As told to Simon Hemelryk
She was one of the most photographed and written about women in the world, until her tragic death, 20 years ago this month. Much of the media portrayal of Diana, Princess of Wales, as warm, caring but often fragile was spot-on. But there was so much more to her… To mark the anniversary of her passing, aged just 36, we reveal those who knew Diana’s unheard, insightful, often funny anecdotes about their time with her.
Informative, in-depth and in the know: get the latest news, interviews and reviews with Saga Magazine.
The royal chef
After 11 years in the Queen’s kitchens, Darren McGrady became Princess Diana’s personal chef in 1993.
By the time I joined her, Diana had conquered her bulimia, but she was very health-conscious. It was quite tough moving from Buckingham Palace, where they used so much cream, to be doing things like vegetarian dishes and salad. We got on well, though, and she’d often have a tray lunch in the kitchen, chatting away.
Sometimes she’d say, ‘You won’t believe what the Queen just told me.’
I’d reply, ‘No, your Royal Highness, don’t tell me. I’m not supposed to know.’ And she’d just laugh.
Other times she’d announce, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sad. He died last night.’
‘I’m sorry, your Highness. Who?’
‘Did you not watch Brookside?’
She’d ask me if I had a girlfriend yet. ‘No? Oh, we’ll find someone one day.’
Then, when I started dating my future wife, Wendy, she produced a big bouquet and said, ‘Say they’re from you.’
I explained it had more kudos to say they were from her, so she wrote a note: ‘From one Cancerian to another, love Diana’. Unfortunately, Wendy and I only got married after she died.
Diana had her ‘bad hair days’ when you just kept your head down, chopping vegetables, but for the most part, she was incredible and inspired me to get involved in charity work. I now run a US company called Eating Royally that donates royal-themed dinner parties at fundraisers.
Darren’s new cookery book The Royal Chef at Home is available next month from theroyalchef.com
The charity boss
Cliff O’Gorman is the CEO of Children with Cancer UK, which he founded with his parents Eddie and Marion – and Diana.
My 14-year-old brother Paul died of cancer in February 1987, followed just months later by my sister, Jean. Our tragic story made the papers and, completely out of the blue, Diana sent us a note saying she’d like to help us.
She came to a cancer-fundraising event my parents were helping to stage and sat with my mum during the interval looking at pictures of Paul and Jean, and hugging her while she cried. She then came to plant a memorial tree at Paul’s school and suggested starting a charity to raise money in his name. Normally that setting-up process can take several months, but she got her staff to sort it out in days. The fact that she was prepared to get involved in a low-profile family project said a lot about her, I think.
She’d attend meetings and would meet my father (pictured below with Diana) for updates on the charity. Her first question was always, ‘How’s the tree doing?’
Children with Cancer UK has now raised over £210 million for research, awareness and helping families. She’d be thrilled.
Jane Haworth, artistic coordinator of the English National Ballet, was a dancer when Diana would do her morning exercises at the company’s rehearsal space.
The princess took a keen interest in our company [then called the London Festival Ballet], attending performances and later becoming our patron. So, in the early 1980s, we’d told her she was welcome to do her keep-fit exercises with her trainer at our building close to Kensington Palace, before our ballet classes started.
She never made a fuss when she arrived, saying, ‘Carry on, carry on’.
We knew she’d danced as a child and we would say, ‘Join in with us. It would be lovely.’
‘No, no, I couldn’t keep up,’ she’d reply.
But we had a real rapport with her, partly because we were of a similar age. She learned everybody’s names and always asked after the girls she knew had had eating disorders.
Diana had a huge caring instinct. Several of our dancers walked behind her coffin during the funeral cortège.
Dickie Arbiter was a Press Secretary to the Queen and a media manager for Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
She was incredibly good on royal visits. She communicated with people as equals, bringing light to those who were experiencing bad things.
Famously, Diana shook the hand of an Aids patient at a London hospital in 1987, sweeping away the ‘do not touch’ taboo. But I can remember when, away from the cameras, she came across an elderly blind man sitting in the lobby of a home for the visually impaired she’d just been visiting. She stopped to talk to him, but then he started crying.
‘I can’t see you,’ he explained.
So she squatted down, took his hand and put it on her face so he could ‘read’ it.
She liked people to have fun, too. She threw me a 50th birthday lunch in her dining room at Kensington Palace. We had party poppers, a cake shaped like my ever-present mobile phone and she joined in with a rendition of Happy Birthday.
She once traded in her old Jaguar for a new sporty Mercedes SL. I asked her why she hadn’t got another British car. ‘I’ve got a German husband,’ she replied. ‘Why can’t I have a German car?’
Dickie is author of On Duty with the Queen
Veteran royal photographer for The Sun, Arthur Edwards, followed Diana around the world for 17 years.
