royal encounter

Former drag queen recalls private moments with Princess Diana

Princess Diana visiting a patient at the London Lighthouse, a center for people with HIV and AIDS
Princess Diana visiting a patient at the London Lighthouse October 1996 (Photo: Jayne Fincher/Getty Images)

David Hodge made a name for himself in London in the 90s as drag queen Dusty O. From classic small-town boy beginnings in the Midlands of England, Hodge escaped to London and became the media-appointed “Queen of Soho”, presiding over some of the flashiest club nights in town and jetting all over the world.

That’s until he decided a half dozen years ago—around the age of 50—to kill off Dusty and return to being David again. He has since taken up a second career as a successful painter.

His story is told in his evocative, candid, and touching memoir, The Boy Who Sat By The Window.

Before clubland success came calling, one of Hodge’s first jobs in London was working on the reception desk at the London Lighthouse. It was one of the UK’s foremost AIDS hospices. Hodge worked there during the worst days of the epidemic, before treatment for HIV became available.

One day in the mid-90s, he was surprised by a guest visitor: Diana, Princess of Wales. Below, in an exclusive extract from his book, he recounts his brief experience with her.

Dusty O circa 2015, and David Hodge today
Dusty O circa 2015, and David Hodge today (Photos: Supplied)

The day Diana came to visit

One morning at Lighthouse, I was on the early shift at reception, feeling like shit, my eye make-up still on from the night before. It was only eight and nothing much happened till the staff arrived at nine, so I had my feet up, drinking a coffee and reading Mapp & Lucia by E.F. Benson. If you’re gay, you’ve really got to read at least one M&L novel, if only because it contains, in the character of Georgie Pillson, one of the most memorable screaming queens in popular literature. If somebody tells me they don’t like M&L, I begin to doubt if they’re really gay. Like not liking Judy Garland or the opera.

I was deep into the doings of Tilling-on-Sea when the bell rang for admittance to the car park. Assuming it was a delivery, I buzzed open the gates. A black car drove in and parked in one of the bays reserved for ambulances. It was a woman at the wheel. Irritably, I banged on the window and gesticulated that she needed to move it, which she then did. Stupid cow, I muttered under my breath and went back to Tilling-on-Sea. A minute or two passed and when I heard somebody enter the building, I looked up to find none other than the Princess of Wales standing in front of me. Christ.

‘I’m really sorry,’ she said. ‘Parking in the wrong space. Idiotic.’

She was dressed very casually but looked quite beautiful, even at this hour of the morning. I was like a rabbit in the headlights. I just sat and stared and muttered that it was okay. I didn’t know what to say or where to look. I didn’t even stand up. Eventually I managed to ask if she wanted me to ring upstairs to the residential unit and tell them that she was coming up.

‘If you wouldn’t mind,’ she said.

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When I called upstairs, I felt totally lost as to how to announce her.

‘A lady is here to see you.’ I said to the nurse on the other end. ‘Can I send her up?’

‘Who’s the lady?’ said the nurse. There were ferocious privacy protocols around anyone going up to the unit.

For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘Princess Diana’. God knows why. All I could really think about was that I wished I’d had my hair done properly which, at that time, was a lime green, spiked Mohican. Not the sort of look you’d find in Kensington Palace.

‘A special visitor,’ I said to the nurse.

‘Yes, but who is it?’ replied the nurse, a bit irritable now. I was obviously stumbling, but the princess reached out to touch my hand.

‘Just tell them it’s Diana, it’s okay.’

This kindness confused me even more and for some reason I’ll never fathom I said, ‘It’s Lady Diana’.

‘Ooh, nobody’s called me that for years’ giggled the princess. ‘It’s just Diana these days.’

By this point, her marriage to Prince Charles was over and The Queen had recently stripped her of the title of ‘Royal Highness’. But that had done nothing to diminish her role as the most famous woman on the planet. People were literally obsessed with her. Everything she wore was copied, her every move made front page headlines. She had the precious gift of being warm, friendly and able to show emotion which the Royal Family were not exactly famous for. They tended to be stiff as statues whilst Diana was just the opposite. Real. One of us. And that’s why she was so loved.

She was certainly loved at London Lighthouse. She’d made it her goal to help shatter the myths around transmission of the virus and to do whatever she could to help in this dreadful crisis. That help was gratefully received. She’d often arrive in secret, just as she did that morning, and be whisked up to the residential unit where she’d chat and drink tea with the service users, many of them extremely sick or close to death. She’d also give support and encouragement to the staff, who were having to deal with many challenges, both physical and emotional.

Most of us never actually saw her when she visited privately. It was all choreographed to avoid press intrusion and nobody was ever given prior notice of her coming. She came in secret many times. She came simply because she was needed and because she had a big heart.

So I was lucky to have actually encountered her at all. But I was still discombobulated as I escorted her to the lift.

For some reason, I took my book with me. There was quite a long wait for the lift and I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Or maybe you had to wait for them to speak to you?

‘What are you reading?’ she said to fill the silence, so I showed her the book. ‘Oh yes, I’ve read that. It’s very camp isn’t it?’

I was amazed that a real-life princess actually knew what ‘camp’ was. She took the book from my hands and only then did I realise that I’d left the bookmark in, which was poking out of the top. A huge cardboard cut-out of a penis.

‘Oh, I love your bookmark!’ she said.

When the lift came, I held open the door for her. ‘Someone will be waiting for you at the top, your Royal Highness,’ I said, consciously using the title taken from her in such a mean-spirited way. As her brother would famously say at her funeral, she needed no royal title to impress the world.

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When she left again a few hours later, she waved goodbye to me through the window of reception. A month or so later, she came again on an ‘official’ visit, which was a very different ball game. This time, she was to give an important speech, which would be covered and photographed by the national and international press.

The police had closed the road and literally thousands of people had come to see ‘The People’s Princess’ doing what she did best. There was screaming and cheering as she arrived, this time in a chauffeur-driven car. The cameras went crazy. It was total mayhem and almost scary to be part of. Way beyond anything I’d seen as a kid when I waved my little flag at The Queen when she visited Walsall. It struck home to me how much Diana meant to people and how much of an impact her support for HIV/AIDS was having on society. She was a beautiful lady, both in body and spirit.

What an amazing queen she would have made. What a loss.

The Boy Who Sat By The Window’ by David Hodge is out September 8 via Mardle Books.

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