An upper-class girl with a ready blush and a strong will, Diana Spencer, 22, brought Britain into the limelight at a time when its thousand-year-old monarchy had grown pale and stiff with tradition. Her fairy-tale 1981 marriage to Prince Charles was witnessed by an estimated television audience of 750 million around the world, and the bride quickly eclipsed her royal in-laws. She captured the collective imagination with her newly acquired stage presence. Although young, beautiful and immensely privileged, she had “a unique gift not to excite envy,” in the words of one Buckingham Palace source. “She makes people feel like she’s their favorite grandchild.”
The sudden metamorphosis from teacher at the Young England Kindergarten in London’s Pimlico district to the world’s most prominent princess wasn’t without its royal pains. Ties with girlish flatmates from her Colherne Court home had to be loosened, the coy-teenager persona had to be shed, and the poise that would steady her through a lifetime of scrutiny had to be acquired posthaste. Her missteps may have been few, but they were public: everything from the frivolous hats to the dramatic postpartum weight loss that triggered rumors of anorexia nervosa to clothes-horse profligacy in a country with an unemployment rate of some 13.4 percent.
Still, with the help of the Queen Mother, 83, she successfully negotiated most of the initiation rites and weighed in with more victories. The 1982 birth of Prince William (her second child is due in September) and the triumphant tours of the Commonwealth have marked her coming-of-age, as has her successful relationship with a husband whom many believe to have chosen her with his head rather than his heart.
By all indications, Charles, now 35, fell in love with 12-years-younger Diana only after they were accorded the relative privacy of marriage. Their relationship seems to have wrought as many changes in him as in her. Under the influence of Diana, Charles has become more colloquial—the shirts are more colorful, the hair (styled by Kevin Shanley, Diana’s hairdresser) is longer, and his manner less stiff. The halls at Kensington Palace (where Di is seen sporting a Walkman with gold-plated headphones) now resound with the music of Duran Duran—her favorite—as well as with such royal standbys as Vaughan Williams.
Although shopping is an enduring passion for Diana, 20-month-old Wills has become her diversion of choice. Each week the couple spends at least one evening at home with him, taking turns administering his bath and telling bedtime stories. After the baby prince’s early tuck-in, they adjourn for a simple three-course meal (grilled fish or a roast and fresh vegetables) and a bit of telly in the sitting room. Official engagements claim much of her time, but that work is interspersed with en famille retreats to Highgrove, their Gloucestershire country estate, and to such Windsor enclaves as Balmoral in Scotland and Sandringham in Norfolk.
For the cynosure of the royal family, the future may bring—if not an address on nuclear disarmament, then brief speeches on suitably inoffensive topics. It may not be precisely what the youngest daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer was raised to do, but the girl who dropped out of her teenage dance classes when the steps became too hard has risen admirably to the challenge of being royal. As she told the Premier of Newfoundland on last year’s Canadian visit, “I am finding it very difficult to cope with the pressures of being the Princess of Wales, but I am learning.”