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Prince Harry’s painful birthday

The adage goes that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ however in the case of Diana, Princess of Wales, I think we should amend that to ‘a dress is worth a thousand words’.On July 1, 1997, Diana stepped out on a warm summer’s night for the Tate Gallery’s centenary gala wearing a show stopping…

The adage goes that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ however in the case of Diana, Princess of Wales, I think we should amend that to ‘a dress is worth a thousand words’.

On July 1, 1997, Diana stepped out on a warm summer’s night for the Tate Gallery’s centenary gala wearing a show stopping dress that was a gift from her friend designer Jacques Azagury. The low-cut beaded frock was a dramatic departure from the chic but far more restrained black tie outfits that she had worn during her royal career. Instead, here was the People’s Princess in a deliciously saucy number!

It was sexy and thrilling, and seemed to telegraph so much about who she was becoming now that she was an independent woman – confident, self-assured and doing as she damn well pleased.

That day also happened to be her 36th birthday and outside Tate the soiree, she stopped to collect flowers, balloons and cards from the adoring masses.

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That night should have been no more than a footnote in royal sartorial history however tragedy would intervene only 61 days later. That July 1 would be Diana’s final birthday, a mother and humanitarian whose life was cut heart-rendingly short.

Tuesday, September 15 is Prince Harry’s birthday – his 36th in fact.

His life today bears a certain symmetry with his mother’s at the same point in her life. Like Harry, by the age of 36, she had managed to escape the confines of royal life, her divorce from Prince Charles having been finalised the year before. The Diana the world was seeing in 1997 was a woman defined by her commitment to use her global fame for change, even in areas then considered too ‘political’ for a royal to wade into.

While now Diana is universally lauded for her anti-landmine campaign, visiting Bosnia and Angola and bravely traipsing through a live landmine field – twice – back then she faced condemnation from starchy pinstriped quarters in London. Tut-tutting conservatives spoke out against her position, labelling her “ill-informed” and a “loose cannon”.

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That’s a charge that Harry and wife Meghan Duchess of Sussex have become all too familiar with of late, having started pursuing causes that have seen them facing criticism for allegedly straying into ‘political’ territory.

Since arriving in California in March, the Sussexes have spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement; thrown their weight behind the Stop Hate for Profit campaign; taken aim at the tide of hate on social media; said the Commonwealth must acknowledge the uncomfortable history of racism; and Meghan has become a vocal, passionate advocate for getting out the vote ahead of the US presidential election in November. (How they found the time to buy a house, move and nab a megawatt Hollywood deal simultaneously is impressive.)

Diana and Harry are thrilling examples of members of the house of Windsor who have fought to strike out on their own – and flourished while doing so.

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The tragedy of Diana’s death, beyond the excruciating tragedy for her sons and family, was that she was just getting started. The mind boggles imagining what her leadership, verve and creativity would have seen her achieve if her life had not been brutally cut short.

In fact, the Princess of Wales, like Harry and Meghan, believed that the key to effecting change was getting behind the camera. She told her friend writer Shirley Conran that she planned on doing a documentary every two years, each focusing on a separate cause.

“She would raise awareness of the issue, then produce a documentary in partnership with one of the television channels, and ultimately leave a structure in place to maintain her involvement with the cause … The issue she wanted to start with was illiteracy,” biographer Tina Brown writes in The Diana Chronicles.

In 2017, Harry started to speak out about the trauma he suffered in the wake of his mother’s death and the two decades of anguish he has endured. “When you’re that young and something like that happens to you, I think it’s lodged in here, there, wherever — in your heart, in your head,” Harry told a TV documentary made that year to mark the 20th anniversary of her death. “And it stays there for a very, very long time.”

However, I wonder if this birthday might hurt just a little more for Harry. This birthday, perhaps more than any other, Harry might have to confront just how shockingly short his mother’s life was and just how young she was when she was killed.

On November 16, Harry will pass a powerful and haunting milestone. On that day, he will have been alive for longer than Diana.

When Harry and Meghan announced, sensationally, way back in early January that they wanted out of the Faustian bargain that is the life of a senior member of the royal family, questions were immediately raised about how Diana would have reacted.

Would she have cautioned her renegade son and daughter-in-law to stay, making the case for familial duty? Or would she have applauded their bravura and moxie in seeking to create a life of their own?

One thing I think we can say is that she would have desperately wanted her son and his family to fight for the happiness and stability that her own childhood and later marriage so cruelly lacked.

As Polonius counsels in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.”

When Diana stepped out on that summer’s night in 1997 the world was just getting a tantalising glimpse of what Diana’s life, unapologetically lived on her own terms and freed from the palace shackles, would look like. Heartbreakingly, we never got a chance to see what she would have achieved and what sort of woman she would have become in the years and decades to come.

I think it’s a safe bet to say it would have been pretty spectacular.

As Harry marks this birthday, he is a besotted husband and father; the co-owner of a whopping Santa Barbara mansion replete with its own koi pond; and his name is on a contract with Netflix that is rumoured to be worth around $130 million. The man has not so much found freedom as a sensational tan, a house with 16 toilets and a potentially wildly lucrative career. Huzzah!

However, Harry (and Meghan) now face the challenge of living up to the example set for them by Diana: To be true to who they are and who they want to be.

No matter what you think of the Sussexes and Megxit, their fearless commitment to following their own course, even in face of a tsunami of opposition, is impressive.

And likewise, I think it’s a safe bet to say that in the years and decades to come, what they will achieve will be pretty spectacular.

Happy birthday Harry.

May this be the year you truly find happiness.

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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