Like other royals, it was always them and us. But it was done in a warm, witty way.
I photographed her in the Bahamas in a red bikini when she was five months pregnant with William. Back home, we were heavily criticised for printing the shots. I felt really bad. When I next saw Diana, she asked me, ‘How much did you make out of those pictures?’
I replied, ‘All I got was my expenses, same as if I was covering a court case in Bradford.’ I wasn’t as well paid as the freelancers.
‘Oh, pass me the Kleenex,’ she replied with heavy irony.
That made me feel so much better. She clearly saw things as they were – I’d been sent out to do a job, and I did it – and made a joke out of it.
Another time, I told her that if her new haircut was much shorter, she’d look like Sinéad O’Connor. ‘At least I’ve got some hair,’ she giggled, as she got into a car.
She brought her children up in the very best way, never letting them forget they were privileged, taking them to down-and-out shelters unannounced, with no pictures – you’d never even know about it. I was there in Paris when they brought her coffin out of the shabby back of the hospital.
I have to say I cried.
The marriage counsellor
Teresa Cresswell, chair of Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Relate, showed Diana round the marriage-guidance charity’s centre in 1993.
There were a lot of very insightful, pertinent questions from the princess when she spoke to our counsellors about our services, that day.
‘How long do couples come to counselling for? If it doesn’t work, what then?’ And she wanted to know how we help people part amicably, making it easier for the children.
I can’t say whether she was trying to make sense of her own situation. But she asked if she could meet a couple who had been through counselling successfully. She spent an hour with them, in private. None of us know to this day what was said.
Wayne Sleep danced – to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl – with Diana at the Friends of Covent Garden Christmas Party in 1985.
Diana contacted me about doing the duet for what was a private do – no press. We did it all tongue-in-cheek, and really bonded during rehearsals and getting eight curtain calls.
After that, she’d come to my little mews house for dinner, kick off her shoes, and we’d talk about the boys and my performances, and sit there staring at the wallpaper like any good pals do. It was a release for her.
She’d also sit in the wings during my shows and come to my dressing room in the interval. I remember I had a mug with a cartoon of her in a leotard, saying ‘Let’s dance, yah’. She made me get 20 more to give to her friends.
Just before the poor thing left this world, though, I wasn’t getting a Christmas card from her any more. She could drop people, apparently. I think she wrongly thought I’d sold pictures of us dancing to the press and she was also trying to get serious about her charity work, so I’m not sure she wanted the funny man around at that time. I was a little miffed, but felt I wouldn’t interrupt.
But I didn’t find out how close we had been until after she died. I thought she’d had lots of friends like me, but it turned out she didn’t. That made me feel even more wonderful about her.
Wayne is an ambassador for Prostate Cancer UK, prostatecanceruk.org
Ever since he watched the royal wedding in July 1981, 46-year-old Leeds gym worker David Butler was captivated by Diana, and attended many of her public appearances.
Diana had a magical effect on people. She’d just make you feel so comfortable in her presence. When she saw me in the crowd during walkabouts, she’d often come up and chat about anything from my latest hairstyle to how excited she was about being there.
When she visited Leeds in May 1993, her sister, Sarah, a lady-in-waiting, was wearing one of Diana’s purple suits. I told Diana I’d hoped she’d be wearing it herself and, to my embarrassment, she insisted on calling Sarah over, ‘We’ve got to tell her. We’ve got to tell her.’ There was a lot of giggling.
In 1993, I gave Diana a photograph of William I’d taken outside Clarence House. Years after she died, I saw a photo of her personal desk. Along with snaps by Lord Snowdon, there was my photo. She’d taken it home and had it framed. She was lovely.
Penny Junor is journalist, broadcaster and author of many books about the Royal Family, including 1982’s biography Diana, Princess of Wales.
I followed her and Charles on a short tour of Wales, shortly after their marriage. She was all legs and arms, bounding into the crowd. Some bloke told her, ‘My dad says to give you a kiss from him.’ So she replied, ‘Well, you’d better do that, hadn’t you?’ leaning forward for a peck. It might not sound revolutionary now, but that’s not how the Royal Family behaved then.
Embarrassingly, there were audible groans from the public if Charles walked down their side of the road on walkabouts, and Diana took the other. He’d be given flowers to pass on to her and would joke, ‘Ah, that’s all I’m good for now’. But you could see signs of later, possible problems…
Penny’s new book The Duchess, is out now
Now Chief Executive of Aids charity the Terence Higgins Trust, Ian Green met Diana in 1992, when he was an Ealing councillor.
She was visiting an emergency homelessness project, and I had to tell her how the local authority was supporting the project. During a conversation about the importance of the work, she turned, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Of course, the council is going to continue to support this, aren’t you?’ She put me on the spot – in a really nice way. Fortunately, I was able to say, ‘Of course we will’.
