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Diana was a pioneer in celebrity activism
02:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Don’t miss CNN’s six-part documentary series “Diana.” It features rarely-seen footage and new interviews exploring the person behind the princess. “Diana” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

CNN  — 

When Princes William and Harry commissioned a statue of their late mother, Princess Diana, at Kensington Palace, they chose to portray her in the “final period of her life,” the palace said at the time. This was when she “gained confidence in her role as an ambassador for humanitarian causes and aims to convey her character and compassion.”

In the statue, Diana is standing beside three children who represent “the universality and generational impact of The Princess’ work.”

When we weigh the legacy of this towering figure of the 20th century, it is perhaps best represented at the moment that her two sons unveiled her statue in July 2021. They are her living legacy and together have committed to reminding subsequent generations of how pioneering she was.

“We remember her love, strength and character – qualities that made her a force for good around the world, changing countless lives for the better,” William and Harry said in a joint statement.

The princess wasn’t the first famous person to do humanitarian work, but she reinvented how it was done. Speeches weren’t enough for her, or showing up at charity events. She wanted to ram the message home by going to the front lines of some of the most pressing and sensitive issues of the era.

In 1987, she visited a man dying of AIDS at a time when many incorrectly believed the disease could be transmitted by touch. She didn’t just sit next to him, she reached out and shook hands with him – without gloves. It’s difficult to imagine now how profound that image was when there was no known treatment, let alone a cure, for the disease.

Two years later, she did it again during a visit to Indonesia where she shook hands with leprosy patients.

“She spoke to people and touched them,” May Lloyd – who worked with Diana on leprosy awareness – tells CNN. Lloyd says newspaper headlines at the time urged the princess not to do it. “But of course she was prepared to do that to show that it’s not something to be afraid of.”

Diana wasn’t afraid to “get down in the dirt and kneel next to someone or speak to someone or sit next to them,” Lloyd reminds us, and was “always on the lookout to help the person who needed the most time.”

That’s the compassion in Diana’s work that William and Harry are referring to.

Even in her final year of life – 1997 – Diana risked everything to walk through a field of disused but active land mines in Angola where thousands risked their lives every day because stepping in the wrong place could mean losing their life or, at best, their limbs.

In 1997, Diana visited a land mine minefield being cleared by a charity in Angola.

The man with the unenviable task of guiding the princess through the minefield was Paul Heslop of the Halo Trust. He tells CNN: “Her celebrity was so great, that it did take it to a completely different scale,” adding she was, “really, really nervous” but “wanted to do it.”

She also visited a Red Cross orthopedic center where she was captured sitting beside a 13-year-old girl who had stepped on a land mine.

“Some pictures are worth a thousand words, others are worth ten-thousand … that one’s probably worth a million,” Heslop says.

“The tenderness that she’s showing, the sadness of a girl who’s lost a leg to a mine, and then you combine that with an image of a tall, beautiful woman walking through a minefield wearing body armor, you know, you’ve got two very striking images from that trip, and you think back to other iconic images of the twentieth century – it’s not often you’ve got two in a day.”

Heslop says the publicity that came from that royal tour was instrumental in creating the momentum for an international treaty to ban land mines signed later that year in Canada, though Diana never lived to see it.

Prince Harry still supports the Halo Trust and recently retraced her footsteps in Angola. He continues to work on HIV/AIDS awareness too in close collaboration with family friends Elton John and David Furnish.

William took up Diana’s patronages of the homelessness charity Centrepoint and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

Both princes blame the media for her premature death, but also accept it was a great asset that she was able to use to ultimately redefine celebrity activism. More than anyone else alive at the time, and possibly since, she was able to transform perceptions and change lives. Her boys are truly Diana’s lasting legacy.