The World’s Most Photographed Woman by Katy Lennon

May 18, 2020

Growing up, I saw Princess Diana a lot. In newspapers, on TV, smiling from photo frames. Suspended, headless, in the centre of porcelain plates on plastic stands never intended for use. Our house was plastered with her image, some of them just the same photograph, repeated over and over. My grandma used to mix pictures of her in with our family photos. At one point, there were more pictures of her than of us. We were actually related to her, in a winding, reaching kind of way. And although we were generations and many miles apart, it always felt like she was there with us. But after she died, things changed. Our family pictures became few, and those that remained were taken out of their frames to host Diana’s face. The familiar mementos turned into shrines, heart-shaped frames insistent on remembrance. ‘Forever in our hearts’. ‘Never forgotten’.

I read all her interviews: Vogue, Tatler, Vanity Fair. I’d studied each answer she gave, checking for inconsistencies. Making notes. Watching her outfits change ten, twelve times over the course of a conversation. Her smile sometimes dazzling and overwhelmingly beautiful, other times small and subdued. I liked that I alone knew when she was happy and when she was not. She was everything and everyone all at once. All I wanted to be was her. I thought I could be. I could be her second coming. All the women in my family thought so, too. In our reunion pictures, we all stood with our blue eyes open as wide as they would go, floating in an ocean of fluffy blonde hair.

The anniversary of her death was coming up, which always intensified the chances that Diana would come back. One of us, someone in her lineage, had to be there with her if she did. That was why I was there. It must have looked odd from the outside, this little blonde thing in florals marching into Lady Di’s estate alongside military men in their sleek black turtlenecks, machine guns strapped to their chests. But the men didn’t think it was weird. They understood the connection we had. When we got the news that the estate had chosen me, my grandma cried, her hands covering her face. My mother couldn’t even look at me. My aunties sniffed loudly and moved the conversation on. I felt a bit like crying then, too.

When I stepped off the little boat onto Diana’s island, I was horribly, nauseatingly nervous. I so desperately wanted to do the right thing. The men with their guns were stationed all around the lake’s edge, watching me flit back and forth, but I didn’t think about them. I knew my mother and aunties would be watching my every move. I first sat on the bench next to the temple. Then, worried they’d think I was posing, as if it were a fashion show, I stood as nonchalantly as I could, edging over to the pink roses. I lightly touched their closed mouths with my fingertips. After a moment, I decided I just looked ridiculous and settled on standing completely still in the island’s centre, staring straight ahead over the water. Ready and waiting.

The night’s darkness was starting to cover the house, then the gardens, then the lake. A ripple ran across it as a man in black lowered his leg into the lake’s edge. Fumbling, I pulled out the torch they’d given me and shone it on the man’s face. Pure horror momentarily illuminated his face as the water began churning beneath him. He dipped out of sight, unable to produce even a scream to punctuate his visit before he was gone. I smiled at my success, repressed it. I’d been especially worried about getting the sacrifices exactly right. But of course, she knew what to do.

I heard a deep rumbling under my feet, and before I could even turn my head, Diana silently broke the surface of the water, clusters of oyster pearls arched around a dorsal fin. Or was it a collar? A lapel turned playfully skywards? It cut a blunt line through the water, like teeth tearing through silk. I recognised it immediately: the Elvis dress.

Over the course of the evening, she took three more men, two at the same time and one by himself, closer to midnight. First, she wore the Revenge Dress from the Vanity Fair party in 1994, the one she was photographed in after she’d found out her husband had cheated on her. When she was finished with her meal, the black crepe sash floated on the surface for a few moments, lingering, before being sucked down under the water.

Then, finally, the wedding gown. The crinoline floated like bloated seafoam on the flatness of the lake, lace and pearls frilled the edges of her knotted spine as she twisted beneath the glassy surface. A strange sound emitted from the water, not from any one source but permeating the air of the island, a mixture of female laughter and screams, pulsing whale moans and warning dolphin clicks. A horribly loud sucking sound followed, making my heart rise in my chest. Any light from the moon was swallowed by Diana’s endless white train, soaked ivory silk taffeta edged with Carrickmacross lace. The same lace that had once belonged to Queen Mary.

She let herself fall backwards, sending a wave of freezing black water over the island. As I regained my sight and the water trickled back like a child returning to its mother, the dress revealed itself. Midnight blue. At first, I thought it was a puddle of lake water. Or a reflection of the night sky. Then I noticed the small ring of pearls, a swollen sapphire glinting in the centre like a huge eye, and I knew what it was: the Travolta dress. And she wanted me to wear it.

I stripped immediately, not caring about the guards still staring at me from across the lake. The wet velvet meant it took real effort to wriggle into it, and my breathless grunts echoed across the silence awkwardly. But once I had it on, everything felt right. It fit like a second skin over every contour. I ran my hands over my hips, following the darting down to the fishtail. The fabric gathered together thick as hair, blossoming, bulbous, and coiled.

I didn’t remember putting the pearl choker around my neck, but it was there, weighing heavy on my collarbone, the sapphire cold and dark at my neck. I twirled instinctively, extending my hand for an invisible John Travolta. A few moments passed before I realised I couldn’t see my hands. They were now starry and royal blue, veins and nails all consumed. Lumps had formed beneath the skin, budding horns pushed up from below, all in the most startling sapphire. I glinted in the moonlight.

Looking down at my body I saw the dress had sealed me in, merged with my skin. I ran my scaled hands over my head, now bare of hair. Blonde, fluffy curls scattered below me on the grass. My eyes were sealed over and glassy; my lengthened fingernails made clicking sounds as they passed over their surface. I was now a being with fur, slick and flat as a seal’s, streamlined and scintillating, clawed hands and feet clustered with scales. The sound came again, and this time I understood what it meant. She was calling to me from under the water, inviting me to join her. To inherit my place next to her. To come home. I slid towards the lake on my stomach, swift and silent. Silent enough to hear a camera’s click.

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