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How Princess Diana Trumps Celebrity, 20 Years After Her Death

Two decades after her death, Diana’s story stands as a dual fairly tale and cautionary tale rooted in stardom and power.

Less than a year before Lady Diana died, Donald Trump, then married to Marla Maples, reportedly sent the recently divorced princess flowers.

Not long after her death, the future president agreed with Howard Stern's coarsely phrased assessment that Trump could have bedded the People's Princess, had she lived.

Trump found himself drawn to Diana – perhaps not only for her beauty, but for her unique and ubiquitous celebrity, one then far greater than his. The developer almost certainly recognized, like few others, the doors to power potentially opened by being famous for being famous.

Twenty years after her death on Aug. 31, 1997, Diana survives in the popular memory as far more than a tragic Marilyn Monroe-like figure, taken too soon and preserved in time. Diana, in her 36 years, lived both a fairy tale and a cautionary tale – a beneficiary and victim of the unlikely superstardom she used to do some good.

Part of Diana’s legacy, though, rests in the response to the gaping void her death left for the ravenous celebrity-news machine, just as the Internet and Reality TV mushroomed. She’s been replaced, but not outdone, by endless Kardashians, spoiled housewives from all over and wannabes of various social strata who can’t – or don’t care to – distinguish between fame and infamy.

In 1981, Diana became a media figure like no other, a 20-year-old princess bride thrust into a storybook royal wedding viewed worldwide. She commanded adoration with her regal, yet down-to-earth style.

Diana went on to command attention, wanted and otherwise, as she gave birth to two royal heirs and spawned daily headlines via soap opera-infused scandals that precipitated her 1996 divorce from Britain’s Prince Charles. Still, she embraced employing her renown to champion causes that included the fights against AIDS and landmines.

Her children appear to have learned from her struggles and triumphs. Prince William put on a dutifully lavish show with his 2011 wedding to Kate Middleton. Yet the couple largely manage to maintain their and their children’s dignity, even while under display.

It took a while, though, for Prince Harry to shake his royal bad-boy image. He recently showed Diana-like spirit by revealing he finally sought therapy to cope with the enduring pain of losing his mother when he was 12.

Diana also influenced the behavior of Queen Elizabeth II, whose 64-year-old reign might be defined by her extraordinary 1997 response to criticism for keeping too stiff an upper lip after the princess’ death. Her address to her nation (“No one who knew Diana will ever forget her. Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her”) revealed an almost relatable side to Elizabeth, who occupies an outmoded position built on ancient wealth and customs.

Some create their own castles, wielding grandeur and illusion to grab the public eye. The nexus of celebrity and power pulses through the political rise of Trump, a rich man's son who portrayed himself as a champion of the working class. The 45th U.S. president will go down in history as – among many things – a master media-manipulator who thrived on relentless self-promotion via the press, TV and, eventually, social media.

It can be folly to ask “What if?” But it seems probable that if Diana were alive, she’d be using social media to expand her clout. Perhaps a vibrant Instagram account would have reduced the market for newspaper and magazine photos of her – the kind of shots paparazzi chased, leading to the Paris car crash that killed Diana, her boyfriend, Dodi al-Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul.

It’s also a good bet Diana would have boosted humanitarian causes through Facebook and Twitter, practicing some of the selflessness she learned from Mother Teresa, who died just five days after the princess.

Few can live up to the standards of Mother Teresa, a legendary do-gooder who went from improbable celebrity to saint. But Diana, for all her flaws, strived to make the most of her fame.

She set an example that's been more twisted than followed, as the dual strands of fame and influence weave an increasingly intricate saga that eludes a fairy-tale ending.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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