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How Princess Diana made a real difference to our lives


Diana, Princess of Wales
Diana, Princess of Wales
Diana, Princess of Wales
Health issues: Jilly St John, who suffered from anorexia
Diana on the cover of Vogue
Right cut: hair stylist Paul Stafford
Diana meets an Aids sufferer
Good deeds: Marcus Hunter-Neill
Fashion expert: Cathy Martin
Diana wearing her tweed outfit
Diana wearing her Elvis dress

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Helen Carson talks to four Northern Ireland people about her lasting legacy on everything from health issues to style.

'She broke a taboo by talking publicly about her bulimia'

Jilly St John (35), who is training  to become a yoga teacher, lives  in Londonderry and is single.  She suffered from anorexia for  several years, first becoming ill  in her teens. She says:

I probably suffered from anorexia when I was 17, but I wasn't aware of what exactly it was at the time. Initially I was diagnosed with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and depression because the doctor, quite rightly, related my loss of appetite to those conditions.

Back then, though, I knew that anorexia existed as it was always in the spotlight chiefly because famous people, mostly women, would talk about it.

Of course I also remember all the publicity about Diana's eating disorder - in her case she suffered from bulimia.

Eating disorders have a tendency to be associated with beautiful people and even considered glamorous. The truth, however, is very different as I found out. When I was 18 my weight fell to its lowest point, which was about five and a half stones, and it was only when a friend I hadn't seen in a while was home from university that they commented on how thin I was. I had been living off smoothies and little else. That's when I went to the doctor for help and I have had support ever since. It was only in the last five years that I was signed off CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which I was referred to to help manage my illness.

While I have had therapy for a number years, it never revealed what the trigger was for my anorexia.

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I believe it was connected to my early family life as my mum and dad weren't together and I grew up in a single parent family, leaving home at 15 to move into Women's Aid accommodation.

At one point when I was unwell I wanted to die, while at the same time I didn't as I was petrified at the idea. Then I realised that I had to do something about it for myself. Anorexia is very much misunderstood and the solution is not as simple as just eating. Your body goes into starvation mode and cannot digest food in the usual way. My recovery involved force feeding myself otherwise I would have been hospitalised and put on an IV drip. It took me four hours to eat a bowl of soup.

Being in the spotlight as much as Diana was I'm sure that initially she didn't want anyone to know she was ill and probably had to work hard to maintain her weight and fight issues such as a gagging reflex which stops you eating. She had to project a strong public image but I think she later realised that talking about her eating disorder was not a sign of weakness but an example of being strong.

Diana was aware of the power and influence she had and wasn't afraid to use it. Speaking out about things that were taboo was all part of her personality and she knew that by doing so she would help many other people who could look at her and realise that, despite her privileges, something bad had happened to her too. She used her role a princess to start conversations about issues such as anorexia and Aids. Diana was a beautiful and kind person and really was the people's princess."

‘Her hair on the famous Vogue cover transformed her image’

Award-wining Belfast hair stylist Paul Stafford (48) runs a salon  with wife Leisa (48). They have two children, Joni (16) and Ava (14). He says:

Princess Diana's hair was awful at the start - that typical English rose cut from the early Eighties. The person who transformed her hair was Scottish-born but London-based stylist Sam McKnight who created her look for that famous 1991 Vogue cover she did.

Her hair was very different in that cover and it changed her image from just another princess to someone who epitomised style - and I mean real individual style as opposed to a follower of fashion.

From that point she did have some memorable hairstyles including the slicked backed look, which wasn't necessarily particularly flattering, but was memorable.

When it came to her hair she could get away with things other women couldn't so she reminded me of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly in that sense.

I don't particularly remember anyone coming into the salon and asking for a Princess Di in the Eighties as it would've been considered too cheesy and definitely not cool. I loved her hair in the famous Vogue cover as it looked almost undone and before that she had the George Michael-type hair style that looked ridiculous and very dated.

It was Sam McKnight who changed her hair and then she became a style icon."

'She reached out to people with Aids when others would not'

Marcus Hunter-Neill (34), from  Bangor, is one of Belfast's best-known drag artists and a radio  presenter. He says:

I absolutely loved Princess Diana and everything that she did. And not just for the gay community, but everything in her life because she realised the power she had as an individual.

She could do something positive for issues such as HIV/Aids which anyone with a high profile could have done but chose not to do so.

Aids and homelessness aren't sexy or pretty charities, but she knew by embracing them it would make other people uncomfortable with their reluctance to get involved.

She not only met Aids sufferers, but touched them and hugged them at a time when others felt if they didn't look at these people, they would just go away.

She changed the face of Aids in the world and more so than anyone else.

She put the disease in the spotlight.

In terms of the gay community she embraced homosexuality as normal. It was not a case of Princess Diana hanging out with the gays, it was Diana who just happened to be in the company of gay people. There was a reluctance among public figures to get involved with Aids awareness, for example, as others may conclude that you have the disease if you care about it that much.

That's why we needed Diana because she was smart enough to be able to get involved - a real royal meeting people who were marginalised in society.

She brought her children along to meet people dying from Aids or who were homeless because she wanted them to know there are many people out there who are less fortunate than you, and you can see how they are carrying that message on today.

One of her sayings was that it was good to carry out a random act of kindness every day and that is something which I try to practice because it does make the world a better place. I was approached by Rape Crisis to help them raise money as the members were having to re-mortgage their homes to save the charity.

It's one of those organisations which finds it hard to attract publicity so I put an appeal out on social media and it really helped. It's about being a bit more Princess Diana everyday."

'As I get older I really like the classic style she did so well'

Cathy Martin (43), director of  Belfast Fashionweek, lives in  Holywood with her daughter, Valentina (5). She says:

Diana's style was very much of its time. While it's easy to laugh now or look down our noses at the big sleeves and ruffle neck blouses she wore, fashion is very fickle and they are all back in again.

She reminds me of Kate Middleton in that she was very safe in her choices, but she eventually grew into her style as her confidence increased as a woman. Initially she embraced British designers such as the Emanuels and Bruce Oldfield, but then after she split from Charles there was a massive change and we saw her in Armani and Verscace.

Her clothes became a bit more sexy, less formal and royal.

She expressed herself through what she was wearing and everyone could see the transformation.

While Diana wouldn't have been a style influence on myself back then, she has become more of one in recent years.

As I've got older I really like the classic style that she did so well and visited the exhibition of her clothes at Kensington Palace in London, which is just fantastic.

She was a great supporter of London-based designer Catherine Walker and, while this may seem morbid, she is buried in one of the designer's outfits. But whether that was her decision, I'm not sure.

My favourite outfit of Diana's is by Walker - her Elvis dress which is a silk gown and jacket encrusted with pearls.

She wore it on a couple of occasions - the British Fashion Awards in 1989 and then on an official visit to Hong Kong.

I also loved the midnight blue velvet gown by Victor Edelstein that she wore to President Ronald Regan's White House State dinner in 1985.

The one I hated was the tweed suit she was seen in with Charles on their honeymoon in Balmoral and a blue check suit by Elizabeth Emanuel she wore in Venice. In those days, however, even princesses didn't have that many style references.

Kate Middleton can now go on Instagram to see what the best looks are."

Belfast Telegraph


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