would not volunteer to walk through a minefield, but Princess Diana
did it twice.
Diana walked gingerly down a narrow path cleared through an Angolan minefield on January 15, 1997, wearing a protective visor and flak jacket emblazoned with the name of The HALO Trust, a group devoted to removing mines from former war zones. When she realized some of the photographers accompanying her didn't get the shot, she turned around and did it again.
Later, she encountered a group of landmine survivors, including a young girl who had lost her left leg, who sat on the princess' lap.
The images from that day appeared in newspapers and on television
sets around the world, drawing international attention to the then-lagging campaign to rid the world of devices that lurk underground for decades after conflicts end; today
, a treaty prohibiting landmines has 164 signatories.
Those touched by the life of the preschool teacher turned princess remembered her ahead of her 60th birthday on Thursday, remembering the complicated royal rebel who left an indelible imprint on the House
Diana possessed the “emotional intelligence that allowed her to see the bigger picture... but also to bring it right down to individual human beings,” according to James Cowan, a retired major general and the CEO
of The HALO Trust. “She knew that she could reach their hearts in a way that would outmaneuver those who would only be an influence through the head.”
Diana's walk among the landmines seven months before her death
in a car crash
in Paris is just one example of how she helped make the monarchy more accessible, altering the way the royal family
interacted with the public.
She connected with people in a way that inspired other royals
, including her sons, Princes William and Harry, as the monarchy worked to become more human and relevant in the twenty-first century, by interacting more intimately with the public — kneeling to the level of a child, sitting on the edge of a patient's hospital
bed, writing personal notes to her fans
Diana did not invent the concept of royals visiting the poor, destitute, or oppressed; Queen Elizabeth II
visited a Nigerian leper colony in 1956, but Diana touched them — literally.
“Diana was a real hugger in the royal family,” said Sally Bedell Smith, author of “Diana in Search of Herself.” “She was much more visibly tactile in the way she interacted with people, which was not and still is not something the queen was comfortable with.”
She also knew that because she was being followed around by photographers and TV crews, those interactions could draw attention to her causes.
Ten years before she embraced landmine survivors in Angola, she shook hands with a young AIDS
patient in London
in the early days of the epidemic, demonstrating that the disease could not be transmitted through touch.
As her marriage to Prince Charles
deteriorated, Diana used the same techniques to tell her side of the story, such as embracing her children
with open arms to show her love for her sons, sitting alone in front of the Taj Mahal on a royal visit to India
, and walking through that minefield as she began a new life after her divorce
“Diana understood the power of imagery — and she knew a photograph was worth a thousand words,” said Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine and author of “Diana: An Intimate Portrait.” “She wasn’t an intellectual. She wasn’t ever going to be the one to give the right words, but she gave the right image.”
And it all started on July 29, 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer, then 20 years old, married Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, at St. Paul
, who co-designed her wedding gown, compares the transformation of a chrysalis into a butterfly to that of a nursery school teacher in cardigans and sensible skirts into a fairytale princess.
“We thought, right, let’s do the biggest, most dramatic dress possible, the ultimate fairytale dress. Let’s make it big. Let’s have big sleeves. Let’s have ruffles,” Emanuel explained. “And St. Paul’s was so huge. We knew that we needed to do something that was a statement. And Diana was completely up for that. She loved that idea.
Diana, according to Emanuel, also had a simplicity about her that made her more approachable to people.
“I think she had this vulnerability about her so that ordinary people could relate to her. She wasn’t perfect, and none of us are, and I think that’s why there is this thing, you know, people think of her almost like family. They felt they knew her.”
Diana's sons followed in their mother's footsteps by establishing more personal connections with the public through their charitable work, which included supporting efforts to de-stigmatize mental health
issues and treat young AIDS patients in Lesotho and Botswana.
William, second in line to the throne, was an air ambulance pilot before taking on full-time royal duties, and Harry retraced Diana's steps through the minefield for The HALO Trust.
Her influence can be seen in other royals as well; for example, Sophie, the Countess of Wessex and wife of Charles' brother Prince Edward
, became teary in a television interview
as she told the nation about her feelings following the death of her father-in-law, Prince Philip
The public even began to see a different side of the queen, such as her appearance as a Bond girl during the 2012 London Olympics
, in which she starred in a mini-movie with Daniel Craig to kick off the games.
More recently, the monarch has reached out via Zoom
calls, joking with schoolchildren about her meeting with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
The Zoom erupted with laughter as she flatly stated, "Russian."
Cowan of HALO said Diana's and now Harry's attention to the landmine issue helped attract funding, allowing thousands of workers to continue the slow process of ridding the world of the devices.
According to Landmine Monitor, sixty countries and territories continue to be contaminated with landmines, which killed or injured over 5,500 people in 2019.
“She had that ability to reach out and inspire people. Their imaginations were fired up by this work, and they like it and want to fund it, and that’s why she’s left such a profound legacy for us,” Cowan said.