'There was something so special about her': Canadian stars and politicians remember their time with Princess Diana

By Suzanne Wintrob, with files from Zach Harper

This piece has been adapted from one that appeared in Issue 774 of HELLO! Canada magazine. To read the original piece, pick it up on newsstands across the country and on Apple News now!

Princess Diana's birthday was July 1, so it's not surprising the country fell in love with her the instant she set her fashionable foot here in 1983.

She brought a freshness to the monarchy that was evident on her three trips to Canada with husband Prince Charles. It was here that her devotion to sons Prince William and Prince Harry made headlines in 1991 as they famously reunited aboard the royal yacht Britannia and broke into fits of laughter while discovering Niagara Falls.

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Diana greets William and Harry on board the Britannia in Toronto in 1991. Photo: © Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive via Getty Images

Each time Diana visited, she was at a very different stage in her personal life: a young wife and new mom in 1983, a more independent princess – and mother of two – in 1986, and a royal veteran in 1991, helping her sons get acquainted with a life of duty. And each time, she dazzled.

For those lucky enough to meet her during those tours – be they politicians, philanthropists or performers – the effect of that Diana magic has not worn off.

To mark the bittersweet milestone that would have been her 60th birthday, and with the help of some very special Canadians, we look back at how the People's Princess lit up our nation.

Brian Peckford, former Newfoundland premier

During the royal couple's time in Newfoundland, Diana charmed locals at the Festival of Youth at Memorial Stadium, and according to one attendee, both the prince and princess spent "as much time as possible" with the children.

"She was quite gracious, courteous and well-informed," former Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford told HELLO! Canada. "She was well-briefed, remembered a lot of the history and the present circumstance of Newfoundland. I found her extremely hospitable and very keenly interested in where she was."

Brian also remembered how Diana asked to visit the children's hospital in St. John's.

"She was absolutely unbelievable! She stopped in the patients' rooms, sat down, asked them questions and was very engaged. The visit was supposed to last from 10:30 a.m. until noon, but when she was told it was time to go, she smiled and said, 'That's quite all right! I'll be as long as I want to be. Charles can wait.' As a former teacher myself, and a father, I thought she was fantastic – first class."

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Diana at the Festival of Youth in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1983. Photo: © Mirrorpix via Getty Images

He also shared how Diana opened up to him about some of her struggles at the provincial banquet later that evening. The two spoke for "just about the whole meal," he added.

"She had really enjoyed her stay and we talked about the places she'd been. When the salad arrived, she wasn't eating. By then, I knew her fairly well, so I felt comfortable saying, 'Your Highness, you're not eating anything and you really should try because you've been on the go for the last few days.' She said, 'I know. I have an eating disorder. It's quite stressful and quite difficult.' So we got into a whole chat about how difficult these kinds of situations are.

"It was quite something. I just acted like the father and she got to eat. Her staff told me they hadn't seen anybody who could get along with her like that. Even after all these years – and I've met many people in my day – I remember being with her. I kept talking about it for weeks afterwards."

Cecil "Cec" Purves, former Edmonton mayor

"When I met the Prince and Princess of Wales in Edmonton, she was open and smiling and he was more reserved, in the sense that as the next King he'd been trained all his life," the former Edmonton mayor told HELLO! Canada.

He asked Diana what the biggest change in her life had been since she and Charles married.

"She looked at me and started to laugh," he said. "She said, 'The biggest change was that before I was married I didn't know what I was going to do the next day, but now I know what I'm going to be doing for the next 18 months!' I told her, 'You can have that life. I don't want that kind of life.' And she laughed and said, 'Well, that's the way it is right now.' I thought, here's this young 22-year-old and she's taken this on."

While in the Alberta capital, Diana and Charles visited Fort Edmonton Park and took part in the evening Klondike barbecue, wearing period costumes. Diana wore a dress by Oscar-winning costume designer John Bright. Cecil made a brief speech and presented a Klondike dollar to Charles before a meal began. Entertainment came thanks to singer Gillian Campbell and cancan dancers, who Cecil said was having men from the tables join in.

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Prince Charles and Princess Diana at the Fort Edmonton Park's Klondike Evening during their 1983 tour. Photo: © John Shelley Collection/Avalon/Getty Images

"Well, Princess Diana looked across the table and said to Prince Charles, 'She's coming for you!' He looked at her and smiled and said, 'If she gets close, I'm taking my gold sovereign and I'm leaving!' One of the songs the singer performed was 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,' and Diana looked across the table at Charles and said, 'No, it isn't.' It was a nice moment. She was a super Klondike girl, a delight to be around."

Their final day in Edmonton fell on July 1, which was, of course, Diana's birthday, which saw them opening the World University Games.

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Charles and Diana at a farewell banquet in Edmonton at the end of their royal tour. Photo: © David Levenson/Getty Images

"At the stadium, the board flashed 'Happy Birthday Diana' and the whole crowd started to sing to her," Cecil shared. "She had the biggest grin on her face and so did he."

Mike Reno, lead singer of Loverboy

Mike and his Loverboy bandmates met Diana in 1986, when she and Charles were at Expo 86 in Vancouver.

"Before Prince Charles and Princess Diana came into the room, their protocol people came in and told us all the royal rules: 'Don't touch them. Let them start the conversation. You must behave yourself,'" he told HELLO! Canada.

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Diana shakes Mike's hand as she meets him, Doug Johnson and Scott Smith backstage at Expo 86. Photo: © John Mackie/Vancouver Sun/Province

"When she got to me, she reached out for my hand and was extremely complimentary toward the band. She was extremely beautiful in person. She really enjoyed the concert and said that she wished all the cameras and press weren't all there because if it was up to her, she would have hung out backstage and enjoyed herself! She was sweet and I was a bit bashful, to be honest. It was very exciting."

