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Judy Garland, Bette Midler, Madonna, Lady Gaga … and Princess Diana?
Yes. The Princess of Wales, who died 20 years ago on Aug. 31, was known as the People’s Princess. But she’s long held what some consider an even deeper-reaching, more esteemed status: that of gay icon.
Defining what ascribes anyone to that category is a tricky task, as it’s largely an instinctual call. But crucial to the recipe, always, are traits including fierceness, glamour, and resilience, all of which Diana had in spades. (How else, after all, would her story of marital woes be chosen by Ryan Murphy as the subject of drama for upcoming Feud Season 2?)
Still, when it comes to this particular gay icon, there’s an added level of complexity to the story, or so say the queer-culture experts that Yahoo Beauty spoke with for the anniversary of Diana’s death.
“Diana appealed to gays because she seemed like an outsider, faced a lot of challenges, managed to stay stylish and collected, and cared about good causes,” says longtime gay-culture critic Michael Musto. “And the whole time, she was thrust into a world of glamour and nobility.”
Desmond O’Connor, creator of a U.K. cabaret show telling the legendary tale of Diana’s night out at a drag show with Freddy Mercury, analyzes her icon status in this week’s Newsweek. He begins by recalling how Elton John sang a retooled version of “Norma Jean” at Diana’s funeral.
“Twenty years on, it still seems strange that Sir Elton would choose to rehash an old song about another woman to pay tribute to an extraordinary lady that he regarded as a close personal friend, but perhaps this was a more calculated moment in the ongoing battle for ownership of the nation’s most cherished possession,” O’Connor muses. “In linking Diana to Marilyn, the singer was staking a claim on behalf of a sector of British society who had lost one of their most powerful allies; Diana’s status as a gay icon was never going to be forgotten.”
And while he goes on to say that shy Diana’s marriage “capitulated her into a realm of an epically tragic, fairy-tale life that made Monroe and Garland look like amateurs,” the writer also notes that there was “something more substantial” to her status; that while she was “beloved of the fashion world,” she was “by no means a vacuous clotheshorse.” (She’s also not a traditionally popular pick for celebrity-mimicking drag queens, though Brooklyn’s Scarlet Envy made an exception “in tribute” this week.)
Some queer-culture experts do reject the idea of Diana as gay icon altogether — including a writer in the Independent, albeit in a story that was written shortly after her death: “Di wasn’t and isn’t a gay icon — even after a death which appears to have involved the requisite amount of tragedy, horror and glamour,” Mark Simpson wrote at the time.
“Of course, thousands of gays loved her, for the same reasons people did from all walks of life — and not just for her work on AIDS awareness. But being a gay icon is not simply about love. It’s more usually about a fierce, frightening ambivalence toward women or a desperate, driven identification.”
Writer and longtime gay-culture observer David Munk, of Stargayzing, gives a more straight-forward reasoning for keeping Diana out of the Judy-Barbra-Cher rank and file. “I think she was a symbol to everybody,” he tells Yahoo Beauty. “I could play into clichés and say we identified with her victimhood, but with tremendous affection and awe … but she was a canvas for everyone to project their hopes on. I’ve never seen anyone else provoke such a unilateral response. She was everything to everybody.”
Dan Avery, editor-in-chief of gay media site NewNewNext/Logo TV, sees her icon status, but calls it a subtle one. “I don’t think Princess Diana is a gay icon on the level of, say, Judy Garland or Madonna. But she does fit the criteria — beauty, glamour, tragedy,” he tells Yahoo Beauty. “I think if she had lived a little longer, maybe she would have had time to really make an impression. Also, gay men love women who are over-the-top, and as a royal, Diana had to be so restrained, so that worked against her.”
It was her work with AIDS patients, Avery says — hugging the men and holding their hands, a stunning moment that was recalled recently by Elton John for Prince Harry — that cemented her legacy within the gay community. “It opened the door for other celebrities and helped humanize the AIDS crisis in a way no one else except for maybe Elizabeth Taylor had,” he says.
Howard Berman, a Boston rabbi and gay-rights activist who also happens to be a notable collector of Princess Diana memorabilia, points to that moment among people with AIDS as a real turning point in her growing gay icon status.
“This, for me, is what held it all together — that famous incident in [’87] where she visited the first AIDS ward at the hospital in London … the fact that she was going to hug and sit there and share her empathy was just a real phenomenal thing,” Berman tells Yahoo Beauty.
But before that, from the moment Diana was thrust into the public eye, many gay folks saw something special.
“It became clear that this shy, somewhat unassuming young woman had some qualities that I think a lot of gay men were picking up on — beyond her obvious sense of flair and fashion, but her vulnerability, and the fact she was clearly having to deal with a set of pressures about what she was expected to become,” Berman says. “That resonated with a lot of gay men and women.”
Enter her public appearance at the AIDS ward in London and you had a perfect storm, recalls the rabbi, who had joined with other clergy people in Chicago at the time to form an interfaith AIDS pastoral care network, offering weekly training and educational sessions.
“Most weeks, nobody would show up,” due to “bigotry reinforced by Reagan and his administration,” he recalls. But the week after Diana’s visit with London AIDS sufferers, 100 people came. “It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, as they poured in one after another,” he says. “Some said, ‘If princess Diana can do it, we can do it.’ This was before all the sensationalism. We saw the phenomenal power this young woman had to shape and influence people.”
Add to all that the “growing realization that some of her closest friends were gay men,” from early school friends to celebrities including Versace and Elton John, and the fact that “her own difficulties became more publicly known,” Berman says, “I think gay people particularly felt more and more protective — more and more wanting to be her champion, the way she was ours.”
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