The late Princess Diana is famous for so many things, including her impeccable sense of style, her fairy-tale wedding, her incredible philanthropic work, and her tragic death. What is less known about one of the figures most probed by the press in perhaps all of history was her complex relationship with her stepmother, Countess Raine Spencer. This storied relationship is explored in a new documentary from Smithsonian Channel, Princess Diana’s ‘Wicked’ Stepmother.
As a young girl, Diana notoriously hated her stepmother — to such a fierce degree that she allegedly once pushed her down a flight of stairs, as discussed in the exclusive clip above. Yet later in life, Diana had a change of hear and Raine became one of her closest confidantes. With interviews with many of Raine and Diana’s personal staff, as well as commentary from royal biographers, the documentary seeks to grant viewers a window into a lesser-known relationship in Diana’s life and introduce American audiences to the woman who was Countess Raine Spencer.
In advance of the documentary’s Oct. 28 premiere on Smithsonian Channel, EW called up Paul Burrell, Princess Diana’s former butler and personal assistant, to get his perspective on Raine and why Diana’s relationship with her is an essential part of the complete portrait of who the Princess really was.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why do you think Raine’s story is essential to the full picture of Diana?
PAUL BURRELL: Because it really hasn’t been explored before. So much has been said about Diana, and nobody really knows about her relationship with her stepmother. It’s a very interesting journey. In the beginning, of course, she was very much hated, and at the end of the Princess’ life, she was very much loved. So it shows you the dimensions of a relationship and how it can change over the years, and change specifically through maturity.
In your interactions with Raine, what did you think of her?
I thought she was always the life and soul of a party. She was larger than life. And a very interesting yet complex woman. She was a survivor, at the end of the day. You had to admire her for (A) getting on with her life, and (B) not bothering about what people said about her. A lot could be learned from her battle-ax image because she forged on ahead like a galleon going through the ocean. The Princess used to say, “It’s funny, nothing bothers Raine, except if she fell over, she’d break her hair.” Because she had this enormous hair. No one ever saw her with flat hair or wet hair or un-coiffured hair. She was an amazing character, almost a caricature.
What did you think the most telling thing Diana ever said about her stepmother was?
The Princess explained to me that in the very beginning, they used to sing, “Raine, Raine, go away,” because they didn’t want her there. She did say to me that once she tried to push her down the staircase because she hated her so much. But what was interesting to me was the fact that at the end of the Princess’ life, the last two or three years, the Princess did a full 180-degree turn. She explained it to me by saying she just wanted to say thank you to Raine for (A) looking after her father and (B) for loving him so much. She didn’t realize until later in life exactly how much she did love him and care for him.
What do you think inspired that change of heart?
I think it was twofold, really. Diana being a mature woman and being an outcast herself, finding herself on the margins of society, she realized Raine was in exactly the same place. So the two women had, at the end, much in common. It was interesting that she said to me that she felt sorry for [Raine] on her wedding day. Because Raine was shunted to the back of the room in St. Paul’s Cathedral, whereas her own mother, who had abandoned Diana as a child, was elevated into a royal position. She didn’t think that was fair, and it needed addressing.
People have canonized Diana in some ways, but this story of the difficult relationship between her and her stepmother shows a different side of her, particularly this tale of her pushing Raine down the stairs. Do you think it gives a more complete picture of Diana, or particular insight into her psyche at that time?
I do. I think the viewers will see that Diana was immature as a child, reading romantic novels, strangely enough Barbara Cartland novels, and dreamed of a happy ending. Later in life she realized life wasn’t like that, and I think she realized that life was cruel and hard. It had been cruel and very hard on Raine.
They mention Barbara Cartland briefly in the documentary. Did you find parallels between Diana’s love of those books and wanting to have her own fairy tale?
I did, yeah. Diana was a romantic all her life. As a child she dreamed of finding a prince. Diana said to me one day, “I realized I’d have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, but I ended up finding a toad.” As a romantic as a child, rushed away to boarding school, her escapism was in romantic fiction. She read it and she dreamed of it, and she dreamed that one day a prince would come and sweep her off her feet. I think she would say to you, “I fell in love with the idea and the romance and the fiction of becoming a princess.” She didn’t realize it would be so cruel and hard on her.
If they were both still with us today, where do you think things might stand between them?
I think they would still be best of friends, careering around town together and going to parties. Raine being the stepmother, introducing Diana to dashing young men. I don’t think the romance between the Princess and Dodi Al Fayed would’ve lasted much longer, but I think Raine was a sort of fixer. She enjoyed the role of being a broker in many respects and loved being involved with the Princess’ life.
We’ve seen Meghan suffering much of the same press scrutiny and abuse as Diana. What advice might you have for her, or what do you think Diana would make of what the Duchess is suffering right now?
It’s history repeating itself. Meghan and Harry are so popular. Harry is probably the most popular member of the royal family after the Queen, and because he’s so popular and so hands-on with the public, there’s an intense interest in everything they do. I think the advice I would give Meghan and Harry would be, “You know who you are, you know what your mission is, and it’s been proven in Africa — to follow in Diana’s legacy and to fulfill her dreams and her ideals. I think you know your direction. Stick to it. Forget about the noise around you and do what you think is best,” because personally I think they’re doing a fantastic job under such enormous scrutiny.