Princess Diana as You've Never Seen Her

A strange collection of found photographs of Diana dolls offers an unintended commentary on fame, female bodies, and our desire to consume the stars we wish we knew personally.

by Alex Ronan
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Sep 25 2018, 2:58pm

On the Jersey Shore Craigslist, Princess Diana is a dusty doll standing among boxes in someone’s spare room. The carpeting is wall-to-wall. The couch on which she perches is jumbo and pleather and pleasing. Princess Diana is posed but casual. And for three hundred bucks, “PRINCESS DIANA DOLL!! VERY RARE!!” could be mine.

That one doll launched a minor obsession, and soon enough, I was opening tabs for Craigslist in other states, combing through listings. I couldn’t help but observe that the sellers’ images inadvertently feel as hasty, tragic, and glamorous as paparazzi shots of the “real” Diana.

But first, I wanted to know why there were so many of these Diana dolls and why some people thought they might be able to fetch hundreds for a doll I saw listed one state over for $20 OBO (“or best offer”). I spoke to Stephanie Finnegan, a doll expert and the former editor of both Teddy Bear Review and DOLLS. She’s not a Diana collector herself, so I thought she’d be impartial. We talked on the phone one afternoon in at the end of the summer.

The first dolls, she explained, were produced to celebrate Diana’s 1982 wedding to Prince Charles, but as Diana became a bigger star in her own right, more and more doll makers got in on the action. “Diana divorced the very man that made her royal, and then went on to become more beloved than he was,” she told me. “You could buy her in a famous outfit, and you already recognized that outfit because you’d seen photos of her wearing it in People.”

After Diana’s sudden death, interest in commemorative dolls only grew, and obsession expanded beyond typical doll collectors. “People thought it would be an heirloom,” Finnegan explained. “They were witnessing history and imagined editions would be worth a fortune one day. Collectors assumed the mints were controlling the output [to create the conditions for future rarity preemptively].” Instead, they seemed to be producing as many dolls as they possibly could.

Much like the Beanie Baby frenzy that swept the US around the same time—one divorcing couple required judicial supervision to divide their Beanie Baby collection—otherwise reasonable adults bought up tons of Diana dolls. (I also saw many of the commemorative Princess Diana purple Beanie Baby on Craigslist when I was poking around.) If these dolls seem ubiquitous in the United States, I can only imagine their numbers must be exponentially higher in the United Kingdom.

Finnegan, for her part, warned against the doll-as-investment thinking. “I probably spent the better part of my time when I would go to doll conventions telling people, ‘Don’t buy a doll thinking you’re going to eventually buy a lakefront property with the profits from selling it later on.’” She has a friend who bought tons of Diana dolls and still refuses to hear that they won’t be worth enough to send her daughter to college. The bottom line, according to Finnegan, is this: “You can’t buy a doll and hope it’s going to increase in financial value. It’s about the sentimental value.”

But online, many are still trying to get their money’s worth. As I continued combing listings, I’d see the same exact doll listed hundreds or even thousands of miles apart. They were made by fake-sounding companies like The Society For The Preservation of History Inc. and came with certificates of authenticity, known as a COA in the world of collectibles. Sometimes the COA was signed, but by whom, it never said.

The presence of death is palpable in the listings, and not just Diana’s. “We are cleaning out our mother’s doll collection,” one listing explained. “This was given to me by an elderly relative, but it didn’t come with paperwork,” another noted. Many of the original buyers are dying off, but
it doesn’t seem like all these listings pop up post-funeral. Instead, the sheer number of dolls produced means new (old) ones are constantly being unearthed from attic crawl spaces and dresser drawers. I noticed two competing mindsets playing out online: Maybe it’s been long enough, goes one way of thinking, suggesting the doll might have accrued value, while I’ve had this long enough, implies the owner will practically pay you to take it off their hands.

Photos depict dolls standing on bureaus or in collectibles cabinets (“NEVER USED CAREFULLY DISPLAYED.”), where they presumably presided mutely over family dinners. “She is fully jointed and posable and no more will ever be made and no one played with her EVER,” one listing explained. Many of these dolls have never left their boxes, or had done so “only for photography purposes”—as carefully guarded, in a way, as a living high-profile person. It seems particularly sad to think of these placidly smiling dolls that no one has played with because they’re modeled after a woman who was beloved for her refusal to simply stand and smile.

I found myself wincing through some photographic sets in which the doll is essentially bound or gagged by packaging materials for the purposes of preservation. There were photos of Diana dolls held in segmented cardboard boxes that reminded me of the magic trick wherein a woman placed in a box is sawed in half but emerges, upon the trick’s completion, completely intact. I saw Diana dolls nude and Diana doll underwear. “It’s a little dirty,” one ad noted. “She can be cleaned up just fine,” another said. Reading, “NO STAINS, FLAWS, SMELL ETC.” creeped me out, even though it was meant as a promise of cleanliness.

One listing included these words: “Dress a little dirty but could probably be cleaned. Hair a little wild but could probably be tamed.“

There were broken hands, scratched faces, and ripped dresses—the usual wear and tear a toy might sustain, but in this context, they had a much more violent undertone. Other details of deterioration were riddles: “Her thumb is missing but that is what is the only thing that is missing.”

All stars, particularly female ones, are subject to gross invasions of privacy and personal autonomy. But it’s a bit disheartening to see that Diana’s biggest fans are the ones who’ve trussed her like a chicken in protective wrapping.

I asked Finnegan if porcelain is really that fragile. She suggested another perspective. “The problem isn’t porcelain; it’s us,” she said. “Our hands are just so big and clumsy. People trying to get clothes on and off will just panic and end up breaking an arm.” These Diana Dolls are manifestations of the bruising nature of public life in the private homes of those who followed her every move.

Maybe it’s depressing to see a woman who broke the mold reduced to a poorly rendered porcelain replica standing in our cluttered kitchens, our dusty dining rooms, our overstuffed garages. But if she is truly the People’s Princess, then she’s finally made it home.

Original photographs found on Craigslist, Etsy, eBay, and WorthPoint in July and August of 2018.