Royals

Kiwi royal correspondent reveals what she saw behind closed doors in the royal family

Susan worked through the Diana years and says the late princess feared for her youngest son.

By Donna Fleming

Like millions of people around the world, Susan Maxwell Skinner sat glued to her TV watching coverage of the royal wedding. But unlike most viewers, the US-based Kiwi had a special reason to be interested in Harry's big day.

Susan is a former member of the Buckingham Palace press corps and spent eight years in London reporting on Harry's family. She was there when his parents, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, married and when both he and his brother Prince William were first shown off to the world as newborns. She covered many of the milestones in their childhood and is delighted to see Harry so happy after the devastation of losing his mother at such a young age.

She recalls how Diana was always worried about her sensitive second son. "She once told us, 'William will be fine, it's Harry I worry about'," recalls Susan.

"She sensed his vulnerability and she knew that a royal second son's future can be a minefield. Because he lacked a defined role, she feared Harry might struggle in adult life."

As Harry himself has admitted, he has been through some tough times, but he has come through them. "He is now the palace's most popular ambassador," tells Susan.

She believes together, Harry and Meghan will be "a tremendous weapon in the royal family's arsenal of PR tools".

Susan, who is now in her sixties, knows only too well how the royal family uses the popularity of its younger members to good advantage, as she witnessed when she was a royal reporter during the golden Diana years.

"She was a breath of fresh air and she conquered the world by making the press fall in love with her," remembers Susan.

"She knew how to look into the camera, how to show her vulnerability. She was definitely my favourite royal."

Susan, who has written four books about Diana, started her journalism career at the New Zealand Herald when she was 16. Her flair with words took her from cadet reporter to a senior features writer, and she interviewed celebrities including actress Lauren Bacall and the Bee Gees when they came to New Zealand.

She also covered visits by royals, such as Prince Charles, the Queen and Princess Anne, and when the newspaper decided to send a reporter to London to cover the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, Susan landed the plum assignment.

"It was wonderful covering such an historic event, and while I was there, I made a lot of contacts among the palace press corps and the palace staff, such as Charles' aides."

Not long after the wedding, a British publisher got in touch and asked if she'd go back to London to write a book on Diana. Susan thought she'd only be gone for a few months. But while there, she received more offers of work through
her contacts and ended up becoming an accredited freelance royal correspondent, travelling with the palace press pack to cover official engagements, and writing stories for newspapers and magazines around the world, including New Zealand Woman's Weekly.

During her eight years in London, she went to dozens of countries, as well as covering hundreds of royal visits in the UK.

"I was young, I was having fun and as long as I had enough money to pay the bills and drink Champagne once a week, the world was my oyster," she says.

She remembers Harry and William as "very nice little boys with exquisite manners", and says Harry had an obvious cheeky streak. They both appeared to have inherited compassion and empathy from their mother, along with a sense of humour.

"Diana was quite the joker. When we were on tour in Australia in 1983, before coming to New Zealand, I said to her, 'Have you been practising your hongi? You know, pressing noses?' She said, 'Oh, God, mine's so big – I hope I don't hurt anyone'."

Susan loved her work but it began to pale towards the end of the '80s when editors wanted her to write more stories about royal scandals. She was considering other options when, during a stopover in Hawaii on her way home to Auckland for a holiday, an airline pilot sat down next to her on Waikiki Beach and chatted her up. She married American John Skinner on the same beach a year later, then moved with him to California. John, who sadly died last year, was also a big band leader and she went on to sing with his band.

Susan now writes for publications in the town she lives in near Sacramento and has become a nature photographer. She has also been in demand in the US as a commentator on all things royal.

"I still have an understanding of how the royal family works. For example, the minute Meghan and Harry's wedding was announced, I knew it would be at Windsor. You couldn't have a divorcée marrying at Westminster Abbey."

She believes the couple will work hard to promote the causes they feel strongly about, but also have fun along the way.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what Meghan makes of her role. She will be a legend in her own time, I am sure of it."

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