She brought that passion for a cause to the Terrence Higgins Trust – using her status to do her upmost for the charity. Prince Harry has taken on the cause now. He has that passion, too.
The charity organiser
The writer and former Tomorrow’s World presenter Vivienne Parry worked with Diana when Vivienne was national organiser for the mother and baby charity Birthright, and the princess its patron.
I first met Diana at a charity fashion event, six months after she’d had William. She was guest of honour, but was terribly nervous and kept asking me, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’
I was reassuring, but, blimey, I didn’t know! She was the rookie princess and I was the rookie charity organiser. We got on fantastically well, though, and over the next few years I did around 60 Birthright events with her.
I used to write notes about the people she was going to meet. ‘So-and-so has been on the finance committee for five years’ etc. To help her remember them, I’d add acronyms such as ‘DGN’ (Does Go On).
She told me she’d blackmail me with them, if I ever stepped out of line. And before she’d go out and be regal in front of guests, she’d sit pumping her security team for filthy jokes.
She still sometimes lacked confidence, though. At an event at a jeweller’s, after she and Charles had separated, a crowd of paparazzi were gathered outside. But she just went out among them and smashed it.
I told her, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ and followed it up with a written message.
She wrote back saying, ‘Don’t ever stop sending these notes. They mean so much.’
As well as penning Diana: The Untold Story, the Daily Mail royal writer Richard Kay was one of the princess’s more unlikely friends.
In the early 1990s, I wrote some empathetic pieces about Diana as she went into her separation from Charles. She asked to meet me at a mutual acquaintance’s house, we spoke at length about her problems, and our friendship went from there.
She had no idea she was this global figure. My office was close to Kensington Palace and she phoned me once saying, ‘You must come and see what’s happening outside’. It was the Sultan of Brunei arriving in a fleet of Rolls-Royces, with outriders. ‘Isn’t that amazing?’ she said, star struck.
‘With the greatest of respect,’ I said. ‘If it had been you, the crowds would have been ten deep and people would have been cheering.’ But, endearingly, she could never quite see herself in that role.
I remember walking through Kensington Gardens with her. She had a baseball cap on and said, ‘Do you think anyone will recognise me?’
‘Yes!’ I replied. ‘You’re very distinctive. Forget about the baseball cap.’
People said she manipulated the press, but I don’t think she did it knowingly. It was almost innocent.
Adrian Snell is a composer, performer and music therapist. He was delighted to discover that Princess Diana was fan of his work.
One night in 1991, I was asked to perform at a Leprosy Mission event in Peterborough Cathedral. I pondered for a while, then decided to play one of my songs called ‘Feed the Hungry Heart’. The lyrics seemed appropriate – it’s about reaching out to the rejected.
I remember was a little nervous. Diana was the Mission’s patron, so I knew she’d be in the audience. But it went well and just as I was packing up to go, some stewards rushed over. The princess wanted to meet me.
She told me she liked the song and seemed surprised to encounter a contemporary rock piece in a cathedral. But that was that – until, seven years later, I got an impromptu call from The Sunday Times. Someone had catalogued Diana’s record collection after her death, and alongside the Elton Johns and George Michaels, they’d found several of my albums. They wanted to know who on earth I was. And why was the Princess a fan?
I could only guess. Clearly she liked my music. I’m convinced it had something to do with the ‘heart’ in that song. I think Diana was a person who perhaps felt most comfortable with the rejected, because with them she didn’t have to put on the face.
For more about Adrian, visit adrian-snell.com. The Leprosy Mission is at leprosymission.org.uk.
As told to Olly Grant
BBC journalist and news presenter Nicholas Owen covered many of Princess Diana’s public appearances
Diana went to America on her own, as her marriage was well in trouble and, everywhere she went, she was like the biggest Hollywood star you’ve ever seen. The most amazing reaction was at a large hotel in Chicago where all the great and the good had been invited – politicians, film stars, all sorts of people – and she came down a sweeping staircase in a spotlight for an evening reception and I just thought ‘What a woman’. It was like something out of a Hollywood film.
She sat in the middle of this long table and people passed by, peering at her as she ate. It reminded me of the way medieval kings and queens used to eat in public. Everyone else would gather round and look at them. The most extraordinary thing.
Sometime after that, I talked to her about the US because there were rumours that she wanted to go and live there. ‘No,’she told me. ‘I would never go to America’. She was beginning to want privacy. It was that visit, that sort of occasion, that persuaded her of it.
Nicholas Owen is ambassador for The Children’s Trust (www.thechildrenstrust.org.uk) and author of Diana: The People’s Princess
As told to Joy Persaud
A version of this article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Saga Magazine.
Enjoy the new Saga Magazine app FREE until 31 May 2021...