Diana 1961-1997: The gay icon - Glamorous, tragic, a drama queen - but never camp

Diana was too much her own woman to be appropriated, says Mark Simpson

Mark Simpson
Saturday 06 September 1997 23:02

Apparently , Di was the latest in a long line of doomed tragedy queens; like Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, Di was another woman who was too beautiful and too lovely for the world. Change "Norma Jean" to "English Rose", replace Jack Kennedy with Prince Charles and presto! A British gay icon to rank with Hollywood's greatest.

But the speeding gay icon juggernaut needs to be pulled over and breathalysed before it does some serious damage. 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.

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 towards women or a desperate, driven identification. Any woman who hears that she's a gay icon should immediately check her back for knives and make sure her feet haven't been welded to a plinth.

The word "icon" itself means "image" or "statue" - a representation of a sacred personage which is itself regarded as sacred. Gay icons are representations of Woman that are revered far more than women. Which is why being dead helps, but if you happen to be inconveniently alive gays will bury you under sycophantic, hysterical praise (see Liza Minelli). Even in death, Di is much too much her own woman to become a gay icon.

And when she was alive she wasn't grotesque, extreme or camp - like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Edina and Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous or, for that matter, Princess Margaret. Instead of embodying the monstrous feminine, she embodied a real, human-scale femininity. There was nothing of the phallic mother about her - just the single mother muddling through. Yes, perhaps there was a touch of the Sigourney Weaver about her in that Panorama interview, barely masked by those shy upward glances, but Sigourney was more of a lesbian icon and anyway we all knew that Di was defending herself and her kids from an alien life-form with acid for blood.

And it was this feistiness that saves her from inclusion in the Marilyn/Judy roll call of doomed tragedy queens who die by their own hand in a sea of downers as a protest against an uncaring world. Yes, she was manipulative and perhaps something of a drama queen, and she admitted to having abused her body at times, but Di was someone who was so clearly full of life and a determination to live it, and help others live theirs, whatever problems she might have. Her death was not inevitable nor was it self- inflicted and it came at a moment when she seemed to have found happiness rather than bourbon-soaked self pity.

On the other hand, Di's feistiness wasn't brash enough to qualify her as gay icon in the more modern, self-assertive, self-confident, successful, vulgar, Madonna sense of the word. Although she did reinvent herself from silly Sloane to New Woman(ish), she never became a bitch. For a new generation of gays who were asserting their right to indulge their appetites rather than apologise for them, Di's shy, quietly spoken strengths were just not in-yer-face enough.

Admittedly, the scenes outside Kensington Palace do look eerily like something from Alan Parker's Evita after the heroine's death. But Di, for all her charity work and interest in children, was no Eva Peron, thank goodness. All the same, "the public outpouring of grief", the candles, the flowers, the tears, is the sort of thing you'd expect to find in Latin countries rather than starchy old Britain.

And this is the key to understanding the special significance of Di to gays: for while she did not fit into the queasy, dated category of "gay icon" she did have a gay resonance: She wore her heart on her sleeve and encouraged people to show their real feelings rather than "respectable" ones. As a royal who refused to conform to the bourgie standards of The Family, and who embraced all sorts of people, regardless of who or what they were, she gave all the British, not just the gay ones, official permission to be themselves.

Ironically, her famous friendships with gay men and her timely intervention during the Aids panic doesn't make her a gay icon - just gay-friendly and contemporary. Shirley Bassey and Margaret Thatcher, for example, aren't famous for their love of gays, but are two of the biggest gay icons around. On the other hand, Di thankfully didn't turn her relationship with gay men into a lurching, dysfunctional, all-men-are-bastards show like Roseanne.

Basically, Di was just too nice to gays to be a gay icon.

Mark Simpson is the author of 'It's a Queer World', published by Vintage.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in