Following what would be her last visit to Australia in 1996, Princess Diana raved about the country to her then 14-year old son, William. “I remember my mother telling me what a profound impression this country had made on her,” said the prince during an Antipodes tour in 2010, “and how much she loved Australia.”
Diana's fondness for the country began in 1981, when her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, brought her to Australia reportedly to “think more seriously” about Prince Charles’s February proposal. Shand Kydd's husband, the late Peter Shand Kydd, had once owned an Australian sheep farm.
For three weeks Diana lived in a house in Mollymook, on the NSW South Coast, where local Margie Nyholm ran a fish and chip shop.
“This very tall girl started coming in and she had a scarf around her hair and big glasses on,” Nyholm, 72, tells WHO. “There was all this talk about Lady Diana [in the press] and it just twigged.
“Her mother usually ordered fish and chips. Diana would stand there and look at all the food and then just buy a little fruit-juice box. She’d talk to her mother and her mother said, ‘Darling you must keep your strength up.’ She was trying to encourage her to eat.”
After Diana’s return to England, she and Prince Charles announced their engagement on Feb. 24, 1981.
After their July 29 wedding that year, the couple made several trips to Australia, including a visit in 1985, when Diana forged a friendship with TV personality Molly Meldrum (both were involved in AIDS charity work).
One night during the trip, Diana was returning from a function with Meldrum when they passed his home.
“She said, ‘Let’s stop, I want to take a look,’ ” Meldrum tells WHO. “I told her, ‘No, no, you don’t.’ But she was determined. So I took her in and [the late 1960s pop star] Lynne Randell, my PA at the time, was in the kitchen. We walked in and I introduced her to Di. Lynne just looked up and said, ‘You’ve got to be f--king kidding.’ Di laughed and sat down on the couch. That’s when we really became friends.”
Diana's last trip to Australia was in 1996 for the opening of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney, a publicity coup orchestrated by former nurse turned charity fund-raising queen Marie Sutton.
“I was in negotiations to get her here for about 12 months, during which time she was going through her divorce,” Sutton tells WHO. “She and her PA Victoria Mendham would ring me up and talk about plans for the Victor Chang ball. She really wanted to visit [Sydney’s] St Vincent’s Sacred Heart Hospice once she heard about it."
During one call, when Diana was in her official London residence, Kensington Palace, "I could hear the boys playing in the background and her telling them to keep quiet and stop jumping around," says Sutton. "She was totally natural, great fun, loved a joke. She was the diamond in the crown.”
For Meldrum, Diana’s “biggest legacy” is her children, Princes William, 35, and Harry, 32: “Just like their mother, what they do for charities is astonishing,” he says.
For a 10-page special on the 20th anniversary of Diana's death, pick up a copy of WHO on sale now.