe. Everyone shared a sense of disbelief and devastation.

In the summer of 1997, I was 11 years old. It was the end of summer vacation and on the eve of August 30th, I was out playing neighbourhood hide-and-seek or bike riding with friends, as my generation permitted. It was as good of a summer night as any but I remember the next day breakfast was not it’s usual, chipper self.

Even at 11 years old, I knew who Princess Diana and the Royal Family were. Queen Elizabeth II was on all of the two dollar bills I saved up, we celebrated Victoria Day in May (Queen Victoria’s birthday) and Princess Diana was always on the news and in the magazines at the grocery store check-out. My parents explained who the Royal Family were and what they represented early on, as you could not escape them. They were everywhere. Diana was married to Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, the Queen’s son. They had two sons around my age, too! William and Harry.

That morning, however, On August 31st, 1997, Diana did not make headlines for her activism, charity work or love life. My breakfast got cold watching the morning news and I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face. Princess Diana had died in a car accident in France.

Since I was still so young, my parents didn’t dwell on Diana’s death in front of me, but they watched coverage on it for the next couple of months, at least. Before and after school. It was brought up during school, even. The faculty talked about it, and my teacher in particular assigned our class a project focusing on the impact Princess Diana had on society. I went to a Catholic school so Mother Teresa’s death (6 days later, on September 5th, 1997) also had a huge impact that summer. Pictures of the two holding hands in New York City on June 18, 1997, will remain an engraved image of the late 1990’s forever.

The happenings of those early morning hours on August 31, 1997, made international news, yet nobody knows exactly what happened. The media says Lady Di was with her then-rumoured love interest, Dodi Al-Fayed, son of Egyptian billionaire, Mohamed Al-Fayed. After the two were photographed kissing on a yacht together earlier that summer, the British press went on a maniacal pursuit for gossip as rumours that the pair were engaged and that Diana was pregnant with his baby circulated everywhere.

That night, Diana and Dodi were trying to escape the relentless paparazzi in Paris, France, when Diana’s driver, Henri Paul, lost control of the Mercedes S280 limousine and crashed in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, killing all three of them: Diana, 36. Dodi, 42, and Henri, 41. Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, was the only survivor.
One of the first responders at the crash site, Xavier Gourmelon, recently revealed to The Sun that Diana was alive when they pulled her from the wreckage. Her last words were “My God, what’s happened?”

“She was moving very slightly and I could see she was alive … I could see she had a slight injury to her right shoulder but, other than that, there was nothing significant. There was no blood on her at all,” Gourmelon said. He and the other first responders pulled Diana out of the totalled Mercedes and onto a stretcher, where she went into cardiac arrest.

“I massaged her heart and a few seconds later she was breathing again,” he said. “It was a relief of course because, as a first responder, you want to save lives – and that’s what I thought I had done. To be honest, I thought she would live. As far as I knew when she was in the ambulance she was alive and I expected her to live. But I found out later she had died in the hospital. It was very upsetting.”

Gourmelon adds that he hasn’t spoken publicly about that infamous night 20 years ago because legally, he couldn’t. He continued serving in the fire service up until recently, and was not allowed to speak to news outlets about his experiences on the job. Two decades later, the details are still unfolding…

It’s no wonder so many theories and rumours have surrounded the fatal crash. People want to place blame. They want to know who is directly responsible for the snatching of their princess, but we’ll never truly know. It looked to be an accident but suspicions grew around Diana’s driver, Henri Paul, shortly after the crash. They alluded to him driving under the influence, a theory strongly denounced by Diana’s ex-butler, Paul Burrell.

Mr. Burrell told The Mirror: “Why would Trevor [Diana’s bodyguard] let a drunk man drive him? Let alone Diana and Dodi? That’s rubbish. I think there was a mixing up of toxicology results.” He’s referring to Henri Paul’s blood samples, which tested positive for a “mysteriously high level of carbon monoxide,” which would make him feel disoriented and on the brink of inebriation. To this day, it remains a mystery.

