A couple of days ago I went to a screening of The Princess, a new documentary about Diana, Princess of Wales. It is hard to believe but this September it will be 25 years since the People's Princess was fatally injured in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris in a drunken car crash. It was a defining moment; my parents' generation talk about where they were when President Kennedy was shot. Baby boomers and Gen X talk about where they were when Diana died.
For me, that's easy. I was the Features Editor of The Telegraph. I spent most of the frantic week that followed desperately trying to read the public mood, commissioning articles from her friends – including Lady Annabel Goldsmith – and trying to understand the huge outpouring of grief sweeping the nation.
It did feel a bit like the world had gone mad, as the late Christopher Hitchens remarks in The Princess – with a tin ear – in front of the thousands who were piling bouquets outside Kensington Palace. Several people overhear and remonstrate with him. Seeing the footage of the crowds lining the M1 out of London and throwing flowers at Diana's hearse as it made its way back to Althorp, her family home in Northampton, made me cry. The reaction to her death was extraordinary; the people really loved her, they felt they knew her, saw their own lives and struggles reflected in her. It is easy to forget what a massive deal it was.
This new documentary uses only archive footage to tell Diana's story once again. After the depictions of her inner turmoil in The Crown and the dreadful Spencer film, it is somehow more shocking to see the real footage; particularly as what we see is so overlaid by what we now know was happening behind those closed palace doors.
What struck me first was how young Diana was when her royal life began. I have a daughter who is 19 – the age Diana was at her engagement to Prince Charles. Diana had barely turned 20 when she walked down the aisle at St Paul's. She was a lamb to the slaughter and she looks it. The film of Diana just before the announcement of her royal engagement, driving herself to her job in a nursery, besieged by photographers and journalists, is emblematic of the battle to the death that was to play out over the next 17 years. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight the seeds of destruction are already there. But so too is her girlish charm, her captivating eyes, the flirty way she glances at the hacks and the paparazzi.
At one point a group of photographers who are trying to shoot her at a villa with telephoto lenses from half a mile away are convinced they have been spotted: "She's seen us," one says. The others demur. She can't have, they argue amongst themselves, we must look like specs, hidden by trees. But the snapper is convinced: "No one can sense a camera like Diana," he says.
That rings true. In the archive footage she has an uncanny knack for fixing photographers with exactly the look they need; whether that's solo outside the Taj Mahal, India's temple to love, when her marriage to Charles is failing; or arriving at a charity do looking a million dollars the night Charles is confessing adultery with Camilla on TV.
She was the most photographed woman on earth, and now 25 years later a new generation of Gen Zs have grown up aware of the power of the lens. Social media means all young people are perennially ready for their close up; teens are constantly snapping themselves on TikTok or Snapchat, Be Real or Instagram. The explosion in contouring make-up, bushy eye-brows and plastic surgery is driven by the omnipresence of the lens. Gen Z are perennially aware of how their images are being scrutinised. They are a generation of mini Dianas. Watching the Diana documentary I was struck over and over again by how prescient her life looks in terms of what we now know is to come in surveillance capitalism. How that sense of being constantly on show, ever camera-ready is now a reality for all.
This awareness of the lens is not the only way in which Diana seems like a Gen Zer a quarter of a century before they existed. The current explosion in mental health awareness (super-charged by the isolation of the pandemic) is also reflected in Diana's life. When I was growing up we were aware of anorexia but I had never heard of anyone self-harming. Between one in five and one in seven adolescents deliberately hurt themselves, for instance by deliberately cutting themselves, according to a Cambridge University study last year, with rates doubling in some groups over lockdown.
In this sad context Diana's struggles once again seem weirdly modern. Contemporary reports used in The Princess describe her self-harming, including throwing herself down palace stairs while pregnant (with William) - a tragic cry for help. The huge chasm between her public life, where she was expected to role-play an existence as the perfect wife and mother, and the reality of her lonely existence and the realisation that there was 'three in the marriage' cannot have helped her mental struggles.
The constant public appearances show her becoming painfully thin from bulimia, which we now understand as a way of dealing with anxiety. Today, a whole generation understands the pressure to look perfect on social media while their real lives may be anything but. Once again Diana preshadowed the experience of today's Gen Zers.
As I watched Diana's transformation over the two hours of the film from wide-eyed Sloane to world power-player, campaigning against landmines, being honoured for her humanitarian work at the White House, rubbing shoulders with the Clintons and Henry Kissinger, I had a sudden insight. Diana was the first global influencer. Way before social media made using celebrity to throw light on good causes an everyday occurrence, Diana was using her global super-status and the constant attention of the media to highlight her pet causes. Again she was the first to do this.
But towards the end of her tragically short life (she died aged 36) she is a woman embodying her power; using her status to do good. She loves it and it shows in her oozing sexuality and assurance. As her confidence grows the hemlines of her dresses get shorter, she starts to show more cleavage; in her early thirties she is aware of her supreme power to seduce and uses it to campaign on controversial issues in a way no-one had ever done before. At this point she is famous for being famous – but she uses her fame and her empathetic power to connect with everyone from Aids victims to children who have lost limbs in Angola. As the first influencer, she shines her huge wattage on the causes which needed it.
The strange thing is that the hottest fashions for Gen Z now are clothes from the 1990s. High-waisted Mom jeans (which Diana loved) worn with a crisp white shirt tucked in are currently all the rage. My 19-year-old went out the other day in a dress which was a dead ringer for the drop-waisted clingy Victor Edelstein dress Diana wore when she danced with John Travolta at the White House. Her go-to blazers are also having a fashion moment. It is uncanny how in tune she is with the current sensibility.
"Diana was ahead of her time in so many ways," comments Nicola Green, artist and creator of famous images of Barack Obama and many other world leaders, who created the artwork of Diana for this production. "it is why she is still such a powerful icon now, the most recognised woman globally and the first to wear street wear. Diana understood how she could use her face, body and her clothes to speak to people across cultures. It's there in the name Tony Blair gave her: People's Princess. It was a way of expressing that she was the first, and possibly the most far-reaching influencer yet."