Remembering the Massive Bombshells From Princess Diana's Intense 1995 BBC Interview

Twenty five years ago, Princess Diana sat down with the BBC for a bombshell interview about her life as a royal. Now, fans are comparing it to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s tell-all.

By Natalie Finn Mar 08, 2021 10:00 PMTags
Watch: Behind Princess Diana's Bombshell BBC Interview

Why so much ado about an interview given in 1995, by a person who died less than two years later?

For starters, it was no ordinary interview. Whenever Princess Diana spoke, the world took notice—and her sit-down with journalist Martin Bashir that aired on the BBC's Panorama 25 years ago was packed with candid, eye-opening turns of phrase from Prince Charles' estranged wife, and has continued to be described as sensational. Now, the same can be said of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's tell-all. During their two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey, the couple held nothing back while recalling the conversations—and concerns—the royal family had about their son's skin color, the "falsehoods" The Firm continued to perpetuate and why they really stepped away from their titles. 

And today, while the world scrutinizes every word Meghan and Harry said, there's still talk about Diana's segment, which approximately 23 million people tuned in to watch on Nov. 20, 1995. In fact, the interview is now under renewed scrutiny with regard to how Bashir got the Princess of Wales to go on camera in the first place.

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"The independent investigation is a step in the right direction," Prince Williamwho historically has had no great love for the media due to their treatment of his mother and, down the road, his future wife, Kate Middletonsaid in a statement released by Kensington Palace Nov. 18. "It should help establish the truth behind the actions that led to the Panorama interview and subsequent decisions taken by those in the BBC at the time." 

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The investigation in question is in response to allegations from the late princess' brother, Earl Charles Spencer, that Bashir used forged bank statements purporting to show that a former member of his security team had received money for sharing information about Diana. Moreover, it's alleged that Bashir lied to Spencer about the queen and other senior royals in order to gain his trust and hasten a meeting. (Bashir has not yet personally responded to any of these allegations.)

People close to Diana, meanwhile, have said that she promptly regretted the whole thing—even before it had aired.

"I think the scales fell from her eyes and suddenly what had been rather a subversive or daring scheme—or however they [the BBC] had dressed it up for her—it suddenly in the cold light of day didn't look like such a good idea," Patrick Jephson, her former private secretary, told the Daily Mail in 2016 in response to a Mail on Sunday report that the BBC's head of news at the time had purposely tried to keep Buckingham Palace in the dark about the Diana interview.

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Not long after the broadcast, Queen Elizabeth II insisted that Charles and Diana, who had been separated since 1992, start divorce proceedings. Their split was finalized in 1996.

This hadn't been the first time that Diana's candor had made it into the public sphere, Andrew Morton's biography utilizing recordings the princess made for him having been published in 1992. But something—maybe everything—about it rubbed the royals the wrong way. Here are the revelations that made it such an unforgettable hour:

Lights, Cameras... Angst

"The most daunting aspect was the media attention," Princess Diana told Martin Bashir on the BBC's Panorama, "because my husband and I, we were told when we got engaged that the media would go quietly, and it didn't; and then when we were married they said it would go quietly and it didn't; and then it started to focus very much on me, and I seemed to be on the front of a newspaper every single day, which is an isolating experience, and the higher the media put you, place you, is the bigger the drop. And I was very aware of that."

From the moment the press first got an inkling of a new romance between the very eligible Prince Charles and 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in 1980, they rarely gave her a moment's piece, trailing her everywhere and hanging around outside her London flat. One intrepid so-called reporter even squeezed through a window at the nursery school where Diana was an aide, searching for a scoop.

She always assumed people would be more interested in her husband and his good works, "but I, during the years, you see yourself as a good product that sits on a shelf and sells well, and people make a lot of money out of you."

In the Deep End Down Under

Their 1983 tour of Australia and New Zealand that was widely praised as such a success was actually agony at times, Diana said.

"We went to Alice Springs, to Australia, and we went and did a walkabout, and I said to my husband: 'What do I do now?'" she recalled. "And he said, 'Go over to the other side and speak to [the press].' I said, 'I can't, I just can't.' He said, 'Well, you've got to do it.' And he went off and did his bit, and I went off and did my bit. It practically finished me off there and then, and I suddenly realized—I went back to our hotel room and realized the impact that, you know, I had to sort myself out."

After the trip, "I was a different person. I realized the sense of duty, the level of intensity of interest, and the demanding role I now found myself in."

A Jealous Husband

Charles, the future King, didn't exactly love playing second fiddle to his charming (if shy underneath it all) wife.

Asked if she was flattered by all the attention, she told Bashir, "No, not particularly, because with the media attention came a lot of jealousy. A great deal of complicated situations arose because of that."

Eventually, Charles decided that they should do fewer joint engagements, so that on his own he would at least get some attention.

The Real World

Diana became known as the People's Princess for a reason. Not knowing at first what areas of public service she should get involved in when she first married Charles, patronages and advocating for causes being a large part of the job when you join The Firm, Diana explained, "I found myself being more and more involved with people who were rejected by society—with, I'd say, drug addicts, alcoholism, battered this, battered that—and I found an affinity there."

