How Princess Diana’s Dance With the Media Impacted William and Harry
From their earliest childhood, William and Harry were collateral damage in a cold war between their parents, one that could turn hot in front of them in alarming ways. The two-year age gap between them was critical in forging their distinctive worldviews and, equally so, in shaping their perceptions of their mother. Prince Harry idolized Diana more and understood her less. He would always be her baby, a scamp who was “thick” at his lessons and “naughty, just like me.” His emotions, like hers, were always simmering near the surface.
William understood Diana more but idealized her less. He was privy to her volatile love life. He knew the tabloids made her life hell, but he also knew she colluded with them. By his early teens, he was his mother’s most trusted confidant. She used to describe him as “my little wise old man.”
Like many women whose relationships with their husbands have become dysfunctional, Diana used her elder son as both a stand-in and a buffer, toting him along for meetings with journalists. Then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan describes in his diary a startlingly revealing background lunch with Diana and the 13-year-old William at Kensington Palace in 1996 at which, he says, the princess allowed him to ask “literally anything.” William insisted on a glass of wine even when Diana said no, and he seemed thoroughly up-to-date on all the tabloid rumors about her lovers. “He is clearly in the loop on most of her bizarre world and, in particular, the various men who come into it from time to time,” the astonished Morgan noted.
Diana’s most recent romantic adventure at that time was with the sturdy hunk Will Carling, captain of the England rugby team, whom she had met in 1995 working out at the Chelsea Harbor Club gym. William hero-worshipped Carling and met him several times with Diana. When Carling visited Kensington Palace for a romantic rendezvous, he gave both the boys a rugby shirt. It is unclear when William came to realize that his idol was a sporting visitor in more ways than one. Carling’s wife, the television personality Julia Carling, conclusively enlightened him—and everyone else—when rumors of marital difficulties were rife, making it clear the princess was at least one of the reasons. “This has happened to [Diana] before,” Julia told a reporter. “You hope she won’t do these things again, but obviously she does.”
Diana was livid about Julia Carling’s comments. “She’s milking it for all she’s worth, that woman,” she told Morgan over lunch. “Honestly, I haven’t seen Will since June ’95.” William interjected, “I keep a photo of Julia Carling on my dartboard at Eton.”
The exchange reveals much about the dynamic between mother and son. For Diana to include the future heir to the throne at a meeting with one of the royal family’s most reckless tabloid tormentors and freely refer to a casual affair was, on its face, amazing. (Try imagining the Duchess of Cambridge and a teenage Prince George doing the same today.) It suggests that her boundaries were dissolving and, with them, her judgment. Not only was William used to hearing about her lovers, as Morgan notes, but he’d also found a way to deal with it at school. Tacking Julia Carling’s image onto a dartboard was a gesture of loyalty to his mother that also announced he knew exactly what the other boys were whispering about.
Time and again, Diana chose to invade her own privacy, often for the capricious reason of making the men in her life jealous. The most unforgettable “stolen” snap from Diana’s last fateful holiday was the famous “kiss” picture of her in a clinch with bare-chested Dodi Fayed, her playboy lover, off the coast of Corsica. It was she who tipped off Italian lensman Mario Brenna—to send a taunting message to the real love of her life, Hasnat Khan.
Nicholas Coleridge, former president of Condé Nast International, tells a story in his memoir of inviting Diana to a boardroom lunch at Condé Nast London HQ in 1996. The day before, a picture of the princess sunbathing topless had appeared in the Mirror, causing a furor about invasion of privacy. Coleridge expected the princess to cancel, but she confirmed her attendance with the request there would be no publicity. Halfway through a beguiling confidential lunch, she said: