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When Diana Met...

When Diana Met… takes listeners inside Princess Diana’s most notable meetings with public figures, politicians, dignitaries, and celebrities to reveal often-overlooked truths and misunderstandings about her life as Princess of Wales. Host Aminatou Sow examines those iconic and memorable connections and what they teach us about power, gender, and control.

Diana, Princess of Wales

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Hair Stylist, Sam McKnight
When Diana Met...
Dec 8, 2021

When Princess Diana posed for a Vogue portrait in 1990, she shocked the world with a seemingly cropped head of hair. Turns out she loved the look so much, she contacted the stylist behind the shoot and had him cut her locks for real. This man is Sam McKnight, he’s responsible for several iconic celebrity dos. In addition to being Diana’s primary hair stylist, Sam became a close friend and confidant. In this episode, we hear about her trend-setting cut and his favorite memories of their time together.


Episode Transcript
Sam McKnight
Probably by the time I met her, you know what happens when you you know, you go into your thirties and you grow up and suddenly you aren't that young princess anymore. You're maturing, you know? And I think she was beginning to find her reason for being, if you know what I mean. She was beginning to really work for her charities and get involved in lots of different causes and have a meaning to all this.
Aminatou Sow
Sam McKnight met Princess Diana in 1990 at a photoshoot for Vogue. He was the magazine's hairstylist. She was well, she was getting her portrait taken. It was a pretty normal day for both of them. And by all accounts, they had a blast working together. It wasn't quite an audition for Sam, but if it had been, he passed with flying colors. The photoshoot was the beginning of a lasting and meaningful working relationship. He redefined Diana's look, taking her from that longer, voluminous eighties shoulder grazing hair she was known for to a windswept, business chic pixie cut. This marked a sharp turn in how she presented herself to the world.
Sam McKnight
Because I think she had found her style in the eighties and this was a new style for the nineties. It was a natural progression, really. I guess when you find something that makes you feel comfortable and that gives you some confidence, doesn't it? And that ,and that confidence is very, very attractive. It's a very sort of dynamic power you have when you feel confident about how you look. That's the power of hair for anyone.
Aminatou Sow
It may seem frivolous to talk about the hair, but in the case of Diana, a woman who lived her life in public and whose appearance was a way of showing up for people, of respecting them, well, it wasn't frivolous.
Sam McKnight
None of it was frivolous. I mean, there's this kind of concept of it all being this sort of living in palaces, which sounds amazing, but it was hard work being Princess Diana.
Aminatou Sow
And Sam would know, he was there. I'm your host, Aminatou Sow, welcome to episode four When Diana Met...Sam McKnight. On this podcast, we've talked about how certain meetings and Diana's life have been pivotal. In the case of Sam McKnight, it was both pivotal and accidental, as was his start in the hairstyling business back in the 1970s.
Sam McKnight
I dropped out of college when I was a teenager because I didn't like what I was doing and doing a few odd jobs, and I ended up working for some people who owned a hairdressing salon, so I would help them out and I kind of just really fell into it.
Aminatou Sow
I mean, you make it sound so seamless and easy, but I just, it's a line of work that I just find very fascinating because it's both very intimate and technical. Who were your very early notable clients?
Sam McKnight
Oh, God. I remember when I was a very junior in a salon I worked in in London called Molton Brown, we would have Bianca Jagger and Alana Hamilton, who I think was married to Rod Stewart. Anyway, we would have those kind of Studio 54 icons come in the salon but I was a kid. I was really intimidated. That's how I got into doing fashion shows as well, because I was an assistant, a junior hairdresser, and I was sent to do a fashion show because the main hairdresser fell ill. But this was days when there would be nine models in a fashion show, and it lasted 10 minutes, 20 minutes. It wasn't a big thing like it is now, but it was a really good time and place to learn thrown in at the deep end.
Aminatou Sow
I mean, it does sound like getting thrown into the deep end. I had to help cut someone's bangs the other day and I thought-
Sam McKnight
Oh, you did? There you go.
Aminatou Sow
I mean, I think it's an insane request to ask of your friends. And also, you know-
Sam McKnight
I think so, too. I hope you won't do that again.
Aminatou Sow
No, never again. Also, I would never do it on myself. But this was truly an emergency for a friend. It makes me appreciate the technical skill that you do, like this is this is surgery. It's both, it's therapy and surgery at the same time.
