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Among Princess Diana’s most iconic images—the revenge dress, the casual biker shorts—is a photo of her in an aqua blue swimsuit, sitting on a diving board over the ocean. Taken before her tragic death in August 1997, the solitary princess was captured aboard the Jonikal, the boat owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed, on a getaway with his son Dodi, her new fling. The shot is so recognizable, so symbolic of her isolation. (Decades later, SZA even recreated it on her SOS album cover and The Crown paid homage to it for its season 6 posters.) But it turns out that the real-life story of the trip behind it is even more complex. Most of what the public knows of Diana’s vacations with the Fayeds that summer in 1997 is limited to blurry paparazzi shots from afar. In The Crown’s sixth season, Peter Morgan attempts to dramatize what might’ve happened behind closed doors. These scenes, however, were filmed in Mallorca instead of the French Riviera.
Diana was invited by Mohamed, a friend and businessman, to vacation in Saint-Tropez with her sons in July 1997. The Harrods owner would also goad his own son to join, too. The invitation came at a good time, after a few rough blows for Diana: Prince Charles was throwing a lavish birthday party for Camilla Parker Bowles at Highgrove, the house he and Diana once shared. And she had just broken up with surgeon Hasnat Khan, due to the media frenzy around their relationship. It was the month before William and Harry would be at Balmoral with their father and the rest of the royals, who no longer accepted her. So off she went, straight to the $20 million yacht that Fayed bought just before the trip to impress her—Tina Brown writes in The Diana Chronicles.
Prince Harry has looked back fondly at that trip, mostly because of the quality time they spent with their mom. “Actually, we’d been with Mummy weeks earlier when she first met him [Dodi], in St. Tropez,” he writes in her memoir Spare, per Today. “We were having a grand time, just the three of us, staying at some old gent’s villa.
“There was much laughter, horseplay, the norm whenever Mummy and Willy and I were together, though even more so on that holiday. Everything about that trip to St. Tropez was heaven. The weather was sublime, the food was tasty, Mummy was smiling.”
But the cameras followed her, like they always did. The Crown depicts photographers sailing out toward the Jonikal to snap images of the princess sunbathing and swimming in her one-piece. It also shows her approaching the boats filled with paparazzi to forge a deal: She’ll pose for them for a few shots if they’ll leave her and her kids alone.
Part of this is true. The New York Times reported in 1997 that Diana was quite cooperative with the press, at least during the first trip in July: “Three times, on separate occasions, she went out to the sea front and jumped off a small pier into the water, with photographers around her. Then, after leaving for 10 days with Mr. Fayed on the boat trip during which the photographs of the embracing couple were taken, she returned.”
“It was clear enough to all of us that she wanted to show the British establishment she was free,” Frederic Garcia, who photographed Diana on the trip, told the paper at the time. But her and the Al-Fayeds’ exasperation with the media grew after helicopters flew over the boat, according to the NYT.
Perhaps her openness to being photographed was her response to Camilla’s birthday party. “She just wanted to make the people at Balmoral as angry as possible,” her friend, art collector Lord Palumbo, told Brown. Now it wasn’t just a revenge dress; it was a revenge photo shoot with revenge swimsuits on a revenge vacation.
Brown even writes that the biggest photos from the trip, of the princess kissing a shirtless Dodi on the boat, “were the direct result of tips from Diana herself.” After they were published, she called photographer Jason Fraser, who “was in cahoots” with Mario Brenna, who shot the images, to ask why the pictures were so grainy. But she wasn’t the only one working with the press. Mohamed also had a publicist tip gossip columns on her and Dodi’s whereabouts and frame their getaway as a sensational romance, according to Brown.
Meanwhile, Dodi was juggling this burgeoning love story with another one. He was already engaged when he first joined Diana on the boat at his father’s behest in July. His fiancée was Kelly Fisher, an American actress and model, and their wedding was scheduled for the following month, on August 9, 1997. He had even left Fisher in Paris to board the Jonikal in St. Tropez. She joined later but, just as it’s shown in The Crown, she was relegated to a different Al-Fayed boat, where Dodi would visit her at night, Brown writes. Fisher soon caught on. In August, she sued Dodi for breach of contract, and was represented by high-profile lawyer Gloria Allred. But she withdrew the suit after his death.
In Spare, Harry remembered thinking Dodi was “cheeky” but overall was content with the relationship: “As long as Mummy’s happy, I told Willy, who said, he felt the same.” But Brown reported in her 2007 book that Prince William grew concerned. He told friends it was weird that they were on vacation with what seemed like a “substitute family.” When photos of Diana and Dodi on the boat were published, William complained to her that the boys at school would mock him for it.
After doing significant charity work in Bosnia with land mine victims, Diana reconvened with Dodi on the Jonikal in August. “The fact that she came back for a second visit so soon really shows her loneliness more than it does a passion for Dodi,” Dominick Dunne reported for Vanity Fair in 2008. But the privacy—or whatever amount of it that they had—might have appealed to her. “A splendid yacht. A helicopter. A private plane. Guards to keep the paparazzi at bay. She probably knew that she was being used by a social climber for his and his son’s advancement in London society, but in high society it was a fair deal. Each benefited.”
Dodi and Diana’s romance would be short-lived, but he showered her with gifts during their six-week relationship, including a pearl bracelet and diamond wristwatch, according to Vanity Fair. With him, the princess felt “so taken care of,” her confidant Lady Elsa Bowker told Brown. And on top of that, he was a “sympathetic, unthreatening listener,” wrote Tom Bower, author of Mohamed Al-Fayed’s unauthorized biography.
But their relationship probably wasn’t going to be a lasting one. According to Brown, Diana suspected Dodi might propose to her, but told a friend that the ring would go “firmly on the fourth finger of my right hand,” meaning she would not have accepted. Her sister Sarah McCorquodale later testified, “I just did not think the relationship had much longer to go.”
It’s been believed that the romance was even orchestrated by Mohamed himself. According to Bower, the older Al-Fayed would check in on Dodi and Diana during the trip (which is also portrayed in The Crown this season). McCorquodale also told the court that Diana “thought the boat was being bugged by Mr Al-Fayed Senior.”
On that second trip in August, Diana and Dodi were photographed together in the South of France and Sardinia, before heading to Paris for their tragic final days. There, they would be chased by cameras again for the last time.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.