Princess Diana employed a secret tactic when it came to putting the fawning, starstruck public at ease: She’d simply discuss the hottest soap operas of the day. “If I go out and about, whether it be to Birmingham, Liverpool or Dorset, I can always pick up on a TV program and you are on the same level,” she once told her biographer Andrew Morton.
“That I decided for myself. It works so well. Everybody watches it and I say, ‘Did you see so and so? Wasn’t it funny when this or that happened?’” Suddenly, she transformed from the Princess of Wales into an old friend. Continued Diana, “You are not the princess and they, the general public – it’s the same level.”
Her folksy, down-to-earth demeanor was one of many reasons Diana was so beloved by the public. With the beauty of a model, the carefree nature of a child and the compassion of a Saint, Diana effortlessly bridged the divide between the common folk and the monarchy, which had long seemed stuffy, secretive and inaccessible.
She also cared deeply about the less fortunate and threw the weight of her celebrity and royal status behind causes such as HIV/AIDS research (then a hot-button topic), homelessness and a worldwide ban on land mines.
“With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair recalled in 1997, after her untimely death in a Paris car crash at age 36. “People everywhere… kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the People’s Princess.”
Twenty-four years later, Kate Middleton is often compared to her late mother-in-law – and with good reason. She too is a striking but approachable beauty with a dedication to charity and a knack for small talk with her subjects. Desperate to have warmth, relatability – and glamour – back in the royal family, Brits (and the world at large) have turned to Kate to fill the void. “In terms of their popularity, the similarities are amazing,” according to Ken Wharfe, Diana’s former bodyguard and friend.
Kate herself sees Diana as a role model: “She’s obviously an inspirational woman to look up to,” she said in 2010 after she became engaged to Diana’s son William. And yet she is no facsimile of the late princess. “No one is trying to fill my mother’s shoes; what she did was fantastic,” William said. “It’s about making your own future and your own destiny, and Kate will do a very good job at that.”
Aside from her public endeavors, Diana also created a blueprint for raising future monarchs in the modern age. Unlike the stern Queen Elizabeth II (who greeted her children by shaking their hands), Prince Charles’ wife “was very informal,” William has recalled. “[She] really enjoyed the laughter and the fun.”
Case in point: She took her sons to amusement parks such as Disney World, ran around with them on their school’s sports days and broke years of tradition by taking them on official overseas state visits.
Diana’s decision to bring a then-9-month-old William to Australia in 1983 was controversial. “[People] were like, ‘Breaking royal precedent.’ But it was brilliant,” says Daisy Goodwin, author of My Last Duchess. “Because no woman wants to leave her baby, and that was what made Diana so lovable – that she always absolutely adored her children.”
The same can be said for Kate, mom to George, 7, Charlotte, 5, and Louis, 2. “Kate’s top priority is to her family,” notes Diana’s former butler Paul Burrell. Royals family expert James McCourt agrees: “Kate will not allow royal engagements to impact the close relationship she was with her children.”
Indeed, just like Diana did, Kate has taken her kids abroad when she’s traveled for official state visits – even breaking the unwritten royal rule that direct heirs to the throne should not fly together. At 8 months old, George accompanied Kate and William to Australia and New Zealand in 2014; two years later, they brought George and Charlotte for their weeklong trip to British Columbia, Canada. In 2017, William and Kate also took the kids along on their five-day tour of Poland and Germany.
The photographs of a regal duchess out and about with her young children certainly bring to mind memories of Diana, who, as William has said, “understood that there was a real life outside of palace walls.”
For Diana, it wasn’t all fancy dinners with heads of state. She was a passionate advocate for dozens of causes and charities. And rather than just write a check, Diana volunteered her time. “Nothing brings me more happiness than trying to help the most vulnerable people in society,” she told journalist Martin Bashir in 1995. “It is a goal and essential part of my life, a kind of destiny.”
She made sure to instill that sense of service in her sons, who accompanied Diana when she’d serve the less fortunate. “My mother took a huge part in showing me an ordinary life, including taking me and my brother to see homeless people,” Harry said in 2017. “Thank goodness I’m not completely cut off from reality.”
The public noticed Diana’s dedication. “Her overall effect on charity is probably more significant that any other person’s in the 20th century,” Stephen Lee, director of the U.K. Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, has said.
She certainly raised the bar for her future daughter-in-law. But rather than try to emulate Diana, Kate has chosen to champion charities that are near and dear to her own heart. A former art history major, Kate has become a patron of cultural causes such as the National Portrait Gallery and the Natural History Museum. With William and Harry, she also founded Heads Together, a charity that aims to erase the stigma of mental health issues. Bucking the “stiff upper lip” tradition of the royal family, William has said, “Catherine and I are clear we want both George and Charlotte to grow up feeling able to talk about their emotions and feelings.”
Kate is using Heads Together as a jumping-off point to involve her kids in charity, by teaching the simple concept of being kind to others. She highlighted that during a 2017 charity appearance for Children’s Mental Health Week, saying, “William and I want to teach our little children just how important these things [kindness, respect and honesty] are as they grow up.” No doubt, Diana would be proud.