There's a black-and-white photograph tucked away in a corner of Princess Diana super-fan Jo Dobson's suburban home in Gloucester, UK. It shows her and late husband, Ken—a fellow Diana obsessive—on their wedding day. They're both beaming.
It's easy to miss the small silver frame in Dobson's cramped living room. But it's the key to her story. Behind Dobson's peculiar life-long obsession with the British princess, who died exactly 20 years ago this month, is a much more personal story of loss and the ways we commemorate the dead.
I'm visiting Dobson to view her collection of Diana memorabilia—which she claims to be one of the largest private collections in the world—and visit Gloucester Folk Museum, which is currently hosting a selection of items donated by Dobson. It's been two decades since Diana Frances Spencer, known to all as Princess Diana, died in a Paris hospital following a car accident. The mass grief that erupted in the wake of her death was unprecedented in its scale: There were ten-hour queues to sign condolence books, 32 million people watched her funeral on TV in the UK alone, 50-feet of flowers were laid outside Kensington Palace, and sporting events were cancelled for fear fans would be overcome by emotion. But in Dobson's home, it's as if the crash on August 31, 1997 never happened.
Diana memorabilia crowds the walls: There are Diana commemorative plates and Diana-branded candles, and a one-foot-tall Diana figurine stands in a wooden display case that was specially built by Ken. Certain items stand out: Diana, photographed by Mario Testino, in a black velvet dress that emphasizes her swan-like neck. A large black-and-white drawing of Diana in a crisp white shirt smiles at me above the mantelpiece. Dobson wears an imitation of Diana's sapphire wedding band on her ring finger, and owns two Diana-themed handbags, one of which she fetches for me to admire. It's cream and navy, with a "Diana, princess of hearts" pattern.
There are even multiple framed photographs of Diana's former butler, Paul Burrell, autographed in a white scrawl. In one, Burrell has his arm around Dobson—shirtsleeves rolled up and rictus grin on his face—bearing the jaunty aspect of a quiz show presenter. (Burrell has built a semi-lucrative media career by styling himself as Diana's "rock," even though he has also admitted that Diana's mother thought he was just another "hanger-on.") In 2005, he was a judge on now-cancelled reality TV show Australian Princess.
Photo by Alice Zoo
"Are you a Diana fan?" Dobson asks sternly. I've been warned by the beleaguered PR from Gloucester Folk Museum to answer in the affirmative, but I'm not lying when I say yes. What's not to love about a beautiful, doomed, landmine-clearing princess?
"We were watching the TV one day, and I turned to Ken and said, 'She's a beautiful girl,'" explains Dobson of the first time she ever saw Diana on TV. For Dobson and her husband, this was the start of a life-long ménage a trois: her, him, and Lady Di.
"We were both Diana-mad," says Dobson of her late partner. "People could never understand it. They'd always say, "We can understand a woman [loving Princess Diana] but not a man." But on his deathbed, he kept saying, 'I want to die, I want to be with Diana.' And I said, you'll be with her soon. And when he was laid in his coffin, he had a Diana t-shirt on."
Together, Dobson and Ken founded the Diana Circle, a group of Princess of Wales acolytes around 80-members strong who have sent aggressive letters to Camilla Parker-Bowles—now married to Prince Charles after their torrid affair during Charles and Diana's marriage—warning her to stay away from official memorial events. In 2005, Dobson and her fellow members allegedly attempted to block Charles' wedding to Camilla—or "Cowmilla," as they refer to her.
"We never want a King Charles and we never want a Queen Camilla," Dobson says with sudden fury. "She's no good. And I hate his guts."
Dobson is wearing her Diana Circle t-shirt when we meet. It has "Founder Member" printed in the top-left corner, to denote her seniority. Ken was cremated in his Founder Member t-shirt, although a duplicate now hangs in the museum exhibit. "He used to say, 'night, Diana,' when we went to bed," Dobson remembers fondly.
She breaks off as she catches me looking at a framed photo of a tuxedo-wearing Burrell on a New York street. "People slag that man off," she says, "but I say there's two sides to every story." (On the train home I do an Internet search and find out that Burrell will soon appear on ice-skating TV contest Dancing on Ice).
In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of Diana's death, Dobson also seems to be having the time of her life. She repeatedly breaks off our interview to answer phone calls, scheduling her upcoming media appearances with relish. "You want me in the studio for 7:30?" she says down the line to yet another producer. Before we leave, she requests that our photographer send over her images for her cuttings book.
And why not? Honoring Diana's memory was their life's work. To honor Diana is to honor Ken, their marriage, and the time they spent amassing a collection that has been valued by Dobson's insurers, she claims, at close to $33,000. Most importantly, it sticks one in the eye for Cowmilla, and the British establishment Dobson that fervently believes murdered Diana.
"She was definitely murdered! Definitely. I shouldn't say this, but we know someone high up in the police force who says that car was stolen and that car was a death trap," Dobson says. "It was Diana's religion to always wear a seatbelt. We heard the seatbelts had been done up so they didn't work."
Conspiracy theories about Diana's death range from her being murdered by the British security services at Prince Philip's behest to prevent her marrying a Muslim, Dodi Al-Fayed (who died alongside her in the crash), to the driver Henri Paul being spiked (inexplicably high levels of carbon monoxide were found in his bloodstream), to a mysterious white Fiat Uno that was spotted in the tunnel and which some believe caused the crash. However a police inquiry into the deaths of Diana and Al-Fayed determined that the couple might have survived if they had been wearing seatbelts, and a subsequent jury inquest concluded that their deaths were the result of "gross negligence" on the part of their driver and the paparazzi.
Looking around Dobson's house, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Diana was the only important person in her life. But when she shows me the wooden urn containing Ken's ashes (he passed two years ago), it strikes me that her obsessive collecting is just as much about feeling close to Ken as honoring the deceased princess.
The Gloucester Folk Museum now features a forlorn-looking exhibition of Ken's Diana Circle t-shirt, some newspaper clippings, and a laminated name-badge from when Ken visited Diana's childhood home, Althorp House. What better way to commemorate your late husband than by carrying on with your shared passion—and getting your local museum to display his random crap to boot?
"They used to call us in town 'me and my shadow,'" says Dobson of their relationship. "If you saw one, you saw the other. We never was apart."
Before I leave Dobson's house, she stops me in the driveway, puts her fingers to her lips, and pulls up her t-shirt to reveal the hidden necklace she wears under her clothes. It's double-sided locket featuring, on one side, Princess Diana, and on the other side, Ken. It might just be the most romantic—and bizarre—thing I've ever seen.