"And I respected very much the honesty I found on that level with people I met, because in hospices, for instance, when people are dying they're much more open and more vulnerable, and much more real than other people. And I appreciated that."

No one from the palace ever steered her otherwise, she added, and "I'm lucky enough in the fact that I have found my role, and I'm very conscious of it, and I love being with people."

Heir and a Spare

Diana openly acknowledged that her firstborn child being a boy was considered an extra-good thing by royal standards. And though she had previously said that, after Prince William was born, Charles was hoping for a daughter and was a wee bit disappointed when red-headed Prince Harry popped out instead, two boys was certainly better than two girls.

"It would have been a little tricky if it had been two girls—but that in itself brings the responsibilities of bringing them up, William's future being as it is, and Harry like a form of a back-up in that aspect," she said.

They Called Her Crazy

Diana revealed that she experienced postnatal depression after William's birth, "which no one ever discusses." She said, "That in itself was a bit of a difficult time. You'd wake up in the morning feeling you didn't want to get out of bed, you felt misunderstood, and just very, very low in yourself."

Asked if she got help, the princess said, "I received a great deal of treatment, but I knew in myself that actually what I needed was space and time to adapt to all the different roles that had come my way. I knew I could do it, but I needed people to be patient and give me the space to do it."

According to Diana, however, her in-laws didn't know what to make of her.

"Well maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful," she said. "And obviously that was daunting, because if you've never seen it before how do you support it?" Ultimately, "it gave everybody a wonderful new label: Diana's unstable and Diana's mentally unbalanced. And unfortunately that seems to have stuck on and off over the years."

A History of Self-Harm

Reports that Diana had harmed herself turned out to be true.

"For instance you have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help, but it's the wrong help you're asking for," she reflected. "People see it as crying wolf or attention-seeking, and they think because you're in the media all the time you've got enough attention. But I was actually crying out because I wanted to get better in order to go forward and continue my duty and my role as wife, mother, Princess of Wales.

"So yes, I did inflict upon myself. I didn't like myself, I was ashamed because I couldn't cope with the pressures."

She would "just" hurt her arms and legs. Asked if Charles understood why she was doing that, she said, "No, but then not many people would have taken the time to see that."

Detailing Her Eating Disorder

Diana confirmed that she also battled bulimia for years. 

"You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don't think you're worthy or valuable," she said, comparing binge eating to "having a pair of arms around you, but it's...temporary. Then you're disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and then you bring it all up again."

After spending her days comforting others, she'd go home and comfort herself with food. But, she added, "It was a symptom of what was going on in my marriage. I was crying out for help, but giving the wrong signals, and people were using my bulimia as a coat on a hanger: They decided that was the problem—Diana was unstable."

She's No Dummy

Diana was aware that the general impression of her was that she wasn't as intellectually deep as Charles, and she resented it.

"I made the grave mistake once of saying to a child I was thick as a plank, in order to ease the child's nervousness, which it did," she recalled. "But that headline went all round the world, and I rather regret saying it."

She and Charles actually had many common interests, Diana said. "We both liked people, both liked country life, both loved children, work in the cancer field, work in hospices."

As far as her own interests, "I don't think I was allowed to have any," she said of their relationship early on. "I think that I've always been the 18-year-old girl he got engaged to, so I don't think I've been given any credit for growth. And, my goodness, I've had to grow."

Three Was a Crowd

In perhaps the most quoted, most remembered segment of the interview, Diana admitted to knowing early on that her husband had rekindled his romance with ex-girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles.

Asked if the affair led to the breakdown of her and Charles' relationship, she replied, "Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

Later on, however, on whether she bore any responsibility, Diana said, "I take full responsibility," before quickly adding, "I take some responsibility that our marriage went the way it did. I'll take half of it, but I won't take any more than that, because it takes two to get in this situation."

Leading a Double Life

Even before they separated, Diana and Charles were effectively living separate lives. When "we went abroad we had separate apartments, albeit we were on the same floor, so of course that was leaked, and that caused complications," she remembered. "But Charles and I had our duty to perform, and that was paramount."

And, she continued, "we were a very good team in public."

When Bashir pointed out that a lot of people might not understand how they lived like that, Diana retorted, "Well, that's their problem. I know what it felt like."

A Little Misdirection

Diana denied "personally assisting" Andrew Morton with the writing of his explosive 1992 biography Diana: Her True Story, but she did allow her friends to speak to him, she said, to help set the record straight on her behalf while her life behind the scenes was spiraling.

"A lot of people saw the distress that my life was in, and they felt it was a supportive thing to help in the way that they did," she told Bashir. The princess had thought that maybe a book would give people "a better understanding" of her. "Maybe there's a lot of women out there who suffer on the same level but in a different environment, who are unable to stand up for themselves because their self-esteem is cut into two."

She left out, however, that she submitted to interviews by proxy, Morton asking questions via her friend Dr. James Colthurst, who recorded her responses. Diana also gave Colthurst (who in turn showed them to Morton) a few pieces of private correspondence from Camilla to Charles, the author shared in the Mail on Sunday in 2017.

