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Bridget Kendall
WASHINGTON DC - It was my hairdresser who first told me Princess Diana was dead. Still half asleep, I couldn't at first fathom why the cheerful Mexican lady who trims my hair every six weeks was phoning me at home in such distress. The Princess, she said between sobs, had been so beautiful and she just wanted to let me know how sorry she was.

It was the first of several phone calls from American female friends offering their condolences. One rang from New Mexico, another from Seattle, a third sent a card from her remote Montana cattle ranch. Gripped by the television coverage of Princess Diana's death, like the thousands who made the pilgrimage to add flowers to the mountain of dead posies heaped outside the British Embassy in Washington, they wanted to share in the public outpouring of grief.

What struck me most was how my American friends assumed that since I was a British subject, Diana's death must be almost a personal bereavement.

One year on, for many Americans the death of Princess Diana has ceased to be such a British tragedy. As the details of her life and personality recede into the haze of memory, she's well on the way to becoming yet another international pop icon. Like Marilyn Monroe, she's the victim of a tragic early death, the fairy tale princess whom everyone interprets to suit themselves.

Take the art exhibition - "I cried for Princess Di" - organised in Washington this month to commemorate the anniversary.

This was not a grand event. You reached the small whitewashed exhibition room through a shabby doorway, squeezed between a letting agency and a fast food take out.

But the theme of the opening reception and the local art on display were definitely royal. There was a lot of gilt and red velvet - and a lot of tiaras.

"We care more about her glamour than her blue jeans. We have enough blue jeans here, we don't need that," explained one artist - a massage therapist - in sparkly silver balldress with a tiara twinkling on her head.

Her vision of the Princess was of a Barbie doll in coronet and evening gown, enshrined as a saint. The plywood grocery box was decorated with jewels and glitter, the glass front was (of course) a shattered windscreen. And behind the Barbie with its Diana paste-on face, you could just make out a halo of pink plastic doll's legs - a satirical echo of Mexico's Virgin of Guadelupe.

Another artist had painted Diana as a sphinx - in the inevitable tiara - mournfully surveying the Pyramids. The Egyptian setting, the artist explained, was Diana's romance with Dodi Al Fayed.

A third painting yet again put the princess in classic royal garb and crown. But this time the artist had stripped one side of the face and torso down to the bone - leaving half beautiful woman, half grimacing skeleton.

"It was the way she was out of control and how scary that must have been," the artist explained. "I wanted to paint her bulimia. I've lost a third of my own body weight since February. It seemed appropriate."

A wise friend summed it up best: "Diana continues to fascinate us because we identify with her.

"She symbolises what every American female between the ages of 12 and 30 was brought up to dream of as true happiness. She was Cinderella, plucked from the masses, driven to her wedding in a glass coach and kissed on the balcony by Prince Charming while the whole world watched. Not to mention her unlimited clothing budget…..

"Then when she died we realised she summed up all our troubles too - the young wife plagued by eating disorders, the lonely single mother, the divorced woman who struck out on her own . Plus for Americans she was the rebel who launched her own little revolution against the British Royal family.

" So of course we adored her. She is ours as well as yours - the American princess we never had."

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