Jane Darville, executive director of Casey House

It's no exaggeration to say that Diana helped change attitudes and challenge the prevailing stigmas around HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In April 1987, she opened Britain's first-ever AIDS ward in London, and shook the hand of a patient – without wearing gloves.

In 1991, she visited Toronto's Casey House, an AIDS hospital that had 12 beds at the time.

Jane revealed that the famous photo of Diana with a patient at Casey House came to be in a very surprising way. A chair had been set up so Diana could sit beside him, but somebody had taken it away for an unknown reason, Jane said. Without skipping a beat, Diana quickly sat on a radiator attached to the wall, likely because she wanted to be on the same level as the resident, who was in a wheelchair.

"She had a very natural presence about her, even from the time she got out of the car," Casey House Executive Director Jane Darville told HELLO! Canada. "She came into the hospice in regular clothes, without a mask or gloves. She was just there was if she was visiting anybody. She spent about an hour going from room to room. She sat and talked to the residents – took their hand and asked them how they were feeling. She clearly had a good understanding about AIDS at that time – or what you could understand about it.

"These men did not look healthy, but that didn't seem to affect her at all.

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Princess Diana meets a resident at Casey House in 1991. Photo: © Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

"As she was leaving, she suddenly stopped and moved her hand in a way I didn't understand. It turns out, the mother of a resident who had died was there; she was deaf and had signed something to Princess Diana. I later learned that Diana knew sign language, so when she saw this woman sign, Diana stopped and signed back. I thought it was lovely that she was able to do that."

David Mirvish, producer

During that same 1991 visit, Diana stepped out to see Les Misérables in Toronto. David told HELLO! Canada she had originally intended to bring William and Prince Harry to the show, but they were very tired by the end of the day.

"My father and I went to the curb to greet her car and take her into the theatre, and she had that wonderful warm smile when she arrived," he said. "When we went to our seats, she asked if I'd help her remember which one she was supposed to be in, which I thought was very sweet.

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Left: Princess Diana and David Mirvish arrive at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto to see Les Miserables in 1991. Photo: © Bill Becker/The Canadian Press. Right: David Mirvish poses at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 2009. Photo: © Ian Willms/Toronto Star

"Afterward, she was expected to go directly into the car for security reasons. As I accompanied her out of the theatre, she looked about. Thousands of people were waiting on both sides of the street to see her.

"She smiled and said, 'David, I may not be doing exactly what's expected of me!' She went up and down the line and people handed her flowers, she handed them back for me to hold for her. She spent about 15 minutes shaking hands and talking to people.

"It was extremely generous after a very long day – and night. I like to say that the show goes by quickly, but Les Miz is not a short evening!"

David told HELLO! Canada he will also always remember Diana's presence and how she made people feel when she was around them.

"Princess Diana was extremely down to earth when you were with her and put you immediately at ease," he said. "She made you feel taller. She had a sense of giving – you felt like you were receiving a gift in being in her presence. It was her sense of inclusiveness: she spoke to everyone, she was pleased to be there, she made you feel comfortable. She had great people skills and you admired her for it."

Lloyd Robertson, special correspondent for CTV News

The former CTV anchor met the late Princess of Wales on the royal yacht Britannia in 1991 in Toronto. Lloyd, who was a veteran newsman at the time, said he was starstruck upon meeting her.

"I remember Princess Diana with a slight deer-in-the-headlights look, like she was searching for a familiar face in the crowd," he said. "I saw her heading toward me and there's that jolt – even if you've been around a while and covered a lot of people. I found myself on the receiving end of that glamorous smile and those luminous, sparkling eyes as we shook hands. She was an icon and she was coming at me – what do I say? You can't launch into British politics. It has to be something easy an engaging. So I said, 'Well, Ma'am, we've imported some British weather for you.' And she said, 'Oh, yes, that's it! It follows us around, you know!'

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Photo: © Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press

"She was smiling and delightful. What struck me about her most were those eyes, the vulnerability that you can see in them.

"What made her so very popular with the general public was her accessibility. She was someone you felt you could open up to. She had style and sophistication, yet it's that vulnerability that I feel people locked into as she travelled around the world. She really touched people, especially young people. You got the sense that she was authentic."

Arlene Perly Rae, journalist

Arlene, who was married to Ontario Premier Bob Rae in 1991, hosted Diana for six days while she and the boys were visiting that year. Arlene sweetly gave William and Harry some children's books she had reviewed for the Toronto Star at the time.

"Anywhere we went, there was a huge outpouring of interest and affections and excitement because of her celebrity and her beauty and just who she was," Arlene said. "I don't know how to describe it – it was like Jackie Onassis or Marilyn Monroe! It was amazing."

Jeanne Beker

In 1995, Jeanne attended the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards in New York, and Diana presented Harper's Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Tilberis with an award.

"She was so demure, so gorgeous and so humble," Jeanne told HELLO! Canada. "We were all in awe of her... She got up on stage to make the presentation and I was taken by how shy she seemed. Even when she was on stage addressing the crowd, she was looking down in the humble fashion she became famous for...

"There was something about Diana that was so surreal. We definitely mythologized her years after her death, but there was something so special about her; she had such an air of humility about her. A beautiful demeanour, she exuded warmth and kindness, a kind of vulnerability that we could all relate to. It made us love her even more.

"It was the shyness that I remember the most. That someone who's so celebrated, so adored, so famous... could be so shy. It told you a lot about her."


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