Camille Paglia, the academic thinker, was the first to identify Diana's divine symbolism. She talked to Ros Wynne-Jones
I first noticed the phenomenon of Diana the icon five years ago when I observed that all the pictures of Diana were starting to resemble the iconography of Spanish and Italian Catholic madonna figures, particularly the ones said to weep magic tears on an annual basis. The deification of Diana began in her lifetime when she first wept in public. There were huge headlines: "Diana's tears". Added to this were her various sexual personae, from the mater della rosa - the grieving mother at the foot of the cross - to the beautiful boy, embodied in certain androgynous aspects to Diana.

The process of deification ultimately stems from a deep longing for polytheistic gods in peo- ple who live in an ostensibly monotheistic culture. Today, in some ways our heroes can also become our gods.

This happened with Elvis Presley and then Jackie Onassis.There are reports of people miraculously cured by going to the place where she died. The British have such a tradition of mediums and seances and haunted theatres, it can only be a matter of time before someone is cured by Diana.

The mass love of Diana is an extremely complex phenomenon. Of course, dying in the prime of your life is a prerequisite. Anyone who dies at the peak of their youth and beauty automatically enters some strange stratosphere of divinity, like Jimi Hendrix, John F Kennedy and James Dean.

With Diana there was the added fateful symbolism of her dying in the heart of Paris. The No 1 problem with Charles - even beyond the matter of his coldness - is that country-city duality which is such an integral part of British culture. Clearly Camilla Parker Bowles did not win by virtue of any feminine attractiveness but because she was more grounded in Charles's pursuits in the country, whereas Diana loved the city. And she died in the perfect city, the ultimate symbol of sophisticated nightlife. It was like Cinderella coming back from the ball just after midnight - crashing back to reality and turning back into a pumpkin in the most dreadful way.

In some ways she died a tacky death, speeding away from the Ritz. She was mere freight in that limo. Yet it is terribly ironic, but perhaps gratifying, that Diana died still having faith in love; that she died believing she had found what she had been searching for.

Diana was closer to an actress than a princess. She was a performer. If she hadn't been a Sloane destined for marriage, I believe she might have been in the arts. She had a shamanistic power and incredible body language.

People think she was some sort of shuttlecock being pushed back and forth by circumstance. But she knew how to wring the hearts of the masses when she was stonewalled by faceless bureaucrats at the Palace. Her histrionics were very Italian, like an opera diva. But then there was this beautifully controlled other person, where an electric spark could pass between her and a child - something only the great stars have had. Most people are too buttoned up emotionally, but with Diana there was only a thin gauze between her conscious life and unconscious life. This made her a brilliant performance artist, a transcultural phenomenon.

Her beauty lent itself to iconography. She was so tall, she seemed somehow grand and unreal. She had a classic mannequin look, with a long thin body, an Ancient Greek profile, and fine bone structure; the ultimate English girl.

She had the charisma of an icon, like Madonna has and Dietrich had; a talent for flirting with the mass audience. We never heard her speak a word for years, it was all done in mime, the most ancient language: the leaning over hospital beds, the tears welling up in her eyes.

In my experience, the gift of charisma usually comes with displacement. In Diana there was a very strange combination of overt sexuality with these acts of great compassion. She wasn't just a Mother Teresa. But she did have problems expressing her sexual side with real people. For all her stature as a sex symbol, she was never able to maintain a relationship with anyone, male or female, for any length of time. These are special beings, blessed and yet cursed.

Phenomenal charisma is always based on androgyny. There is a real drag quality to Marilyn Monroe - she could throw a switch to become Marilyn. Diana acted the part of woman as much as Dietrich did, but she had fundamentally an athletic, male-female quality, like Elizabeth I, the virgin queen.

Diana was very much of her time. She managed to be the appropriate bride in an arranged political marriage but at the same time at the cutting edge of 1980s and, now, 1990s feminism. She played into a million archetypes of the beautiful suffering girl, archetypes some of us thought we could erase, but now we see we have to confront.

She was Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca or Elizabeth Taylor in Elephant Walk, where the servants close ranks in hostility to the new wife, not allowing her a role in the household. You feel her terrible isolation.

Diana was psychically solitary, except when she was with children. Picasso had this quality, a great capacity to get down with children and play. She had tactility with her own boys. You see these pictures of her going down the water slide with her sons - she was having so much fun, but she would also have all these brooding moods of melancholy.

Without the children, Diana would never have reached the status she has. The mother archetype is universal, and Diana triggered the Mother Imago. There she was, with her two boys, one of whom will be the future king, like a goddess of antiquity, like the mother of Adonis. Except in the Adonis motif, it is the boy who dies young not the mother.

As with Madonna, there is a profound psychosexual complication between Diana and the world media. We should not forget that it was she who let the genie out of the bottle.

The tabloids did not kill her, but they will make her immortal. They created the iconography that will enter the visual arts; they were the vehicle through which the public had this relationship with Diana. Looking at them now, these are images of a remarkable creature, clearly emotionally crippled, but with spectacular charisma.

Camille Paglia is an academic who made the TV documentary 'Diana Unclothed' for Channel 4 in 1993.