Sam McKnight
It's both rolled into one. Yes.
Aminatou Sow
How do you go from being junior in this salon to meeting Princess Diana?
Sam McKnight
Well, I was in the salon in the late seventies, and the industry, as we know it now, was really, really in its infancy. So I was doing a lot of photoshoots for magazines, and luckily one of the magazines I started off with early on was Vogue magazine, who had an office around the corner from the salon. I ended up doing a shoot for Vogue, and luckily I must have done something right in my fear because they asked me back and I still to this day, have a healthy relationship with Vogue magazine. And that, sort of ten years later, is how I was introduced to Princess Diana. We were doing a shoot for Vogue magazine, and she happened to be one of the subjects.
Aminatou Sow
When you get invited to do this photoshoot where Princess Diana is the subject. How does that even happen? Did you know she was the subject? Where do you prep? Do, you just show up and it's a secret?
Sam McKnight
I mean, I just showed up. We were doing some young English ladies for Vogue magazine, and I had done that a thousand times before. I had been working for Vogue for 12 years by then, and it was with Patrick J. Marshall, the photographer who I worked with all the time and Mary Greenwell was doing makeup, and Anna Harvey, the lovely fashion editor, was there. So it was a very comfortable, normal day doing a photo shoot until later on in the day, this sort of tall, leggy, smiling blond comes bouncing in the studio to surprise us all and charmed us in a second. She had an incredible way of disarming people immediately, she was very warm and had a lovely smile, twinkling eyes and a great laugh. So immediately you met, there was no sense of distance or anything. She made us all feel completely at ease straightaway. That was one of her amazing powers. Does that make sense?
Aminatou Sow
I mean, it makes perfect sense. And I'm just thinking about that thing that you said earlier about being in the right place at the right time. You know, I feel that so much of life is just like that. It's like you- all of these steps, dropping out of high school leads you to this moment. But it's also it's not as significant as it seems. It is a small moment that is also a big moment that I find that life is very strange that way. You never know who you're going to meet.
Sam McKnight
It is. I mean, the thing is that what I'm there to do is I'm there to do someone's house to make a nice picture and make them feel good. That's my job. Now I'm not there thinking, oh, this is a very significant moment. It's not just, here's this lovely woman that I've seen pictures of and is so normal and lovely and warm and funny, and we've just had a lovely couple of hours and never imagined that I would ever see her again. And then it only carries significance in retrospect.
Aminatou Sow
What did her hair look like when she walked in? Is that the first thing that you think about when you see the model? It's like, Oh, what am I going to do with this?
Sam McKnight
No, what I'm thinking about is how we're going to make this picture, what are we going to do? And it's a conversation between photographer, editor, the person who's going to be in the picture and the makeup artist to see how we're going to approach this portrait and the portraits we had done of everyone were all quite relaxed. So we were approaching it with Patrick J. Marshall. He's very modern, yet intimate, friendly, approachable vibe. And she asked me what I thought we should do with our hair. And I said, Well, what might look quite nice is if we kind of make it look a little bit shorter without, you know, without cutting out when we put the tiara on, we can make it appear a little bit less done and a bit shorter and she went for that. And actually the picture became a real iconic picture where she's sitting on the floor in a white evening dress, white satin evening dress, and she got the biggest smile on her face. I mean, I think she couldn't believe Patrick asked to sit on the floor in the studio. She's like, really? Yeah, absolutely. You know, just make it really throw away. And we were all kind of talking, laughing to each other when the shoot was going on. And it was a lovely couple of hours. It was great.
Aminatou Sow
I thought it was an urban legend that you had not cut her hair. So you are confirming that you just made it look shorter. It was, in fact, not cut
Sam McKnight
I may I made it look shorter and then what happened was after the shoot, after we were finished, because I had never met this lady before and she had never met me, you know, she obviously felt comfortable enough to say, if I said to you now before I leave, what would you do with my hair if I let you do it? I said I would just cut it short, like, like we made it look. She said, okay, let's do it now, which we did. So she actually left the shoot with much, much shorter hair.
Aminatou Sow
Wow. How do you just trust someone so immediately? Do you think she had been thinking about short hair?
