This week, I got to see something pretty spectacular followed by something predictably unoriginal.
I’m visiting family in Cincinnati, Ohio, and yesterday I went to the Cincinnati Museum Center, which is currently running an award-winning exhibition on the late Princess Diana titled Diana, A Celebration that chronicles the life and work of Diana, Princess of Wales. I lucked out. More than a million people around the world have seen the touring exhibit since 2003 and Cincinnati happens to be the last museum on this tour, before everything goes back this summer to Althorp Estate, the Spencer family’s 500-year-old ancestral home in England, where Diana is buried.
I grew up with Diana everywhere in the news. I was a kid when she got married in that stunning Royal Gown with the 25-foot train and I got to see it yesterday behind glass. Up close I could see that the ivory silk gown with the puffed sleeves was both simple in its concept and elaborate in its design. I could see the painstaking hand embroidery, the minute sequins in the veil, and many of the 10,000 pearls that were sewn into it.
But the dress was nothing compared to the woman. She was an insecure, but down-to-earth girl from divorced parents who spent some time as a nanny, a teacher and a house cleaner (doesn’t that blow your mind?) before she met Charles. In February 1981, when her engagement to HRH Prince Charles was announced, it was the first time the world took notice and “Shy Di” became the object of intense media scrutiny.
Later that night, I was flipping through the TV channels, which is a novelty because I rarely watch cable TV. The remote landed on various incarnations of The Real Housewives of ...whatever. Doesn’t matter which show it was. The point is, I was watching these pampered divas go on a trip to some tropical paradise together. They were surrounded by beautiful beaches and spectacular scenery with people waiting on them hand and foot. And all they could manage to do was sit there and talk behind each other’s backs, confront one another on petty issues and behave like 12-year-old girls at a sleepover for the length of their vacation.
My thoughts kept going back to Princess Diana, who wasn’t perfect either. She had a real problem with bulimia and as the story goes, had dropped from a size 14 to a size 10 in the run-up to the wedding, prompting panic from the gown designers that it wouldn’t fit. The Diana, A Celebration exhibition contained 28 designer suits and evening gowns of hers and though gorgeous, each one held a sad little clue as to what might have perpetuated her eating disorder. All of those clothes she had to wear to charity functions and royal events looked as though they fit a very slim woman, impossibly small for someone who stood 5’ 10”.
In the early part of the 1980s, there were no 24-7 tabloid TV shows, websites, blogs or much reality TV. Diana wasn’t even a fully formed adult before she found herself thrust into a spotlight that she would eventually come to bitterly loathe. But, at the same time, she felt the same pressure as these Real Housewives to maintain an “image” for the public.
There are no museums dedicated to showcasing the personal items of the Real Housewives, so I don’t pretend to know what makes them tick. Many of the personal items in Diana’s exhibit revealed clues into who she really was, but even then, I can only speculate. To peer down and see her childhood things, I began to get a picture of her as a kid. She loved ballet and the grace that came with it. I could see from her small pink ballet slippers and the home movies her father took that played on the walls, as well as photos from her own teenage photo albums, that ballet was her passion...until she grew too tall to participate. That must have been such a disappointment, to face being rejected from her favorite past time because of a body that wouldn’t conform to a certain (tiny) standard.
Another display showed a painting of her beloved kitten Marmalade that her grandmother had sketched for her, along with a green floppy frog and a stuffed toy cat. Still, another area offered a glimpse into tiny ceramic animals she collected as a girl (and apparently never stopped collecting) including a little turtle and two donkeys, one whose ear was broken off and forever lost.
The need for comfort and the need to give comfort to those around her was evident throughout her life. From the way she played with her boys on the lawn to the photo of her reaching out to hold the hand of a man with HIV—at a time when people widely believed AIDS was transmittable through casual contact, Diana transcended the “Pretty Princess” image. Her willingness to lean down and touch the common people, especially children who were suffering made her real. Diana was already a naturally kind person, but she developed a keen sense of compassion that wasn’t required of her new station in life.
On the wall in the last gallery, I re-read the entire tribute her brother Earl Charles Spencer read at her funeral in Westminister Abbey, while in the background, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s composition played, adapted from “Candle in the Wind. As this exhibition was on loan from the Spencer family, thankfully, there was no chronicling of her dissolving marriage to Charles, nor was there any particular focus on the circumstances of how she died. I’ve seen all of that anyway.
I didn’t write it down (and no pictures were allowed) so I can’t quite remember the exact phrasing in one quote on the wall, but Charles Spencer felt Diana’s compassion came from her own suffering and she used that pain every day to find a way to alleviate other people’s suffering.
When you get past all of the Botox, makeup and cattiness of the real Housewives, you can plainly see there is suffering there too. All that money. All of that effort toward maintaining their physical attraction. All of the glamorous locales they get to spend time in...and they were still miserably unhappy. Because the reality TV industry monetizes drama and suffering, that’s all the network wants you to see. On this particular episode I happened to watch, these Hollywood women clearly didn’t feel that anyone in their group had true loyalty or selflessness. And it pained some of them to have to spend their vacation with their so-called “friends” who would easily throw them under the bus for monetary gain. But yet, it’s obvious they worked so hard to get in front of those cameras and would claw tooth and nail to stay there.
I just couldn’t help thinking about it last night. A princess who loathed the spotlight, but used it nevertheless to draw public awareness to important issues like AIDS and banning landmines versus modern reality show queens who crave the spotlight in order to draw public awareness to. . . themselves. That’s it.
So, it’s no wonder when I looked up at that gallery wall and saw the video footage of Diana’s radiant smile in her landmine protection uniform I found myself glued to watching her every movement. The caliber of her character, of what she gave to the world, made her worthy of watching, as opposed to flipping the TV channels later that night and skimming over the Real Housewives of whatever.
Kay Stephens is a reporter for Penobscot Bay Pilot. Occasionally when there’s no other way to tell a story, she’ll kick out a column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org