Remembering Princess Diana

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Candles, flowers and other gifts line the steps of the British embassy in D.C.

Sixteen years before her death captured the world's attention, Diana's 1981 wedding to Prince Charles was a defining global event; we all watched as the shy young bride made her way down that aisle, trailed by what seemed like miles of white tulle. She looked utterly regal — and, in retrospect, utterly tragic. Who could resist such pageantry, such drama?

None of us, apparently. Five years after her death in a car crash, there seems to be no end to our fascination with Diana. Behind the sparkle of her tiaras, the careful chic of her painstakingly selected wardrobe, and the veneer of her impeccable bearing, Diana was the anti-royal, and as she came into her own, particularly towards the end of her life, she began to enjoy her role as agitator-in-chief. No one, it has been reported, could frustrate the Queen more than Diana. Even in death, Diana maintained the upper hand, her popularity so eclipsed that of the Queen (or any royal, for that matter).

When Diana died in Paris on August 31, 1997, the royals' stiff-lipped response provoked outrage from the British people. Chastened, Queen Elizabeth spoke to her subjects one week later, extolling her former daughter-in-law's grace, her charity work and her gift for laughter.

In the end, Diana's funeral belied her long exile from her husband's family; it was the loud insistence of the public (and the advice of her counselors), that convinced the Queen to order an extravagant royal funeral for the late Princess. Diana's coffin, laden with white blooms, was pulled through the streets of sobbing London, followed by her grim-faced ex-husband, her heartbroken brother and her beloved sons.

The outpouring of sadness from her countrymen bordered on the hysterical. And while many of us would like to pretend that only monarchy-mad Britons are capable of such a display, mourning for this damaged, lovely, contradictory woman engaged much of the world for days.

After her death, we were left wondering how to finally put this Diana's memory to rest: what is left to say, after all, about someone whose life has been the subject of literally endless speculation?

As little and as much as we like, as it turns out. Diana, unlike other celebrities of her time, provided us with a deep pool of collective memory: The wedding, the divorce, the funeral. Where did you watch it? Where were you when you heard? Only loosely-defined standards of taste and respect provide parameters to our indefatigable adoration/self-examination.

From the beginning, the public's infatuation with Diana played like an ill-fated love affair: She made us work hard for a few peeks at candor, and we loved her even more for her unavailability. For all her claims of reticence, and despite her famous blush, Princess Diana was hardly camera-shy. She knew exactly how to work the lens, and over the years learned to make it conform to her many moods: flirtatious, sullen, playful, frustrated. Her face was famously kaleidoscopic — full of life, constantly changing. It was this ever-percolating energy that made her such a joy to watch and, royal-snappers agree, to photograph. Some of the most famous pictures of Diana capture the Princess mid e-roll, or sitting stiffly beside her Prince and looking as if she wants nothing more than to slide under the table and escape. Others show a young mother, her head thrown back in laughter, bundling her children to her.

Despite a continued love for their "Queen of Hearts," today's Britain shows a cooling of the national Diana obsession; while a recent survey of Britons, commissioned by the History Channel, named Diana's death the 20th century's most important British event, another poll suggests many are slowly moving on. British polling firm Mori Research found rising approval ratings for Prince Charles, the Queen and even Camilla Parker-Bowles (whom Diana nicknamed the "Rottweiler").

Diana would have been pleased, however, to know that despite her fading prominence, her influence lives on. Princes William and Harry, both very much their mother's sons, command the same degree of public adoration Diana once knew. Adoration, one hopes, that's tinged by a sense of perspective and respect, borne out of tragedy and time.