Sam McKnight
Absolutely. She must have been. Short hair was becoming a thing. And I thought, well, she could look really modern. She had the same belt and the same sort of power and stature as the supermodels of the day and she had a kind of an amazing natural beauty. And this was 1990, so we were moving from that kind of big frou frou, sort of romantic eighties into a much more sharper modern and had been around in the eighties. I think if you cut it short, you can start again and think about where you want to go with it. And so we did it. There wasn't a lot of thought that went into it.
Aminatou Sow
Did she love it immediately? It was like bound out of the chair and was so happy. Like, what was it like at the reveal?
Sam McKnight
Well, I guess so, because I got a call back a couple of days later asking me if I would come in again, you know, if she needed it. And I said, absolutely, of course I would. So I guess, I guess she liked it.
Aminatou Sow
What was your emotional reaction to getting asked that? Did you say yes immediately or did you have to think about it?
Sam McKnight
So I had gone to Paris the next day, so I said, Well, I could probably do it when I come back. But I was really busy. I was traveling all over the place and I had to think about whether I could commit or not, to be honest. But I really liked her. She was really lovely and I thought, if I can make this work with my traveling, yes, I'm happy to give it a go. You know, that could work.
Aminatou Sow
I love that. You're like, I have a career, but maybe you can be a client on the side.
Sam McKnight
Well, yeah, because I wasn't about to give up my career for one person. I wasn't about to have to have just one client. I've never- no, that would just be-
Aminatou Sow
That's silly. No, it's silly.
Sam McKnight
That would be silly. Yeah.
Aminatou Sow
Can I ask an impolite question? When you cut royal hair, how do you get paid? Like, do you invoice them? Do you like, how does that work?
Sam McKnight
Now that's for me to have, that's a secret.
Aminatou Sow
Wow, wow, wow, wow. Sam McKnight. I love it. I respect it. When we come back, Sam gets real about Diana and what he misses most about her.
Aminatou Sow
Was that haircut, high maintenance or low maintenance hair?
Sam McKnight
It could be either or because sometimes she wouldn't do anything to it and it looked great. But then if she was going to a function or something, she would have it done to be a bit more polished. So she was very aware of the occasion, you know? She knew that going to a hospital or going to a factory or going to an old people's home, she was very aware that people were expecting to see Princess Diana, they didn't want to suddenly be faced with the sort of straggly haired woman who was coming out of the gym, you know, but which was she looked great in, by the way. Absolutely. But she knew that there was a sense of occasion she had to respect the role she was playing.
Diana has been called the greatest fund raiser in the world. The Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children was one of Diana's favorite charities and staff there say it wasn't just her ability to bring in the cash that made her so special. "It was how she helped the families and what she gave to people. When she came in, she made both public visits and she made quite a lot of private visits."
Aminatou Sow
I mean, so you two end up working for six, seven years, right?
Sam McKnight
Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aminatou Sow
There is such a legend and a myth about her and the truth is actually like we do not know who she was because she died so young, people have projected so many things into her, and I feel very protective of her as someone, even though I don't know. I am wondering, though, because you're someone who had like such a close, you know, like both confidant and professional relationship with her, is there something that, like, really struck you about how she was misunderstood at the time?
Sam McKnight
I think a lot of people presume she was this fashionista who was kind of really into fashion and hair and makeup and but she wasn't really she only had her hair done because she needed to look good because sometimes she would do three events in a day. Things weren't as relaxed as they are now because people's hair is much less done now than it was before, so she was very respectful of her audience, whoever that was going to be that day so she was never going to turn up looking like she hadn't tried, she hadn't cared, you know, and that's a respect thing. She respected people so she would never turn up in a disrespectful way. She looked after herself, you know, she took care of herself and she went to the gym she never had a makeup artist, she only had her makeup artist on photoshoots. She did her own makeup. She was very health conscious. So she she wasn't this sort of princess lying in bed eating chocolates and having her hair and makeup done every day and wearing fancy clothes. It was a job and she wanted to do it well.
Aminatou Sow
I really appreciate you saying, because I think that's true of a lot of women in general, but especially women who live public lives, that they're having to wear makeup, having to have the right clothes, having to have the right hair is not a point of vanity. It is how you present to be respectful of the event that you're at, and it's an expectation that's part of it. So I just appreciated it.
Sam McKnight
Yeah. Yeah.
Aminatou Sow
What about your work with her? Do you still carry with you?