"However, due to Britain's libel laws, I wasn't at the time able to write that Prince Charles and Camilla were lovers, because it couldn't be proved," Morton recalled. "Instead, I had to allude to a 'secret friendship.'"

Unlike with the BBC interview, Morton said, "She never regretted the taping sessions. As her friend filmmaker Lord Puttnam recalled: 'She owned what she had done. She knew what she was doing and took a calculated risk, even though she was scared sh--less. But I never heard one word of regret, I promise you.'" (After she died, the book was republished as Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words.)

Still, Diana told Bashir, the book (which "shocked and horrified" the royal family) was certainly a turning point for her and Charles. "What had been hidden—or rather what we thought had been hidden—then became out in the open and was spoken about on a daily basis, and the pressure was for us to sort ourselves out in some way."

The sorting out resulted in their separation being formally announced in December 1992, capping off the Queen's "annus horribilis."

No Affair With James Gilbey

Diana was sorry that her affectionate friend had been sucked into her sordid squabbles when a recording of a flirtatious phone call between them was leaked to The Sun in 1992

"But the implications of that conversation were that we'd had an adulterous relationship, which was not true," she insisted. The transcript was published "to harm me in a serious manner, and that was the first time I'd experienced what it was like to be outside the net, so to speak, and not be in the family."

"She Won't Go Quietly"

It was Diana's firm belief that, once she and Charles separated, the royal family had it out for her, that they viewed her as "a problem."

They weren't quite sure what to do, she continued, because "'she won't go quietly,' that's the problem. I'll fight to the end, because I believe that I have a role to fulfill, and I've got two children to bring up."

Referring to a brief break she took from the public eye in 1993, Diana said her plan was to "confuse the enemy," explaining, "the enemy was my husband's department, because I always got more publicity, my work was...discussed much more than him." They tried to undermine her "out of fear," she continued, "because here was a strong woman doing her bit, and where was she getting her strength from to continue?"

"A" for Honesty

Diana cheekily gave Charles kudos to admitting to adultery in his own bombshell interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, author of the 1994 biography The Prince of Wales.

"I was pretty devastated myself. But then I admired the honesty, because it takes a lot to do that," she shared. "To be honest about a relationship with someone else, in his position—that's quite something."

How She Broke the News to William

When she and Charles were separating, she went to Ludgrove, William's boarding school in Berkshire, to tell him in person. She remembered advising her son "that if you find someone you love in life you must hang on to it and look after it, and if you were lucky enough to find someone who loved you, then one must protect it. William asked me what had been going on, and could I answer his questions, which I did."

She reiterated to her then 10-year-old child that "there were three of us in this marriage, and the pressure of the media was another factor, so the two together were very difficult. But although I still loved Papa I couldn't live under the same roof as him, and likewise with him."

Asked how that may have affected him, Diana said William was "a deep thinker, and we don't know for a few years how it's gone in. But I put it in gently, without resentment or any anger."

Coming Clean About Her Own Affair

Whether Diana would have ever stepped out on Charles if she hadn't been so unhappy, we'll never know. But she did admit to being more-than-close-friends with former army officer James Hewitt, who had been her and her sons' riding instructor (and was the subject of a much-denied rumor that he's Harry's real father). He published a tell-all book, Princess In Love, about their affair, which began in 1987, and Diana "really minded" that he had profited from something so private.

"I adored him," she admitted. "Yes, I was in love with him. But I was very let down."

Order of Succession

Asked if she thought Charles would become King one day, Diana replied, "Who knows what fate will produce, who knows what circumstances will provoke?"

Asked if Charles wanted to be King, she said, "There was always conflict on that subject with him when we discussed it, and I understood that conflict, because it's a very demanding role, being Prince of Wales, but it's an equally more demanding role being King. And being Prince of Wales produces more freedom now, and being King would be a little bit more suffocating. And because I know the character I would think that the top job, as I call it, would bring enormous limitations to him, and I don't know whether he could adapt to that."

And on whether he should be King, or should William skip a rung and become the next monarch, Diana said, "Well, then you have to see that William's very young at the moment, so do you want a burden like that to be put on his shoulders at such an age? So I can't answer that question." But, once he's of age, "My wish is that my husband finds peace of mind, and from that follows others things, yes."

Bashir closed the interview by asking Diana why she agreed to talk to him.

"Because we will have been separated three years this December, and the perception that has been given of me for the last three years has been very confusing, turbulent, and in some areas— I'm sure many—many people doubt me," she explained. "And I want to reassure all those people who have loved me and supported me throughout the last 15 years that I'd never let them down. That is a priority to me, along with my children."

And no, the princess said, she was not just trying to stick it to Charles for what he (or his family) had put her through.

"I don't sit here with resentment," Diana said. "I sit here with sadness because a marriage hasn't worked. I sit here with hope because there's a future ahead, a future for my husband, a future for myself and a future for the monarchy."

This story was originally published on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020 at 3 a.m. PT.