BBC Online Network BBC Homepage BBC News BBC Education BBC World Service
Diana - one year on Home Sights and Sounds Your thoughts Q & A Reporter's reflections Visit Althorp Contribute
at home
The making of an icon

BBC's Jackie Long
Beauty is a powerful drug. Combined with celebrity - its potency becomes explosive.

Diana, Princess of Wales was beautiful. The media crowned Diana "The Most Beautiful Woman in the World." Whether that was true - and how we could actually judge - hardly mattered. She was "The Most Photographed Woman in the World" and "The Most Famous Woman in the World." And that made her truly powerful.

When someone so beautiful and so well known dies so early and so tragically, all the ingredients of the perfect modern icon are there.

The original icons were not photographic images but painted ones. The earliest date back to the sixth century. Almost painfully beautiful, they were an expression of the people's aspirations to the divine. But they were also a crucial means of communicating religious stories to a wide range of people. Their meaning had to be deep enough to satisfy intellectuals rigorously searching for spiritual exactitude as well as work as simple picture stories for the illegitimate masses.

It was clear in the days after her death that Diana's image was able to reach a staggeringly broad "church." Her image, this time created through a camera lens, meant something to almost everyone.

Young care-worn mothers queued up to pay their respects and told reporters that she was "one of us." For the most expensively dressed woman in the world to convince single mums that she struggled as they did was an extraordinary feat. A Princess with a royal residence and the ability to travel to the most beautiful places in the world at the drop of a hat, she was still able to persuade the homeless that she understood - really understood.

But does that say more about us than about the Princess?

Most people chose to ignore the incongruity of Diana doling out food to the starving in Africa in a rather too-smart gold buttoned safari suit. Instead she was compared to Mother Teresa The two were said to have a special bond. But there was something vaguely absurd about the photograph of Diana, pristine in Chanel, towering over the diminutive nun dressed in one of the only two saris she owned.

Diana was our sort of saint, an icon perfect for her time. She made giving glamorous. She embodied the caring 90s but still hung on to some of the style obsessed 80s. Princess Anne had trudged around the Third World doing charity work for years - she just didn't do it so beautifully.

Diana was the Princess of the Hello! era. Hello! is "invited" into the homes of our favourite celebrities and by extension we (yes even we ordinary people) can go too. We can see what their furniture is like, we can hear what they eat, we can find out how they get on with the wife. We can "know" them. And the hundreds of thousands of people who queued to leave flowers after Diana's death felt they knew her. On the day of her funeral one man told BBC Newsnight he cried more for the Princess than he had for his own father.

We took what we wanted from the image of Diana. We ignored the bits we didn't like to focus on the bits that pleased us. Dr Simon Critchley, a reader in philosophy at Essex University and one of the scores of academics now devoting hours of study to Diana, described her as "like the virgin Mary. She can be all things to all people."

The religious comparison goes on.

Paul Johnson, a devout Catholic and writer on The Spectator, has already said he's prayed to Diana. The feminist academic Camille Paglia has warned us to expect claims of miracle healing at the "shrine" to Diana at Althorp. Many of the cards attached to the flowers at Kensington Palace were not prayers for Diana but prayers to her.

In death, Diana is developing into an icon of the old world - one imbued with some sort of spiritual power. It's so worrying that the Archbishop of York has warned that the country is in danger of "clinging too much to the icon."

But that warning is unlikely to be heeded in the days surrounding the anniversary. As the thing which invokes worship - her image - is once more reproduced again and again and again.