Inside The Big Business of Princess Diana

Diana, Princess of Wales, passed away 25 years ago—but she’s front and center on the Las Vegas Strip right now. Well, sort of. A new exhibition boasting 700 Diana “artifacts” is opening inside the Shops at Crystals attached to the Aria Resort & Casino. It includes eight of the late princess’s dresses, 79 miniature replicas of other pieces in her wardrobe, and “the largest and most exceptional collection of Diana’s childhood handwriting available to the public,” according to organizers. General admission tickets start at just $29, or visitors can upgrade to a customizable wedding package for a ceremony and private dinner in the room featuring a life-size remake of Diana’s wedding dress.

“When you want the best entertainment, you think of Las Vegas,” says David Corelli, the show’s curator and producer. “This exhibit has an experience for everybody.”

The Vegas spectacle is the latest in an endless stream of Diana-inspired programming and merchandise, for which royal fans have a seemingly insatiable appetite. The princess knew this well during her lifetime, telling Martin Bashir in the 1995 Panorama documentary: “You see yourself as a good product that sits on a shelf and sells well, and people make a lot of money out of you.”

Princess Diana: A Tribute Exhibition is now open in Las Vegas, featuring the late royal’s clothes and a collection of her handwriting. it’s just one of the many ways diana, even 25 years after her death, is still front and center in pop culture.

Jeff Green / Princess Diana A Tribute Exhibition

The Crown’s depictions of that very interview, which is the focus of two episodes in its much-anticipated current fifth season, are said to have upset Prince William. According to a 2021 article in the Telegraph, “The Duke of Cambridge is frustrated at the ‘commercialisation’ of the ‘false narrative’ around his late mother’s life.”

A quarter century after her death, the business of Diana is booming, as fans clamor for a piece of the rebellious royal. Over the weekend of August 28, her 1985 black Ford Escort sold for £650,000 at auction, far surpassing the opening £100,000 price. And sales of two new versions of Diana’s most famous sweaters, the now-iconic sheep and “I am a Luxury” jumpers, have topped $8 million in the last 18 months, according to Jack Carlson, founder of Rowing Blazers, the New York company behind the reproductions.

“We had no idea how popular they would turn out to be,” Carlson says. The first lot of 600 sheep sweaters, priced at $295 a piece, sold out in 24 hours. “My generation is at a very nostalgic age, and we remember Diana,” he says. “We remember her style, her story. We were young, but we remember.”

Sally Muir, co-founder of Warm & Wonderful, the original makers of the sheep sweater, says long-term Diana fans are now joined by a new generation just discovering the princess’s life—in its devastating entirety. This cohort is able to trace the steps of a “young and dewy-eyed” princess to her sudden death, Muir says. “It’s the perfect, tragic story.”

charles and diana at polo

Princess Diana in her famous sheep sweater in June, 1983. A version of the sweater is now a bestseller for Rowing Blazers.

Princess Diana Archive//Getty Images

Diana joins a rarefied list of dearly departed A-listers, whose legacies appear to have a long shelf life. Last year, author Roald Dahl topped Forbes’ list of the “Highest-Paid Dead Celebrities” (it’s a real thing) with an estimated earnings of $513 million. Prince, Michael Jackson, Charles Schulz and Dr. Seuss—all names associated with sale-able books or music—rounded out the top five. The Elvis estate, similarly, brings in a steady stream based on licensing and music, according to Rolling Stone, to the tune of about $40 million in 2020.

But Diana’s sustained earning power is not about a talent she possessed or a product she produced, but about a fascination with, well, her. There is sometimes a charitable component to these efforts; the Vegas exhibition, for example, is put on in partnership with an organization raising funds for breast cancer research. For the most part, the money is not going to the royal family or some sort of estate. You have to wonder how her sons feel about that, especially Harry, who has been criticized for forging his own financial freedom.

Perhaps there is a bit of higher power at play, because one place where the finances are mingling, in a broad sense, is over at Netflix. The California-based streaming service struck a reported £100 million deal with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex following their move to Montecito. A docuseries on the couple is said to be close to airing, with Meghan telling Variety in October, “We’re trusting our story to someone else, and that means it will go through their lens.”

It’s notable that they are ceding (at least some) creative control to Netflix, the streamer behind The Crown. The hit series has worked its way through the Queen’s reign to the explosive entrance of the aristocratic teenager, seducing scores of new, never-before monarchists with the dark and dramatic side of the Windsors. (The streaming service closely guards its viewing figures but said the third season, before Diana’s storyline began, was watched by 21 million homes.) The latest season, which recreates the tumultuous time surrounding Charles and Diana’s divorce, has received an onslaught of criticism from royal defenders ahead of its release. Dame Judi Dench, in a letter to the Times, called it “both cruelly unjust to the individuals and damaging to the institution they represent.”

princess diana the crown elizabeth debicki

Elizabeth Debicki plays Princess Diana in the fifth season of The Crown, set to premiere on Netflix later this year.

