. . . and the ones who don't Something about her makes men go silly. What is it? asks Hester Lacey
LAST week Valery Giscard-D'Estaing, the former president of France, made a confession to a French magazine. It concerned the Princess of Wales and how he had fallen for her at a London banquet. She had listened to him with "amused pleasure". When she spoke "she leaned her head forward and lifted those immense blue eyes. That is the moment when you discover she is also a cat, a feline."

Many men have gone the same way. A two-minute conversation can do it. "It doesn't matter what age the man is - young, middle-aged, elderly, she sort of flirts with her eyes and she's very vivacious - that's why men fall under her spell," says Colin Edwards, 54. Mr Edwards, from Macclesfield, has devoted his life to his idol since retiring from his job in local government, and he has spent hundreds of pounds and travelled thousands of miles for further doses of Diana charm.

"You should see the faces. Even without her touching them or speaking to them, people's faces are amazing," claims Ian Jackman, 31, a hotel reception manager and another Di-worshipper.

But men who want more than a brief chat-up in the midst of a walkabout have a rougher ride. Art dealer Oliver Hoare, "besotted" by Diana, according to reports last week, was supposed to have attempted to set up a love- nest for her and be hoping to marry her; claims which she rejected with "peals of laughter". But no lessons seem to be learned from the alarming fates of unfortunates such as Oliver Hoare or James Hewitt who manage to get close to Diana. Men of an astonishing range of types, from elderly lords and right-wing intellectuals, to blas journalists and fashionable young pop stars, are prepared to admit they feel secretly drawn to her.

Nigel Evans, editor of Majesty, a magazine devoted to the Royal Family, brackets Diana with Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother, both sirens in their day. "She has the same magnetic allure. There seems to be one royal per generation that has it. And she is definitely somebody who relates better to men than to women."

Anthropologist Desmond Morris believes that it's something to do with her facial expression. "When a young woman is in love, the condition affects the expression - her look and smile. It's difficult to explain scientifically but we all recognise it. For most women, this expression is reserved for the loved one - but the curious thing about Princess Diana is that she has it whenever she's happy. It's as though she's having a love affair with everybody. You can't fake it - and it's a signal that it's impossible not to respond to. You can't fight anything so basic."

Despite a deluge of gossip and scandal, Diana's goddess status remains astonishingly intact. Dr David Starkey, constitutional historian at the London School of Economics, who is preparing a book on the modern monarchy, has dubbed her "the Teflon Princess"; her most fervent admirers simply ignore any ugly reports on her private life. "I didn't read all that bad press because I didn't think it was true," said Matthew Cowperthwaite, 20, an administrative assistant from Basildon and a paid-up member of the Princess Diana Fan Club since the age of 16. "And anyway, in private she's a normal woman, and that's fair enough," he added firmly.

Part of Diana's appeal to both men and women is a strangely widespread belief that she is somehow, well, ordinary. "She's more down to earth than the other members of the Royal Family. She doesn't stick to protocol, she's the sort of princess that would roll her sleeves up and get stuck in," according to Christopher Driver, 20, who works for an auction house. "She's an English lass, as we'd say in Newcastle. My wife's out so I can say yes, I fancy her. I certainly wouldn't turn down a date."

This girl-next-door image makes her a particularly potent sexual icon, because admirers can feel they wouldn't be too terrified of her. "There's nothing threatening about her," says Toby Young, editor of the Modern Review. "She's the kind of woman the average man in the pub can fantasise about - he thinks that maybe, just maybe, if he were on really good form, he might manage to chat her up. Diana is a bit like Elizabeth Hurley - she has a kind of simple- minded, accessible sex appeal. It's very easy to respond to. And she has an ordinary prettiness, not an aristocratic beauty - she's no Grace Kelly, she could easily be a weather-girl on breakfast TV." And is this effective among trendy young intellectuals? "Among my male friends she's top of the wish list."

