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The day I met Princess Diana when she visited a London HIV center

The day I met Princess Diana when she visited a London HIV center

Princess Diana in 1995

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales.

Diana is remembered for many things, including her charity work.

The late Princess was a believer in raising awareness around HIV and AIDS. She was one of the most high-profile public figures to visit AIDS wards and hospices.

This was at a time when there was great fear and panic around the virus. People with HIV were often shunned by friends and family members.

In 1987, Diana was present at the opening of one of London’s first purpose-built HIV/AIDS ward at London’s Middlesex hospital, and images of her shaking the hand of a man with AIDS were relayed around the world.

Among the HIV centers she visited was the London Lighthouse in Ladbroke Grove, West London. Two volunteers who were present during one of her visits recall the occasion and the impact the visits had.

David Hodge

‘I met Diana three times during the 90’s. At the time I was working as a support worker at the London Lighthouse. It was Europe’s biggest facility for people living with HIV: and a charity the Princess was very interested in helping.

‘As part of my duties we had to staff reception from six in the morning. I always hated the early shift as more often than not I had been dancing on tables in drag [as club host Dusty O] till the early hours the night before.

‘How one dressed was not an issue at Lighthouse so I often wore make up to work and had ever changing hair colors and styles.

‘One morning I was doing an early shift and had just finished applying a quick layer of foundation and was reading my book on reception as nothing happened till seven o’clock really. Boyz magazine [a free London gay magazine] was at its peak then and in the pre-internet days was a vital read if you wanted to know what was going on with the gay scene.

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‘They would often have little free gifts and this week it was a bookmark advertising a club in the shape of a giant cock and balls which I was using as a book mark.

‘At about 6.30am the Residential Unit Manager phoned down to say they were expecting an early morning VIP guest and I was to show them up to the unit in the lift.

‘I was a cocky little git in those days so my attitude was pretty much “whatever” and I carried on with my book.

‘All I could think of was, “I’m in a f***ing lift with Lady Di”’

‘A few minutes later the gate bell rang so I opened it and a pretty unimpressive black car drove in and parked in one of the disabled bays. This was not allowed so I gesticulated for it to move. Which it did, and I carried on reading my book with the book mark next to it on the desk.

‘As she walked in I realized who the VIP was: only the most famous person in the world. I put the book down and was in such shock that I forgot to move the giant cock bookmark.

‘The Princess said she was here to visit the unit and I just kind of gawked at her and said “I know.”

‘She must have known the affect she had on people and how nervous I had suddenly become so she smiled very sweetly and then said “I love your book mark.” My response was to look down and let out a half shriek as I realized what she was looking at! At this, she started to laugh her head off!

‘When she did that it broke the atmosphere and I laughed too.

‘I took her up to the unit in the lift and all I could think of was, “I’m in a fucking lift with Lady Di.”

‘I met her twice again on her visits. She always mentioned the book mark!

‘Diana made a huge difference to how people viewed things’

‘What Diana did back then was help to de-stigmatize the issue. She helped take away its “dirty” connotations around HIV and AIDS and legitimize it as a genuine illness that affects everyone. Not just gay men, who some bigots believed deserved it.

‘She made a huge difference to how people viewed things. Her voice was listened to.

‘When she visited Lighthouse it touched the hearts of its users deeply. She had something that is still difficult to define or put into words. Perhaps it was the magnitude of her fame mixed with her warmth and humanity?

‘Whatever it was though it made people happy and feel special for a few moments at times in their lives when they probably didn’t feel either of those things very much.

‘Whatever her legacy is to the world, to me it will be that of a warm hearted lady who went out of her way to make people feel cared for and loved. A lady with a kind heart.’

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Robert O’Neill

‘I was working at the Lighthouse as a volunteer. Princess Diana had made several low-key visits before, but she did a more public one as part of an awareness and fundraising campaign in October 1996.

‘We were told just a few days in advance and asked to all dress smart, so I got suited and booted and wore my red ribbon.

‘I didn’t think for one second that I would be part of the meeting and greeting, but they just said, “would you step in here and be part of the line-up.”

‘We were ushered into a room and then the Chief Constable from the Met in charge came in to talk to us. The security was tremendous around the whole event. He told us what was going to happen, and how to greet her.

‘We were told to say one thing only: ‘Ma’am, it’s an honor to meet you.’ That’s it! Don’t go further than that! We weren’t to say anything else unless she struck up conversation or asked us a question.

‘He then introduced to a woman police offer who would quickly take the place of Diana so we could practice! There were volunteers, staff, members of the board, patients and service users there.

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‘Then Diana came in. She was wearing what became one of her most iconic outfits. A bright red day suit by Caroline Walker. I thought it was going to be low-key but it wasn’t. It was crazy. There were lots of people gathered outside the building.

‘We met and greeted her, and I shook her hand and spoke to her.

‘She wouldn’t just sit in the chair beside the bed, she’d sit on their bed and hold their hand’

‘Hand on heart, when she walked through that door, she had something about her. She just had something that connected with people. She was so kind, polite, and she put you at ease.

‘The people upstairs at Lighthouse, who were in there for medical treatment, she’d go and sit on their bed. She wouldn’t just sit in the chair beside the bed, she’d sit on their bed and hold their hand and talked to them.

‘Sitting on their bed and holding hands … it broke down barriers. Just her proximity to a person with HIV and AIDS. She got close. She was the one made that statement: you won’t catch it by holding their hand or being in the same room.

‘My cousin back in Ireland got it. They put him outside the house in a trailer out the back’

‘You don’t realize now how ignorant people were at that time.

‘People were losing their jobs. People were put out by their family. My cousin back in Ireland got it. They put him outside the house in a trailer out the back of my aunt and uncle’s home. They basically served him food through an open door.

‘He wasn’t allowed to do anything in the house. He was shunned and put out in the garden. That is how bad it was.

‘The behavior was disgraceful back then. That’s why what Diana did was so significant. She was just an astonishing woman.’

The London Lighthouse closed its residential unit in 1998, following the advent of successful antiretroviral treatment for HIV. It continued as a drop-in center until its sale in 2015. Read more about its history here.

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Images within this article are from Diana’s visit to London Lighthouse in October 1996, courtesy Getty Images.