Sam McKnight
Oh, my God. So much. I mean, it brought me to a world that I would never have seen or witnessed if I hadn't been a hairdresser. And and I'll always be grateful to her for being so kind to me and kind to everyone around her and when I started to travel with her, we were Mother Teresa's own Calcutta, and and I sat with her in a leper hospital in India. I was only there because I was with her, and the first time I went on one of those trips, I didn't understand why she wanted to go out into the refugee camp with her. I think it was in northern Pakistan, where she was visiting a limb fitting center, where all these children who had arms and legs blown off by landmines were having new limbs fitted, and she was incredible. She was just absolutely unfazed, visibly unfazed with the kids, with the hospital workers. She was a real, genuine, honest humanitarian. She was a natural nurse, whereas I would be hiding round the corner, sort of trying to keep my tears in because it was so, so traumatic, it was really incredibly moving and just watching her do that, and then I realized she wanted us to see what she did on a daily basis so it kind of put everything into perspective for us. So we became part of a team.
Aminatou Sow
Yeah, it sounds like hard work. What do you miss the most about her?
Sam McKnight
You know, I miss her smile. We had a lot of fun. I mean, she made us laugh, so we made each other laugh, the whole team, and that's what I- I miss her humor.
Aminatou Sow
In your line of work, you still work with really public people, icons, people who have this thing that you said this like je ne sais quoi quality about them. Is there anyone that you can think of right now in public life who, you know, not similar to Princess Diana, but there is that same vein? Is there anyone that comes to mind?
Sam McKnight
No. No.
Aminatou Sow
One of a kind.
Sam McKnight
And I think that is part of her legend, you know, because there never has been anyone like that. It's because she was in a unique position at a unique period in time and a unique person.
Aminatou Sow
Oh, Sam McKnight, I just want to say first thank you. I also want to acknowledge your loss, I think that you are an intimate to her and I imagine that a lot of people ask you prying questions, myself included.
Sam McKnight
I think for me it's important to keep the kind of real memory alive and for it not to be clouded by untruths and sort of people who didn't really know her. I just think it's really important because there was an amazing, wonderful, funny, charming, kind, real person there and it would be nice if that's not forgotten.
Aminatou Sow
From an elegant shag to perfectly coiffed cuts. Diana's locks pave the way for the biggest hair trends in the eighties and nineties and Sam McKnight helps her get there, even if it was by accident like he said. He gave her a voluminous pixie and the rest was history. Where you and I see just a haircut, a fabulous haircut, but a haircut, Sam saw someone who was aware of the demands of her job and took that job very seriously. She understood that being well-groomed is a small but important part of expressing respect for the people she was meeting, whether they be a head of state or hospital patient.
Aminatou Sow
This was the most emotional conversation I had while making the show. To you and me, Diana is a princess, an icon, an institution, but Sam is protective of her. To him, she was a dear friend whose intimacy he is trying to protect while simultaneously keeping her legacy alive. A tough line to straddle. We know that while she was working tirelessly to fulfill her public role as Princess of Wales, Diana's personal life was actually in upheaval. Sam, along with the rest of the world, witnessed her 1992 separation from Prince Charles and their subsequent divorce four years later. But if Princess Diana opened up to him about any of her troubles during that time, Sam, like any good hair stylist, will never tell.
Aminatou Sow
Next time on When Diana Met, the princess goes to the White House to dance with a movie star.
She would hit the dance floor with the most famous men in the world and so you look back on that moment, it's not just she looked amazing. It was this moment of defiance and freedom and confidence and strength, I think that really comes from it, and the more we learned about how unhappy she was, it becomes more poignant.
Aminatou Sow
Diana's dance with John Travolta would catapult her into celebrity status, her complicated relationship with the media would never be the same.
Aminatou Sow
When Diana Matt is produced by CNN Audio and Pineapple Street Studios. It's hosted by me, Aminatou Sow. Our producers are Mary Knauf, Tamika Adams, and Erin Kelly. Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavanaugh and our editor is Darby Maloney.
Aminatou Sow
Mix and Original Music by Hannis Brown. Our fact checker is Francis Carr. Additional support for the series comes from Ashley Lusk, Kira Boden-Gologorsky, Alexander McCall, Lisa Namerow, Robert Mathers and Molly Harrington.
Aminatou Sow
Executive producers for Pineapple Street Studios are Bari Finkel, Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky.
Aminatou Sow
Megan Marcus is the executive producer for CNN Audio.