The Scottish-born hairstylist Sam McKnight had overseen 109 models in one go, had one thousand wigs in his personal collection, and made 100 covers during his work for British Vogue magazine [25 of Kate Moss alone and album covers for Madonna's Bedtime Stories]. He met Princess Diana by surprise in 1990 when he was working on a Vogue shoot with her then sister-in-law, Victoria, Viscountess Althorp. They clicked at first sight: "We were doing shots of young society ladies and had one more person to do. I didn't even think to ask who it was, and suddenly this leggy blonde who was all smiles came bounding up the stairs into the studio in Hackney, and immediately charmed us all because she was a proper presence. But really lovely and funny. We had a great day laughing,” he said.
Sam first worked with the princess in 1990, when she was brought in to be photographed by Patrick Demarchelier. He heard they were shooting someone important for Vogue. He said: "Makeup Artist Mary Greenwell and I were told it was someone important, but we had no idea who. We guessed it might be Margaret Thatcher, and then in walked Princess Diana." For that shoot, he used some hairstyling trickery. He revealed: "I faked a short style for the shoot, using hair grips to tuck her shoulder-length hair under the tiara which she ended up liking. After the shoot she asked: 'What would you do if I gave you free rein?' I said: 'Cut it short', and she said: 'Could you do it now?' She was convinced immediately. The rest, as they say, was a famous haircut. It was all about timing. She wanted a change and I happened to be there."
Even though he officially lived in New York between 1982 and 2000, Sam was guardian of Princess Diana's do for seven years, until her death in 1997. He said: "I saw Princess Diana every week when I was in London. I would go in the morning to do her hair, and then sometimes go back in the evening if she had a function. We'd often watch Channel 4 soap Brookside at the palace together while I was doing her hair. Sometimes, her beloved boys would be there and I would cut their hair, too. I remember Prince William responded in glee when I put gel in his hair for the first time. And I went on a number of her official trips."
In 1991, During one meeting with supermodel Linda Evangelista and Vogue editor Liz Tilberis, Sam told them about a shoot he had done earlier in the week with Princess Diana and Demarchelier, and imparted that one picture in particular would make a great Vogue cover; the picture of the princess's chin resting on her folded-over hands, wearing a black turtleneck, with her blonde hair chopped short. The picture ran as the cover of British Vogue in December 1991. He said: "She had just stopped biting her nails and was so proud of how they looked."
Sam banished the ageing helmet hair and introduced a succession of spontaneous looking, sexier styles that were far more befitting a young woman in her early 30s, including a slicked back look. These days it would probably be called Editorial Hair. He said: "I first tried slicking her hair back in a private shoot with Lord Snowdon and she looked incredibly chic. She was a bit nervous about the slicked back appearance. Like many women, she used to hide behind her hair. But she looked her best when she didn't do anything to it. Sometimes she'd go off and have a sneaky perm when I wasn't there. We used to laugh about it together afterwards."
Princess Diana was open to new ideas regarding her hairstyle, and in 1995 she decided to adopt the slicked back look in public for the first time when she was invited to the Council of Fashion Designers Awards gala dinner in New York City. Sam said: "We decided she would try it out in public. The flowing day the front pages spoke volumes. I loved Diana looking more spontaneous. She even looked great coming out of the gym with freshly showered hair. I once said to her: 'What would be great is if you didn't have me coming to do your hair all the time, because when you come out of the gym it looks so good'. She knew that but she also knew that when she did all her appearances the public wanted to see her do the princess-thing."
Sam was at home when he heard about Princess Diana's tragic death. He said: "I got a phone call from Naomi Campbell and Donatella Versace in the middle of the night asking me what had happened. They were on a photoshoot in Milan." Describing his royal client, he said: "Princess Diana was lovely. It was a funny, eventful seven years. We laughed a lot. I saw her grow up into this lovely, confident woman from almost a little girl. Everything about her was iconic. Everything she touched was iconic. Women like her are few and far between. She was the most photographed woman in the world for years. She was beautiful, young, royal and tragic at the end. She had all the ingredients for a true icon."
Creating The Iconic Princess Diana Haircut, Written By Lisa Armstrong For The Daily Telegraph. First Published In 23 December 2015
The Real Story Behind Princess Diana's Early 90s Short Haircut, Written By Josh Duboff For Vanity Fair. First Published In 15 November 2016
Sam McKnight Talks Princess Diana, Written By Emma McCarthy For The Evening Standard. First Published In 31 October 2016
Princess Diana With Makeup Artist Mary Greenwell and Hairstylist Sam McKnight In 1991
The Slicked Back Look By Sam McKnight In 1995