We all remember Princess Diana’s short ‘90s haircut. Her blond, tousled crop made international headlines and no doubt inspired salon requests for years to come.
Amazingly, the iconic look came about almost by accident. Sam McKnight, Princess Diana’s most trusted hairstylist throughout the ‘90s, recalled how the legendary cut came to be.
Remembering Princess Diana when she was still just ‘Shy Di’
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McKnight first met the princess at a photo shoot for British Vogue in 1990. He knew he would be styling somebody important, but he didn’t know it was Princess Diana until she walked in the room.
“She came bounding up the stairs in a studio in Hackney, this beautiful long-legged blonde, and immediately made us all feel totally at ease,” McKnight told TODAY’s Keir Simmons. “She had an amazing way of disarming you and kind of getting rid of all the nerves, and laughing and making jokes.”
For the shoot, McKnight tucked the Princess’s hair underneath her tiara to make it appear shorter.
She liked the shorter look, and after the shoot, she asked McKnight what he would do with her hair if he “had free reign.”
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“‘I would just cut it off really short and start again,’” he told her. “She said, ‘Do you want to do it right now?’”
He did — and the rest was history. Right then and there, he cut her blond locks into the textured pixie that became one of the most iconic hairstyles of the decade.
As soon as the princess went public with her fresh, sporty cut, the media went crazy.
“It was quite astounding,” McKnight recalled. “I discovered the power that she had in the press. The manner of coverage was quite extraordinary.”
Looking back, McKnight thinks people were drawn to the clean modernity of Princess Diana’s new crop.
“It was the time of power dressing and supermodels, and there was a movement towards shorter, sharper hair,” he said. “There was a movement away from the big shoulder pads and frou-frou styles of the ‘80s.”
Princess Diana’s life
That spontaneous chop in 1990 marked the start of a close working relationship between McKnight and the Princess of Wales. He became her go-to hairdresser up until her death, helping her prepare for balls, charity events and other public appearances.
He also regularly cut the hair of her young sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
But being Princess Diana’s hairstylist wasn’t always glamorous. McKnight sometimes accompanied the princess on humanitarian trips, including visits to refugee camps and hospitals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and other countries.
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During those trips, some of which were “quite harrowing,” McKnight marveled at the princess’s ease and charm, even in the most difficult situations.
“She had that natural thing that a nurse or a doctor has, that amazing talent to speak to everyone in the same voice as an equal, and make people feel really comfortable,” he said. “It was the same with us, walking into a photo shoot, and it was the same with kids with no arms and no legs … it was quite extraordinary to see.”
At first, McKnight didn’t understand why Princess Diana wanted her hairdresser to accompany her on those trips. But he soon realized that for the princess, maintaining her iconic hair was an important part of keeping up her carefully crafted public image — one of her essential duties as a royal.
“’I’m going to these places where there are lots of people who are expecting Princess Diana, and I don’t want to let them down,’” the princess once told him, McKnight said. “’They don’t want to see me coming out the gym. They want to see Princess Diana.’”
“It really showed to me how serious she took her role,” he said. “She knew that power that she had.”
While the princess worked tirelessly to fulfill her public role as Diana, Princess of Wales, her personal life was in upheaval. McKnight — along with the rest of the world — witnessed her separation from Prince Charles in 1992, and their divorce four years later.
But if Princess Diana opened up to him about any of her troubles during that time, McKnight, like any good hairstylist, will never tell.
“That would be betraying the trust of a good friend. I would never do that,” he said. “It’s a very close relationship always between a woman and a hairdresser.”
After working so closely with the princess for nearly a decade, McKnight was devastated to learn of her death in 1997.
The timing seemed especially tragic because in the two years before her death, McKnight believed the princess was “really coming into her own” — and her bold, trendsetting haircut reflected her growing self-assurance.
“She had developed this style of her own that was stripped of all the sort of artifice of the ’80s,” he said. “She was just becoming this amazing, confident, modern woman.”
Get a first look at Princess Diana exhibit celebrating her iconic style
McKnight shared his memories of Princess Diana — and what it was like working with other icons like Madonna, David Bowie and Kate Moss — in his new book, “Hair By Sam McKnight.”
For more on Princess Diana’s life, tune in to Dateline on Friday at 9/8pm central.