In case you are still in the midst of Royal Fever from Harry and Meghan’s wedding – here’s the story of when Princess Diana tried to set me up with her son. (This is an excerpt from my memoir You Look Like That Girl: A child actor stops pretending and finally grows up)
Some people must enjoy attending fancy movie premieres, maybe the same kind of people who get excited about getting an invitation to parties at roller rinks or backyard barbeques or anniversary celebrations. Because premieres are much like those regular parties, except add another 700 people, paparazzi, forced ass-kissing motivated by a deep-seated fear that you will never work again, and small, low-carb food served on toothpicks, as required by scrawny Hollywood actresses to keep them that way.
However, my first premier (for the film Rambling Rose) set the standard pretty high. It was a royal premiere in London, which meant the guest list included Princess Diana. When you are being introduced to royalty there is serious protocol because Brits are not known for screwing around when it comes to tradition. There were many rules to adhere to; when I met the princess, I could not speak until spoken to and when I did dare to open my mouth, I needed to say, “Your Royal Highness.” This level of formality felt completely awkward; my instinct would have been to give the princess a hug, offer her a piece of gum, and show her a picture of my dog.
I traveled with my entourage, which for me, consisted of my mother, father, and grandmother. For my Canadian grandmother, attending a royal premiere was akin to having brunch with Jesus. There was no way she was going to miss that.
As soon as we arrived in London, I met with a woman whose actual job it was teaching me how to curtsey properly. My curtsey teacher came to our hotel room, and it scared me a little to let her in. She looked like a cartoon someone had drawn of what a British curtsey teacher should look like. Her entire being was lithe and severe and her hair was pulled back so tightly that it made you wince just to look at it. After a brief history lesson about the curtsey, we practiced the move itself. I was something of a disappointment to her, as my curtsey looked more like I was suddenly tripping over something. She smiled a tight British smile and patiently requested I try again. She seemed convinced that I was about to massacre the ritual in front of her princess, which would inevitably cause the crumbling of the British Empire and everything it stood for. When she had done her best, she patted my shoulder a little too hard and said she was sure it would be fine—but please would I mind terribly spending another hour or so practicing in front of the bathroom mirror?
The whole thing was incredibly intimidating. I worried about what to say to Princess Diana. British weather seemed to be a terrible topic of conversation. Would I have enough time for a real heart-to-heart exchange? Should I tell her she looked beautiful or was that like telling Mount Everest it looked big?
Right before the main event, the actors, director, and producers of the film gathered together to watch an instructional video on how to properly meet and greet the princess. We crammed around the television in the producer’s hotel room. I brought a notebook. The air was thick with nerves and everyone else seemed to be hoping that the video would answer some questions for them, as well. We all sat around looking tense, the ladies smoothing hems and straightening pantyhose, the men buttoning and unbuttoning tuxedo jackets.
I poised my pen and paper as the video started; Rowan Atkinson came on screen as Mr. Bean. It was a spoof in which he was spit-polishing his shoes and making a fool out of himself as he waited for his royal introduction. The video ended with him head-butting the Queen of England. I laughed, but it was the kind of laugh where I was simultaneously looking around, hopeful that the real video was about to start because the issue remained that I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing. Seriously? This was the “educational video”? The little skit was supposed to help everyone relax, but all it did was encourage me to scribble in my notebook – “No head-butting.”
There was no time for questions as my family and I were ushered into a limo that took us to the theater. When we arrived in front of the marquee, my heart froze. The street outside the theater was teeming with hundreds of people. It might have been thousands. When I panic, I hyperventilate, which often leads to blackouts. That had the potential to result in an unintentional royal headbutt, so clearly it needed to stop.
“That’s…that’s a lot of people.”
Mom waved her hands dismissively at the crowd outside the tinted limo window.
“They’re waiting for the bus. Look, there’s the stop right there.”
She was right. There was a stop right outside the theater.
“It’s London. Everyone takes advantage of public transportation here. It’s very smart. Environmentally responsible, too.”
I was about to inquire as to why people would be waiting for the bus by crouching on top of the bus shelter with a long-lens camera, but my dad and Grandma beamed at me from the other side of the limo. “They’re just waiting for the bus,” they agreed. There was a lot of nodding. It seemed best to believe them.
My family took their seats in the theater and left me to join the other people from the film in the reception line. I waited for the princess’s arrival, between Lucas Haas, who played my older brother in the film, and Jane Robinson, the costume director. I was wearing itchy tights and a horrendous black, flowery Laura Ashley dress with a wide, floppy lace collar that seemed quite sophisticated to my pre-teen sensibilities. The tights had been a last-minute purchase from a Marks & Spencer in London. I had forgotten to bring tights and my grandmother gasped at the thought of me meeting a princess with uncovered legs. My itchy British tights crushed my waist and made me even more uncomfortable. The princess took a long time to arrive but she was a princess, so no one said anything.
The dark, rainy London night suddenly turned to daylight with all the flashbulbs and the air filled with the excited yelling of paparazzi. Moments later, Princess Diana stepped into the lobby of the theater and looked just as spectacular as you would expect. As she made her way down the line, being introduced to the representatives of the film, I tried to practice the curtsey in my mind. I slipped my foot behind my ankle a few times to make sure I could still move it.
