New Santa Monica experience offers intimate look at Princess Diana
By Bridgette M. Redman
Few people had more ongoing and personal access to Princess Diana than Anwar Hussein, the royal photographer who took thousands of pictures of the people’s princess.
“Princess Diana: Accredited Access” opened at Santa Monica Place, where the immersive experience will run through March.
Featuring 150 photographs taken by Hussein and his two sons, Zak and Samir, the exhibit features an audio tour narrated by the two sons sharing new stories about Princess Diana and her family.
It is what Cliff Skelliter, the planner behind the exhibition, calls a walk-thru documentary.
“Originally it didn’t start out that way,” Skelliter said.
“But with art and storytelling, you think you are going in one direction and then as you listen and read between the lines, you start to move in the direction that the story brings you in.”
“Princess Diana Exhibition: Accredited Access” was created by Fever, an entertainment discovery platform that puts together experiences across the country such as the Los Angeles-based “Stranger Things: The Drive-Into Experience.”
This exhibition designers and planners met with Hussein, who is the longest-running royal photographer.
Hussein was born in Tanzania and began his career as a photojournalist.
Hired by the United Nations, he took pictures of refugees from the Belgian Congo civil uprising.
He moved to England, where he photographed everyone from the homeless to the major rock stars like Elton John, Rod Stewart, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, The Who, Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols.
He was also hired as a photographer for many films, including the Bond movies.
He then became the official royal photographer, known for capturing more casual moments rather than just formal portraits.
“He started sharing stories with us,” Skelliter said.
“You realize this is a person the princess is spending so much time with. He was there before Diana became involved in the royal family as a young lady and he’s still a royal photographer. They spent a lot of time together. We have utilized these great stories and turned them into an audio guide.”
While he said an audio guide sounds standard for an exhibition, theirs is not. They use Hussein’s sons, who were raised with Princes William and Harry, to narrate the stories.
“Not only are they telling you the stories of what happened with each photo, they are giving you little biscuits, nice little pieces of stories,” Skelliter said.
“If you are a hardcore Day One Diana fan, you’re going to love this. There are things that only Anwar knows. Nobody else knows these things — little exchanges.”
Focusing on Diana’s life
Fever began creating the experience in 2019. The pandemic gave Fever time to continue developing it. Skelliter said he had a very surface-level understanding of Diana before he began this project. He was amazed at all the layers that unfolded about her life and personality.
“This person is so unbelievably inspiring,” Skelliter said.
“She’s been described as when you were around her, when she held your hand, when she hugged you, it felt like you were touched by magic.
“Hearing these stories about her, we said we have to bring this to people so they can experience it on a really deep and intimate level as best as we know how to do.”
Skelliter decided he wanted to tell the story as a series of different rooms, each with its own name.
“I wanted each room to be like the episode of a television show,” Skelliter said. “You end up with this seven-part TV series that you binge in real time.”
The rooms — or episodes — are the Photography Dark Room, Growing, Glam, Crowning Glory, Working Royals, Humanitarian and Unguarded. Each section features photography, art, artifacts and first-hand accounts of the princess. The middle room —Crowning Glory — focuses on the hats and tiaras of Diana, Kate and Meghan.
Artist Pauline Loctin, a Quebec sculptor who works with paper, created six sculptures for the exhibit.
“We’re calling them monuments,” Skelliter said.
“They are so huge so they get their own room. You’re going through the stories, but then you hit Crowning Glory in the middle of it.
“This is your little intermission or snack break. It’s a little razzle dazzle, kind of a pause from the stories and now you’re going to get this beautiful music and beautiful abstract pieces.
“You’ll look at them and won’t believe they are paper.”
Hussein was Diana’s confidant
Skelliter was hesitant to share the stories about what Anwar knew.
He said he wants people to see the exhibit and experience the stories while looking at the pictures and hearing them first-hand. He did offer a bit of a teaser.
“There are things Anwar would share with us that nobody really knew,” Skelliter said.
“For example, there are these little things about their relationship. She would come to him for advice on things — relationship advice when she was single and dating, cultural advice, or advice on raising children. She went to him and asked him questions. These are the kinds of intimate conversations that Diana had with him.”
Hussein was a stand-in fatherly figure for Diana who spent a lot of time with her.
He took most of the iconic images of Diana. Some of those images are part of the exhibition, along with unfamiliar ones.
Of the 150 images, Skelliter said that 90% of them are printed 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide.
“It’s going to be a super visually stimulating, good experience,” Skelliter said.
“Seeing these larger-than-life images and getting the story behind it, audiences are going to love seeing the story. They’ll see the transition from this young lady who didn’t know all the dance moves yet to the princess. They’re going to know some of the story, but they’re going to get new wrinkles, new snippets from Anwar that really demonstrate the story in a way they may not have heard it.”
The experiences are available Wednesday to Sundays starting from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and until 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Time slots are available every 15 minutes. All ticket holders are given access to an app so they can walk through the exhibit listening to the voices of the sons telling stories.
Standard tickets are $25, while VIP tickets are $37. Discounts are available for children younger than 12, seniors, military and students. VIP ticket holders receive a souvenir book.
“The way we approached it, it is not something you throw in the backseat of your car and forget,” Skelliter said.
“We want it to be a coffee table book. You’ll feel like you got something you are going to hold on to for the rest of your life.”