As written in history books, for centuries the most powerful members of the Royal Family tend to come off as stuffy and conservative. That began to change in 1981 when 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles and brought youthful energy and a new spirit to the staid monarchy. Diana was quickly embraced by the British people and she embraced them back, becoming a popular icon who hung out with artists and celebrities and ventured out into public whenever she could — even if she sometimes had to wear a disguise to do so.
Diana was very mischievous
Diana was close to a number of trailblazing rock stars in the ‘80s, including Elton John and Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of the band Queen. While her relationship with John was very well-documented, the friendship with Mercury largely flew under the radar until actress Cleo Rocos told an incredible story about the pair in her 2013 memoir.
According to Rocos, she became close with Diana in the 1980s, and one evening, the women were hanging out with Mercury and the comedian Kenny Everett at Everett’s London home. The group was enjoying an early evening of watching The Golden Girls on mute and making up racy dialogue for the show’s leading ladies when Diana asked the rest of the group what they were planning on doing later that night.
The Princess was clearly down to have a good time and they all loved hanging out with her, but the three friends figured that their plan to go dancing at Royal Vauxhall Tavern, the iconic London gay club, wouldn’t be all that interesting to Her Royal Highness. But Diana surprised them all by requesting to tag along to the club, consequences be damned.
The potential ramifications of bringing the then-future Queen of England to a rowdy gay bar during the wild 1980s flat out terrified Rocos. “We pleaded, ‘What would be the headline if you were caught in a gay bar brawl?'” she recalled in her memoir. “But Diana was in full mischief mode. Freddie said, ‘Go on, let the girl have some fun.'”
Everett gave Diana the outfit he was going to wear that night as a disguise
At that point, Diana wasn’t just the future Queen of England; she was also arguably the most famous woman in the world. A jaw-dropping 750 million people watched her wedding to Prince Charles on television — over 16 percent of the world’s population at that time — and the day was declared a national holiday in the UK. Paparazzi clamored for photos of her everywhere she went, and as a young mother, her every move was scrutinized and published in the tabloids.
At that point, Diana could barely walk down the street without pandemonium following her, so there was really no way they could bring her to the club without taking some elaborate precautions. Fortunately, elaborate outfits were the norm in the mid-'80s London gay club scene, providing a perfect opportunity. Everett offered up the duds he’d been planning to wear that night, including an army jacket, dark aviator sunglasses and a leather cap, which Diana, a fashion icon herself, wore with gusto.
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“Scrutinizing her in the half light,” Rocos wrote in her book, “we decided that the most famous icon of the modern world might just – just – pass for a rather eccentrically dressed gay male model.”
Satisfied that she would blend in, the trio brought Princess Diana to the club, ready to run interference as needed so that she’d enjoy her big night out. They were pretty big stars in their own right — especially Mercury, of course — which allowed Diana, in her drag disguise, to sneak past the crowds en route to a quiet spot near the bar.
“We inched through the leather throngs and thongs, until finally we reached the bar. We were nudging each other like naughty schoolchildren,” Roscos wrote. “Diana and Freddie were giggling, but she did order a white wine and a beer. Once the transaction was completed, we looked at one another, united in our triumphant quest. We did it!”
Diana became a prominent advocate for the LGBTQ community
At the end of the evening, the Princess, high off the thrill of her adventure, suggested that they do it again sometime. Whether or not she spent many more nights at Royal Vauxhall Tavern isn’t clear, but Diana would become an early and influential advocate for LGBTQ people during a time when much of the world turned their backs on them.
Despite objections raised by Queen Elizabeth, Diana spoke out early and often on behalf of AIDS patients during a time when the public — often due to erroneous press reports and medical misinformation — was filled with misconceptions about the nascent plague that was killing gay men by the thousands. In 1987, Diana created headlines around the world when she met and, without wearing gloves, shook hands with a dying AIDS patient at the opening of the UK’s first dedicated clinic for the disease. At the time, many people thought HIV/AIDS was still transferable by surface-level physical contact and saliva, making her gesture a shock to millions.
Her activism on behalf of HIV/AIDS patients blossomed from that point on, with visits to hospitals around the world as well as donations to the National AIDS Trust and other charities. She continued to hug patients and explain to the world that it was safe to do so. “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug,” Diana told an audience in 1991. “Heaven knows they need it.”
The fight was in some ways personal to her; Mercury himself died of AIDS in 1991, as well.
Diana’s friendships and relationships with members of the LGBTQ community extended far beyond her activism; she was also close friends with fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was tragically killed just months before Diana died in a paparazzi-fueled car crash. Years after her passing, she was honored with a portrait in the Gay Icons exhibit at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Her beliefs were clearly passed on to her children; Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, have been vocal on social media about LGBTQ rights and, Harry stood up for one of the UK’s first openly gay soldiers when he was being abused by fellow soldiers during their time in Afghanistan.