Courtesy Netflix

Diana’s friend, British TV producer Jemima Khan, quit her advisory role on the show to much fanfare last fall, citing concerns that the princess’s story would “not necessarily be told as respectfully or compassionately as I had hoped.” The news prompted Angela Levin, author of Harry: A Biography of a Prince, to demand he “tear up his deal” with Netflix, crying to the Sun: “What’s more important? Money or defending his mum? It’s astonishing he can’t find his voice on this.” (Although Meghan’s animated series has been cancelled, the deal between Netflix and the couple is still very much intact.)

Netflix also hosted the video production of the beloved-by-some, lampooned-by-more Diana: The Musical, which enjoyed a short-lived, pandemic-plagued Broadway run. Ticket sales grossed around $376,000, according to the Broadway League. Add to the fictional accounts, albeit on the other end of the critical spectrum, last fall’s Spencer, an emotional thriller that earned Kristen Stewart her first Oscar nomination. Worldwide, it grossed $23.9 million at the box office last year, according to IMDB.

These tantalizing portrayals have spurred a slew of documentaries offering up the real story, which—let’s be fair—is every bit as salacious. CNN put forth a six-part documentary series DIANA last year; this month, HBO debuted The Princess, a critically acclaimed, narrator-less look at the princess’s life using only existing media footage.


Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer, the 2021 film that earned her an Oscar nomination and pulled in nearly $24 million worldwide.

Pablo Larrain

Once all these people learn about Diana, it makes sense that they would want to pay money to experience her in some way, shape or form. Along with the traditional museum fare, the princess is fodder for the new trend of infotainment exhibitions, like the Vegas show as well as the photography display called Diana: Accredited Access, which began touring North America last fall. Tickets range from $12.30 for children to $26.70 for the VIP experience and include an audio tour through a series of larger-than-life images taken by Anwar Hussein and his sons, Zak and Samir. Together they have documented the royal family for more than four decades. Her story is “probably quite shocking to a younger generation,” Zak Hussein told me last year at a preview of the Los Angeles staging.

Here is where I need to admit my own culpability in all of this. A quarter of my book, HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style, is about Diana and her profound effect on royal fashion. I went out of my way to snag a single ticket to Diana: The Musical during its run at the La Jolla Playhouse in the spring of 2019. I was a talking head on CNN’s documentary, hosted an advance screening of Spencer, and even penned a cover story for this magazine on Diana’s first season of The Crown. On a recent trip to London, I marveled at the Diana wallpaper inside Kensington Palace, and booked tea at the residence’s adjacent restaurant so I could be closer to her memorial statue.

Which is to say I understand why, once you have learned about and experienced Diana in some way, there is an urge to (in today’s parlance) shop her. Replicas of her graphic sweatshirt, from Harvard crest to Virgin Atlantic’s logo, abound on Etsy—I snagged one of the latter. You’ll also find 2,000 choices for replicas of her 12-carat sapphire and diamond engagement ring. eBay is a sea of commemorative stamps, cups, plates, and, yes, the once-impossible-to-nab purple Diana Beanie Baby (5,800+ listings and counting).

princess diana death anniversary

A Royal Worcester porcelain collector plate rimmed with gold was exhibited at the Gloucester Life Museum to mark the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. commemorative china featuring the princess’s likeness is now available at the kensington palace gift shop.

Ben Birchall – PA Images//Getty Images

There are more than just Diana trinkets up for grabs. Earlier this year, a 1994 painted portrait of Princess Diana by American artist Nelson Shanks, sold at auction for $201,600—more than 10 times what Sotheby’s had estimated. Diana’s dresses, dozens of which she herself first auctioned off in 1997, pop back up on the block every now and again. In 2019, more than three decades after Diana wore a striped silk dress Diana on a visit to Bahrain, the frock by Elizabeth Emanuel—one of the princess’s wedding dress designers—sold for £106,000.

Is there a line between honoring and exploiting? Perhaps safest to take one’s cues from the royal family. Despite well-documented tension while she was living, the royal family today seems quite keen to keep Diana’s memory going. Take the polka dots Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge wore on the hospital steps to debut Baby George or to this year’s Royal Ascot. Both moments, nine years apart, were widely received as nods to her late mother-in-law’s memory—and by doing so, brings Diana back into the royal conversation for something other than her divorce or her death.

The Royal Historic Palaces clearly recognizes Diana demand, too. Although it’s an independent charity, I can’t imagine they would carry an exclusive line of Diana commemorative fine bone China in the gift shop of Kensington Palace, Diana’s former royal residence, without her sons’ blessings. A mug or a plate with a cameo portrait of the princess costs £29.99.

When it starts to feel a little bit much, I think of one story from two years ago, when the velvet dress Diana wore to the White House—and to twirl with Travolta—went up for grabs. The off-the-shoulder Victor Edelstein dress went for £264,000, less than the £350,000 expected. The winning bidder was the aforementioned Royal Historic Palaces, meaning the dress was, in a way, returned home.

preview for 6 Causes Princess Diana Championed

Elizabeth Holmes is a New York Times bestselling author of HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style, an exploration of the power of fashion inspired by her popular Instagram series. A veteran multimedia reporter, Elizabeth spent a decade on staff at the Wall Street Journal. She is a contributing editor at Town & Country; her work has also appeared in a host of other outlets, including the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Elle. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three young children.