Twenty years after her death, her influence can still be seen everywhere you look

By Ray Rahman
July 26, 2017 at 01:04 PM EDT
Pete Souza/AP Photo

In July of 1981, some 200 years after deciding that the British monarchy wasn’t for them, the United States had a change of heart. A wedding was happening across the ocean, and the former colonies, like the rest of the world, couldn’t get enough of the royal spectacle. An estimated 750 million people tuned in, eager to watch Lady Diana Spencer become the Princess of Wales.

Our infatuation hasn’t let up since. With the 20th anniversary of her death approaching, Princess Diana’s impact on American culture can still be seen everywhere you look, from tabloid covers to prestige television. She didn’t just influence us — she left behind a legacy that changed us forever.

Before Diana, if the average American knew anything about the royals, it was likely from a history book. The residents of Buckingham Palace lived squarely in the realm of homework, not entertainment. That changed in 1980 when Diana burst onto the scene as Prince Charles’ soon-to-be wife. She was beautiful, charismatic, and yet still relatable and accessible — a natural star. “She turned a rather stuffy institution into this glamorous international family with a fascinating narrative,” biographer Andrew Morton tells EW. “Everyone, especially in America, was transfixed by her.”

While Diana modernized the monarchy’s image, she also became a phenomenon all her own. By the time she attended a White House gala in 1985, Americans were mesmerized. The instantly iconic image of the princess and John Travolta twirling across the dance floor solidified Hollywood’s love affair with her. To that end, Diana graced the cover of EW’s sister publication People a remarkable 58 times, from 1981 to this very week’s issue — far more than any other figure in the magazine’s history. Along the way, she redefined the nature of celebrity itself. Keenly aware that wherever she went, cameras would follow, the People’s Princess used her stature to promote awareness and raise money for a wide range of charitable causes; notable examples include her campaign against land mines and her compassionate approach to the AIDS ­crisis. Her commitment to humanitarianism helped inspire a generation of movie stars and rock singers to view public philanthropy as essential parts of their personal brands.

RELATED: Diana, Our Mother Subjects Recall Haunting Moments from Princess’ Final Days

Almost nothing Diana did was ever really private, of course. The press hounded her relentlessly, turning every personal detail and intimate moment into a tabloid headline. As a result, her struggles became everyone’s struggles: postpartum depression, eating disorders, affairs, and, eventually, divorce. “She was a human being, and people responded to that,” Morton notes. “People responded to the vulnerabilities and the virtues.” Her life was the first reality TV show, presaging the around-the-clock TMZ world we know all too well now.

It was this sense of connection — the feeling that Diana was a part of your family — that made her death, at the age of 36, such a shocking, traumatic, and all-encompassing event. George Clooney lashed out at the press in a now-infamous news conference, blaming paparazzi for the car crash that killed her. Britons protested the Queen’s initial refusal to publicly comment on Diana’s death. Two billion people around the world watched the funeral service, where Elton John performed a version of “Candle in the Wind” specially written in the princess’ honor. The song became the highest-selling single of the modern era.

Since Diana, the royals have remained a pop culture fixture, appearing regularly in cable-news reports, social media feeds, and celebrity magazines. People may not know who their state representatives are, but Diana’s sons are household names. We frown at Prince Harry’s exploits; we gush over photos of Prince William’s babies; for a while, we even kept track of someone named “Pippa.”

RELATED: Watch a clip from The Story of Diana, a special produced by ABC and PEOPLE

And, because we are Americans, we make TV shows about them. Over the past 20 years, the British monarchy — once the domain of dusty historical productions — has become a mass-entertainment staple. HBO’s Elizabeth I, The CW’s Reign, E!’s The Royals, Showtime’s The Tudors, PBS’ Victoria, and Starz’s The White Queen each offers its own take on royal drama. Producers of Netflix’s acclaimed The Crown, which depicts Queen Elizabeth’s early days, promise to jump ahead in time and bring Diana into the fold by season 3.

Then there’s Ryan Murphy, who’s going all-in: Season 2 of his FX series Feud will cover the saga of Charles and Diana from their divorce up to Diana’s death. “Our public perceptions of all these people are so interesting to me,” Murphy told EW in March. “The thing I was struck about was how real [Diana] was and how great she was with those kids. She was an ordinary person put in an extraordinary circumstance.”

These shows surely won’t be the last ones to revisit the late princess. She left an immense footprint on our culture, both high and low, and our fascination with her will grow as younger generations come to know her for the first time. Two decades after her death, Diana’s story still resonates with millions around the world — and will continue to touch people for many years to come.

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