Another of Diana's apparent strengths is the way insinuations that she is unhappy, neurotic, or just plain crazy have somehow transformed themselves into an added attraction which brings out all a man's protective instincts. "Finding neurotic women attractive is such a well-known syndrome," says Auberon Waugh, editor of the Literary Review. "I'm sure she makes abominable scenes. She's good at looking vulnerable, but I'm sure she's tough as nails. I swing violently in my views on her. Having thought her amazingly brave and courageous and attractive I then decided she was the pits. It all depends on whether she slept with those men or not. If she had, I'd still like her." What? "Well, if not, she'd be the most fearful prick- teaser."

And, of course, she is hailed as a great beauty. There was a unanimous verdict that she is much prettier seen in the flesh. "She embodies the English rose," sighed Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the BBC's Top Gear programme. "You can't ignore those eyes - they were unbelievable on the Vogue cover. I'm insanely jealous of Oliver Hoare."

Diana has a devoted gay following. "She's the country's number one fag hag, and God bless her," says Simon Fanshawe, radio presenter and "a bit of a fan, actually". Her work for Aids charities has made her popularity soar. "She went to open a drop-in centre where a friend of mine worked - a radical, sceptical, republican lesbian, so there was much raising of eyebrows and clicking of teeth when her visit was announced. But she'd done her homework, kept the press under control, and she knew that the best thing she could do was have a photo taken of her actually touching someone with Aids. My friend was converted. And she's kept up her Aids work, when she could have stuck to little fluffy bunnies."

Other fans spring from all sides. Alan Clark described her as a "goddess". Elton John hugs her back-stage; Sylvester Stallone and Richard Gere invite her to tte--tte dinners. Satirist Clive James and journalist Taki (who has referred to her in his column as "the divine Diana") court her presence at intimate lunches. "She has a beauty that comes from inside," murmured up-market French photographer Patrick Demarchelier. According to Dr David Starkey, however, the wide spread of devotees tangled in the Princess's net does not necessarily reflect well on her. "She is so popular because she is totally empty - like Marilyn Monroe. There is a lacquered, too- perfect quality about both of them - Diana doesn't even sweat when she goes to the gym, which simply defies all the laws of nature. They both have this iconic quality of being a complete blank - you can read anything on to them you want. They are blank tapes, whiteboards that anyone can project their fantasies on to. People can even convince themselves that Diana is the girl next door, despite her bizarre, luxurious life. People prefer myths to reality - though the papers are gradually moving over to a more even-handed view."

Women have less patience with the flighty, flaky persona. Agony aunt Karen Krizanovich is sceptical about the allure of vulnerability. "It's not the neurotic persona that men love, it's the package. They want to

be her knight in shining armour. On the surface she looks like a film star and men only see her as a character. Women put themselves in her shoes. We know that anybody would be that beautiful if they had £160,000 a year and that she's got nothing to moan about. We feel that she's pulling the wool over everyone's eyes."

Will the cult of Di fanciers ever wane? Detracting voices are few, but admirers who change their minds can be particularly harsh. Writer A N Wilson, once a fervent partisan, sighed: "The idea of her suffering in silence was appealing, but as soon as she opened her mouth and went public we realised how awful she was - as boring as the rest of us. She is stupid and self-seeking. I really rather hate her now."

Art critic Brian Sewell sniffed in Esquire: "I can't understand why anyone thinks Princess Diana is attractive. She seems to me to have a face resembling a nutcracker."

Professor Michael Billig of the social sciences department at Loughborough University has researched attitudes towards the royal family. "It certainly wasn't the case that Diana was universally considered wonderful. The press invented her as a mythical princess but the public are more hard-headed. Women in particular were prepared to argue. If she is seen to be complaining too much, when she is in fact in a privileged position, public opinion may turn."

Maybe. Or maybe not - since even nearly ending up under the wheels of her car is seen as a privilege. "I was cycling to work along Fulham Road," says Neil Johnson, 27, an advertising executive. "I was turning right, and this green Audi convertible took off fast and nearly knocked me over. I raced it down to the next set of lights to give the driver a mouthful. And it was Her. She was in gym gear, looking pretty cool, fiddling about with her make-up. My jaw dropped and I didn't say a word. Then the lights changed and off she went. I'm really happy it happened."