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Princess Diana: The Rise of the Unforgettable Icon Skip to content

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Princess Diana: Rise of a 1980s Icon

From ‘Shy Di’ to global style-setter, she embraces royal life and fame

  • Princess Diana Magazine Covers
    Jeff Elkins for AARP

    Queen of Hearts

    En español | The ’80s saw a dowdy London kindergarten assistant take the global stage as she morphed into a charismatic and empathetic superstar known as the “Queen of Hearts” and the “People’s Princess.”

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  • Lady Diana Spencer
    REX/Shutterstock

    Shy Di

    The world is introduced to 19-year-old Lady Diana Frances Spencer in 1980 after she began dating Prince Charles, Britain’s most eligible bachelor and heir to the throne. She’s dubbed “Shy Di” as she keeps her head down and dodges paparazzi while trying to go about her daily routine. In a photo flashed around the globe, she holds a child in her arms while her thin, flowing skirt appears semi-transparent due to lighting conditions.

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  • Engagement of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer
    Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

    Early Fairy-Tale Romance

    In February 1981, she and new fiancé Prince Charles pose for photographers at Buckingham Palace, where she hides her bitten fingernails when asked to show off the impressive sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring (now worn by her son William’s wife, Kate Middleton). Di acts like a smitten kitten when asked about the momentous changes in store. “Next to Prince Charles, I can’t go wrong,” she says. Queried as to whether they are in love, she responds, “ ’Course!” The prince unromantically adds, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”

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  • Princess Diana and The Sheep Sweater
    Tim Graham/Getty Images

    Emerging Fashionista

    Diana’s reign as a fashion queen begins when women copy her short, layered hairdo and rush to buy what she wears, including rubber Wellington boots and a red sweater emblazoned with rows of white sheep and one black one.

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  • Wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana
    AP Photo

    Wedding Bells

    An estimated 750 million people watch the couple’s July 29, 1981, wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on TV. Di dazzles in a shimmering ivory silk taffeta gown with poufy sleeves, hand-embroidered pearls and a flowing 25-foot train designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel. Adding to the fairy tale: a carriage ride to Buckingham Palace followed by a balcony smooch beamed ’round the world while thousands outside the gates roar approval.

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  • Princess Diana LHJ Queen Of Hearts
    Courtesy of Meredith Corporation

    International Ascension

    The duo appears happy, although years later tabloid tales and Andrew Morton’s tell-all biography, Diana: Her True Story (written with the princess’s then-secret collaboration), will reveal that the bride was upset by Charles’ continued communication with former girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles. Meanwhile, Di’s fame continues to grow; her face is a best-seller for magazines everywhere. An October 1982 Ladies’ Home Journal cover dubs her the “Queen of Hearts.”

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  • Birth of Prince William
    REX/Shutterstock

    First-Time Mum

    On June 21, 1982, Diana gives birth to son William Arthur Philip Louis in London’s St. Mary’s Hospital, with Charles at her side. She demonstrates her intention to be a hands-on mom by taking the 9-month-old on her first big tour with Charles to Australia and New Zealand. William is the first British royal infant to accompany his or her parents on an official overseas visit.

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  • Birth of Prince Harry
    AP Photo

    Motherhood, Round 2

    The couple’s second son, Henry “Harry” Charles Albert David, is born Sept. 15, 1984, giving them what’s jokingly referred to as “an heir and a spare.” Diana vows to make her children’s upbringing as normal as possible.

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  • Princess Diana Necklace Headband
    Glenn Harvey/Camera Press/Redux

    Taking Fashion Risks

    Developing more confidence and taking more fashion chances, Diana wears Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gift of a diamond-and-emerald necklace nontraditionally, on her forehead in a flapper style, during a state visit to Melbourne, Australia, in 1985.

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  • Wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana
    Pete Souza/Newscom

    Putting on the Ritz

    Diana continues to overshadow her husband and takes Washington, D.C., by storm in November 1985, topped off by a dance with Saturday Night Fever star John Travolta at a gala dinner at the Reagan White House. Quizzed by British tabloid reporters, the actor rates her dancing skills a “10.”

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  • Princess Diana talking to AIDS patients
    REX/Shutterstock

    Royal Compassion

    Winning high marks for her bond with everyday people and her work with charities, Diana takes a leading role in destigmatizing AIDs sufferers by shaking hands with patients in London in 1987. Two years later, she hugs a child afflicted with pediatric AIDS in a Harlem, N.Y., hospital. “HIV does not make people dangerous to know,” she famously said. “You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows, they need it.”

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  • Princess Diana and James Hewitt
    Ron Dadswell/REX/Shutterstock

    Secret Lovers

    By the mid-1980s, Charles has resumed his intimate relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Diana embarks on a clandestine liaison with her riding instructor, cavalry officer James Hewitt. The affairs were later laid bare in Andrew Morton’s biography as well as in embarrassing tapes of phone calls between Charles and Camilla that fell into reporters’ hands.

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  • Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, Princess Diana and Prince CharlesSarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, Princess Diana and Prince Charles
    Alisdair Macdonald/REX/Shutterstock

    Fergie and Di

    Diana reportedly shares her growing unhappiness with another royal wife, Sarah Ferguson, wed to Charles’ younger brother Andrew. The pair, dubbed the “Merry Wives of Windsor” by tabloids, engage in hijinks such as prodding pals’ behinds with umbrellas at the stuffy Ascot horse races. A People magazine cover story about them is headlined: “Naughty, Naughty: The Follies of Fergie and Di.”

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  • Michael Jackson with Princess Diana
    REX/Shutterstock

    Princess Meets King of Pop

    Diana flouts royal tradition by enthusiastically embracing pop culture, a contrast to her more intellectual husband. She relishes rubbing shoulders with stars such as Elton John (who performed a special version of “Candle in the Wind” at her funeral) and Michael Jackson.

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  • Prince William, Diana, Princess of Wales, Prince Harry and Charles, Prince of Wales
    Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

    Smiling Faces, Sometimes

    As the ’80s close, a fairy-tale ending seems unlikely. Although Charles and Diana put on a happy face for Christmas cards and at public events, the marriage continues to deteriorate. It culminates in a 1992 separation and a 1996 divorce. Then the world is stunned when Diana and beau Dodi Fayed are killed after an Aug. 31, 1997, car crash in Paris, prompting weeks of public mourning and an emotional funeral at Westminster Abbey. In announcing her death in a televised address, British Prime Minister Tony Blair dubs her the “People’s Princess.” “That’s how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts, in our memories forever,” he says.

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