Mohamed Al-Fayed has also been outspoken about a bogus toxicology report and is convinced the samples were switched only as part of a wide-ranging MI6 cover up. He claims his son Dodi and the Princess of Wales were assassinated on the orders of the Duke of Edinburgh who disapproved of his former daughter-in-law’s relationship with a Muslim. Others have speculated that it was the Queen or the British Government that tipped off the paparazzi/hired them to drive Diana’s limo off the road.

Diana’s relationship with Dodi was allegedly frowned upon by Queen Elizabeth II, regardless of the fact that Diana’s marriage to the Queen’s son, Charles, ended due to his “suspected” infidelity with his ex, Camilla Parker Bowles.

Today, Prince Charles is happily married to the woman he had an affair with, the now titled Camilla Duchess of Cornwall. Camilla was never as sought after or as relevant as Diana, who was a media magnet ever since she got engaged to Charles. The papers called her “Shy Di,” a fresh-faced 19 year old fit for the crown. Being so famous for so long, hiding a relationship with Dodi was next to impossible. The paparazzi hounded Diana. Adding insult to injury, Diana received scrutiny in the press for being romantically connected to an Arab Muslim. The whole ordeal is a literal encapsulation of white supremacy and it doesn’t feel like much has changed all these years later. For her love of the human race, Diana was in all senses, hunted down and killed. The fame monster – no matter how many times she tried to shake it – swallowed her whole.

20 years later, what can we learn from Diana today? It might sound partisan but it’s most fitting to begin with how strong-willed and unapologetic she was about her activism, goodwill and humanity. Her genuinity shined brighter than any star in Hollywood and her authentic connection to the human spirit is something we lack throughout society today. No matter how aristocratic Diana’s title or the family she married into were, Diana Princess of Wales remained grounded until the day she died. Some would even say she was relatable, as she didn’t hold her crown above anything or anyone. It was unheard of for a Princess to treat everyone as equally as she did.

Some of the best stories told or seen of Diana all relate to humanity. In 2013, UK-based comedian Cleo Rocos recounts a night at London’s famed Royal Vauxhaul Tavern with the Princess and the Queen. Freddie Mercury of the band Queen, that is. The venue is a historic LGBTQ+ landmark.

“She [Diana] wanted the thrill of going in undetected to order one drink and would leave right away, she promised. She tried on the outfit [comedian] Kenny [Everett] had intended to wear: a camouflage army jacket, hair tucked up into a leather cap, and dark aviator sunglasses. Scrutinizing her in the half light, we decided that the most famous icon of the modern world might just – just – pass for a rather eccentrically dressed gay male model,” Rocos writes in her book, The Power of Positive Drinking. In 1988, 7 years into her marriage with Prince Charles, Princess Diana “ordered a white wine and a beer” at a gay leather party in male drag. The story goes down in Herstory.

More than a fashionista humanitarian with a tiara, Diana was a loving and nurturing mother. Her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, have publicly expressed how close they were to Diana and how hard her death was on them. They grew up with cameras in their faces, so it’s understandable why Diana would resent the press for constantly intruding her private life. Alternatively, it’s clear she understood the importance of her platform, and that she could use the press to stand for things she believed in.

At a time where HIV and AIDS were so deeply stigmatised, Princess Diana advocated against the stigma and was photographed hugging and touching people with the disease, shattering prejudices with one image. Pictures of her walking through old landmines in Angola, Africa, circulated around the globe as she contested them, supporting a complete ban. It’s believed her role as an advocate solidified the Ottawa, Canada, treaty against the use of landmines. There are so many more examples of how Diana chose to engage with what she believed in, and they all parallel love, life, unity, and peace; the human spirit.

Diana was a Princess straight out of a fairy tale (her royal wedding and family portrait seemed picture perfect) but her happy ending was cut off and taken from her. I could only imagine what the world would be like today with her still in it. In spite of being rich, famous, and beautiful, Diana’s effortless disposition and radiant modesty remain among her most inspiring attributes. She was a true icon and a beacon of tolerance whose values and morals transcended the notion of loving thy neighbour, even after death.

“Everyone needs to be valued. Everyone has the potential to give something back if only they had the chance.”

– Princess Diana

About the Author

Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.