“I traveled a lot back then, and she would go and get a sneaky perm when I was away!”
While much of the nation is currently binge-watching the fifth season of The Crown (the series attracted 1.1 million viewers on launch day alone), there is one man who has never watched a single episode—and nor does he intend to.
That man is famed hairstylist Sam McKnight, contributing beauty editor at British Vogue, founder of hair care line Hair by Sam McKnight, and the talent who spent seven years working with Princess Diana as her personal hairstylist, until her untimely death in 1997. “She didn’t have a huge entourage but during the seven years I was with her, our trips abroad included visiting Mother Teresa in India and refugee camps on the Afghan border, which was really harrowing,” McKnight tells me over the phone. “I’d never experienced anything like that before.”
It was on these trips that McKnight created some of the Princess’s hairstyles that remain iconic to this day. Did he realize, at the time, that his work would be referenced for years to come? “Not at first, no, but a bit of time into working with her, yes,” he muses. “For example, we went to the Taj Mahal and there were only a few of us—they closed it for her—which was incredible, and those pictures of her outside it have become really iconic. You don’t think like that at the time, though. You’ve got a job to get done!”
The pair started working together after a Vogue shoot with the late fashion editor Anna Harvey and photographer Patrick Demarchelier in 1990. During the shoot, McKnight made Diana’s hair look short (“I faked it because we wanted to modernize her look, and take her away from the ’80s thing”), and the fresh effect prompted Diana to ask his opinion on what she should do with her hair. “I told her I’d cut it off, make it short and start again,” he says. “It was the era of Linda Evangelista’s crop and all of the supermodels. We were moving away from the big puffy sleeves and into a much more streamlined, power business woman. It took us a couple of years to get there with her, but we got there in the end.”
It took a while because Diana, like so many women before and since, retreated to her hair comfort zone. “I travelled a lot back then, and she would go and get a sneaky perm when I was away!” he laughs. “I’d come back to this perm that I’d have to blow out, which meant it quickly returned to the fluffy ’80s froufrou cut.” Said perm made it easier for Diana to do her own hair while carrying out engagements in the UK, but it wasn’t to last that much longer.
Just like her wardrobe, it was an evolution: “Big changes created too much press attention—even if you changed her parting to the side, it would hit the press,” he says. “She was aware of that and didn’t want to distract from the charity work she was doing. It took me two years to wean her off the old-fashioned perms. I had to persuade her she didn’t really need them.”
Diana eventually ditched them at a time when her style became emblematic of a new phase in her life, post-divorce. Alongside “brightly-coloured Versace skirts and masculine suits”, she went to Daniel Galvin’s London salon to “get her colour softened and make the highlights creamier”. It helped her feel modern, chic and ready to take on the world. In fact, she even credited Sam with changing her life when he cut her hair—such is the power of a new look. “It wasn’t only her look that blossomed in the post-divorce period. She did, too,” he smiles.
Working in her private quarters in Kensington Palace, which weren’t “overly ostentatious, just a lovely, posh country girl’s abode—her haven”, the pair developed a bond that McKnight still cherishes today. As for the wigs worn by Elizabeth Debicki as the Princess in The Crown—what does he think? “From what I’ve seen, they’re probably better wigs than I’ve seen on any other previous depiction of Diana,” he says. “But it’s weird. I have a very unique take. Seeing anyone impersonate her always feels like a French & Saunders episode… I’m just waiting for Dawn French to come bursting through the white door, you know?”
This article was originally published on British Vogue
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