Why Diana's Popularity Continues to Escalate

The BBC's coverage of her funeral will be the biggest broadcast in company history.

From dinner-table conversation in Missoula, Mont., to the carpet of flowers spreading over the steps of the most remote British consulates, the global outpouring over the death of the Princess of Wales is taking on proportions that few could have imagined even a few days ago. Some are comparing it to the worldwide response to President Kennedy's assassination.

Certainly, Diana's status as an international figure - first, as the most glamorous member of the British royal family and more recently, as a champion of humanitarian causes - is beyond doubt. But how can one explain the surge of deep sentiment and emotion, a phenomenon that has surprised even her most ardent fans?

Mere celebrity, even in our celebrity-crazed culture, doesn't capture it. Rather, it is the complex of Diana's life that has caused so many to pause in reflection, and to gorge on the wall-to-wall media coverage, in this week between her passing and her funeral tomorrow at London's Westminster Abbey. It will be one of the most watched funerals in history. The British Broadcasting Corporation will broadcast to 187 nations in 44 languages.

"She was probably the most well-known woman in the world," says biographer Anne Edwards. "But I don't call her a celebrity."

"She comes into a different category completely. Princess Di has been someone whom young people in particular could identify with, and I think she headed into the realm of a leader of some sort," says Ms. Edwards, whose subjects have included Barbra Streisand, Katharine Hepburn, and England's "royal sisters," Queen Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret.

Diana represented the new view of what the British monarchy could be, a royalty that didn't resist human contact but instead welcomed it, much the way Bill Clinton has infused a personal touch into his presidency, Ms. Edwards adds.

Touching royalty

"Somehow or other with Diana, there was the idea that [people] could touch her in a way, and that what they were touching was the essence of ruling power," says Edwards, who has been working on a biography of Diana that focuses on her efforts to remake the monarchy.

Diana's personal life, at once extraordinary and ordinary, also gave people something to relate to. Even if her adult life began as a fairy tale, it soon bore common troubles. And even if by the end, her life hardly resembled anything the average person could fathom, she was still a devoted mother.

"What should never be forgotten is the fact that she's left two young children, whom she adored," says C. Margaret Hall, a sociologist at Georgetown University. "Family themes always have widespread international interest. We can all identify with that."

Diana, in a way, had become a living Rorschach test, particularly for young women. For some, she represented a woman who had married young, and perhaps ill-advisedly, but seemed to have landed on her feet and found her own style. For others, she was the valiant single mother, coping with the challenges of co-parenting with an ex-spouse. For others still, she remained the fairy princess, the model for the Princess Di paper dolls some women cut out as six-year-olds.

Earlier this week, a young mother from suburban Maryland avoided the throng outside the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., going instead to the nearby ambassador's residence. She tied her bouquet of pale pink roses to the gate, read aloud a note to Diana, and paused to reflect.

"I just feel so badly for her boys," the woman sighed.

What has also emerged from the reaction to Diana's death is a bit of a gender gap.

Men don't get it

Conservative radio host Oliver North commented this week that he didn't quite see why people viewed Diana as a role model. Several men called in to agree they didn't get it either. Even the mourner from Maryland represents a one-family gender gap: Her husband declined to come to the embassy with her, saying his wife was being "overly sentimental."

Of course, Diana did have her detractors, particularly in England. Earlier this summer, she was raked over the coals for taking her sons to see "The Devil's Own," a violent film sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army.

Diana also was known for partaking of unusual therapies. But in this proper period of reflection, such details are often swept aside in favor of hagiography.

Part of the sadness about Diana is also, no doubt, linked to the fact that her story has ended. Many feel that cheated that they'll never know if the princess really was going to live happily ever after. Or what causes she might have taken up next, or if she was, as some have said, really planning on dropping out of public life altogether.

The flip side of "Diana, Regular Person" was "Diana, Rich and Famous," a tabloid staple that led editors to pay exorbitant fees to the paparazzi who might have contributed to her death.

"We live vicariously through richer, more beautiful, better-dressed versions of ourselves," says Hollywood biographer Frank Sanello. "Based on my experience, the celebrity ultra-rich are truly different from you and me. They inhabit an alternate universe that's other-worldly when you get a glimpse of it."

It is that other-worldliness, in part, that has given the news media so much to talk about in the days since the accident. And judging by the high ratings, the public is lapping it up, almost wallowing in the hours of daily television coverage.

"People are just reluctant to let go," says Edwards, the author. "The same thing happened with John Kennedy."

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