She chatted a bit with each person she met. It very much resembled a wedding reception line, except Princess Diana was both bride and groom and was more stunning than both put together. When she was presented to the person just before me, I started to freak out again. Do I look at her now? Or is that eavesdropping? Do I stare straight ahead? Do I look at my shoes and feign surprise when she gets to me? “Oh! Hello there!” As if there was some other reason I had flown to another continent and was wearing itchy tights?
Before I was able to work out an answer, suddenly, Princess Diana was standing in front of me, reaching out her hand. I took it and curtsied, losing my balance a little and wobbling to the side. She smiled kindly and supported me with her other hand.
Strike one. I was specifically told to not steady myself on the princess, as if she were some sort of bejeweled kickstand. But I was a clumsy twelve-year-old who tripped a lot in normal situations; this fumble was inevitable.
The official presentation was made by some sort of royal aid with a booming voice, “Lisa Jakub, an actress in the film.”
“Hello Lisa, it’s very nice to meet you.” Her words were effortless and felt like sunshine.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Your Royal Highness.”
Okay, I got through that part. That was the line I had planned. Now we were freestyling. It seems an easy thing, to have a conversation and respond like a human being to another human being, but when there are several cameras in your face and you’re holding the hand of a princess, it’s not so simple.
“You look so pretty!” she remarked. I blushed and looked at my feet, then remembered that you are supposed to keep eye contact. I looked back up and stared blankly. Saying, “Thank you,” seemed like I was accepting the premise that I was pretty, which is hard to do under regular circumstances, let alone while standing next to Princess Diana. Saying, “You look pretty, too,” seemed trite, as if I hadn’t thought she looked pretty until she thought I did. I fished around in my brain for something else to say.
“I hear you did a lovely job in the film.” She kindly made up for my lack of words.
“Thank you, Your Royal Highness.”
“I have a son that is just about your age; his name is William. I’m sure he would love to meet you.”
Was Princess Diana is trying to set me up with her son? Now, this would be a hell of a first date for me.
“Oh. Yes. Okay. That sounds fun.”
“Well, it’s settled then, we will have to do that sometime.” She beamed more sunshine at me.
Again, I was stymied. How was that going to work? I almost said, “Should I just stop by the palace one day, or…?” I went with, “Thank you, your Royal Highness,” because I had already said that successfully and was fairly confident that my mouth could make those same sounds again.
She gave me a final, sweet smile and moved on down the line to greet the rest of the people from the film. I just stood there looking forward. We had all flown to Europe for those twenty seconds and now they were done. Had I done a good job? It was a surprisingly intimate public moment that no one could grade me on. I was surrounded by crowds of people and cameras but I suddenly felt very alone. People to my left and right were worried about their own performances, my mom hadn’t been there, nor my curtsey teacher or anyone else that I could count on for an honest critique of my behavior. If I had another take I could have done it better, been more charming and articulate. I could have done that curtsey better and would have said something funny so that I could have heard her laugh. But, for better or worse, life didn’t just write “Take 2” on the slate, offering another chance to be perfect in that moment. There was no choice but to be content with what had happened, even if I felt the pressure to have made it worthwhile. So, I exhaled and tried to wiggle my toes within my stiff, shiny black shoes and wondered how we were going to work out this whole William thing.
After surviving the receiving line, we all made our way into the theater and watched the film. I was a few seats down from Diana and kept stealing glances to see if she liked it. She laughed and cried in the appropriate places and seemed to enjoy herself. She was indescribably beautiful, lit by the flickering screen. It’s hard to understand the full impact of meeting someone like that at age twelve, but I at least understood that I was in the presence of someone who radiated goodness. It had nothing to do with her status. It had to do with the fact that she was kind and she gave me a loving smile when she had to support my curtsey. She had seen my nervousness and had tried to comfort me, mother me. Her title was meaningless. She was simply a kind person.
And I’ve decided to forgive William for going a different way with his choice of wife. Even though Kate might not have been his mother’s first choice.
Six years later, I was in a limo coming home from the airport when I heard about Princess Diana’s death. I had just finished a shoot and they always send limos for that sort of thing because it’s supposed to be impressive and they want to make you feel like you are more important that you really are. I’m always uncomfortable and usually carsick in limos but this was a different kind of awful. The horrible news came on the radio and the driver turned it up for us. My parents and I were all in the backseat and I started shaking. It took a while for the tears to come; my tear ducts were shocked shut.
I stared out the window of the limo and thought of her staring out the window of her limo. She was gentle and had held my hand longer than necessary. She loved her boys. Now, the paparazzi, who had been stoked and encouraged by what I did for a living, were gaining strength like a well-fed dragon. They had chased her. Hunted her. And now she was dead. This job of mine had put me in this unique position to meet this spectacular person, but, I wondered, at what price? My body had been turned inside out and my lungs were too small. I heard my mother whisper to my dad, “Put your arm around her.” He did.