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25 years ago, Princess Diana's shocking death became one of the first viral moments

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today marks 25 years since Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. News of her death dominated headlines and shocked her fans around the world. Her funeral was broadcast live by international media, including NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS: The funeral procession has been underway for about an hour and a half. It has just reached St. James's Palace, where the funeral cortege was joined by Prince Charles, by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, of course, by Diana's sons, Harry and William, and by her brother, Earl Spencer.

SHAPIRO: Her death in 1997 became a viral moment before most of us really knew what viral moments were. Tina Brown has written extensively about Princess Diana and the royal family. She's author of "The Palace Papers: Inside The House Of Windsor - The Truth And The Turmoil." And we've invited her to look back at that moment 25 years ago to better understand what the coverage of the events signified.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TINA BROWN: Delighted to be here. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: This was one of those moments where people remember where they were when they heard the news. Can you take us back to your memory of that day?

BROWN: Yes. In fact, it was all the more poignant to me because I had simply recently seen her in July of that same year, sort of six weeks before, when she was in town in New York for the auction of her dresses for charity at Christie's. So I had last seen her so vibrant, so alive, so much a woman on a path for sort of an exciting next act. And then to find, of course, to be woken up in the morning, as I was at our house in Long Island, by a voice saying, can you share me your memories - with me your memories of Princess Diana? It was absolutely inconceivable that this vibrant person, you know, was no longer with us.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think her death had such a huge impact on people all over the world, whether or not they followed the royal family?

BROWN: Well, I think what really drew people to Diana was that, you know, for six years, millions of Britons and people around the world have felt themselves really to be not spectators but participants in her evolution and her struggles - this beautiful, shy teenager who became the fairy princess, then the wronged wife who searched for love and hid her agony with eating disorders and then the passionate crusader who became, you know, even more beautiful as she shared the miseries of others. You know, she really subsumed those miseries into her humanitarian work, and in doing so, made everybody feel included. And that was what was so really ironic, essentially, that this daughter of privilege became such an idol to the masses.

SHAPIRO: Her death and her funeral took place in 1997, when the era of instant news and the internet was just beginning. So how do you fit those events into our understanding today of viral celebrity news?

BROWN: Well, I mean, Diana was the first great glamour icon to die in the age of round-the-world, round-the-clock multimedia. I mean, we've since then got used to these kind of massive, world-wide events when a major figure dies, although nothing yet has as equaled her passing; except we will find when the queen dies, which will be even more extraordinary, I believe.

SHAPIRO: The car crash happened as she was being chased by paparazzi. And so how do you fit that in with our present-day moment, where everyone is constantly using our phone cameras to surveil and document ourselves and each other all the time?

BROWN: Well, I sometimes think, you know, how much worse, if it's possible, the sort of hysteria would have been if Diana had died in the age of the iPhone. I mean, for a start, her death in the tunnel, which was already being kind of obscenely snapped by these photographers, you would have had people drawing up on their cars, everybody holding up their phones, and it's streaming live to the world. As it was, there was still a certain amount of sort of respect that a dying princess's last hours, that those photographs actually weren't revealed until much, much later at the great protest of her of her two sons, who were absolutely appalled to imagine that their mother's last dying moments were actually captured on film and shared with the world. You know, in the age of the iPhone, you wouldn't have been able to keep that back. So - you know, and I also wonder whether or not the conspiracy theories that accrued around Diana in the period after her death of, you know, was it to do with the royal family, was she murdered, all of those feverish speculations which led to her inquest, et cetera, you know, in the age of conspiracy theories now, with the internet being so powerful in the spreading of those kind of rumors, would that have burst open in a way that would have been untenable?

SHAPIRO: Do you think young people in Britain or elsewhere today know about Diana, or is she just another figure in history?

BROWN: They do know about Diana. I mean, Diana has this ability to sort of reach across the ages. I mean, there is a fairy story element, obviously. I mean, her beauty, the fact that her life was cut short at 36, you know, rather like Marilyn Monroe, like JFK. You know, there are certain icons whose early death, their unfinished life leads people, I think, to want to hear that story again and again. And it is a narrative that has everything in it, including the two handsome princes, her sons, who are left to carry her torch. And really, you know, Prince Harry has become sort of in many ways the incarnation of much of Diana's Spencer emotional temperament. I mean, he's very much like his mother in his desire to throw bombs.

SHAPIRO: That's author, journalist and editor Tina Brown remembering the death of Princess Diana 25 years ago today. Thank you so much.

BROWN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Kathryn Fox