It’s summer 1997, and Princess Diana is flirting with Dodi Fayed, a globe-trotting playboy, on the Jonikal, a yacht floating on sparkling Mediterranean waters.
Diana, teasingly, says that she likes men who have lips that are “just the right temperature.”
“Are mine the right temperature?” Dodi replies.
“I don’t know,” Diana says: “Need to check.” Then, the couple kiss, blissfully unaware that just a few meters away, Mario Brenna, a slick Italian photographer, is on a boat, with a long-lens camera trained on the couple.
A few days later, Brenna’s shots of the princess and her new beau are on the front pages of newspapers worldwide.
This is a central scene in the sixth and final season of Netflix’s royal drama “The Crown” — the first batch of episodes premiered on Thursday — and a moment that signaled the start of a tabloid frenzy around the couple that many blame for their deaths on Aug. 31, 1997, in a car crash in Paris as they were chased by photographers.
Yet the depiction is far from accurate, according to Brenna, speaking in what he said was his first interview with an English-language newspaper.
For a start, “The Crown” has Mohamed al-Fayed — Dodi’s father, and a retail and hotel tycoon who died this year — appearing to hire Brenna to take the shots, in an effort to push Diana and Dodi’s relationship into the public eye, and cajole the pair to marry.
In an email, Annie Sulzberger, the head of research for the show — she is also the sister of The Times’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger — said that “there are a few theories about how Brenna managed to find the Jonikal moored somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea,” but the one the team found most credible was that one of al-Fayed’s employees leaked the boat’s location to Brenna.
But Brenna said the idea that al-Fayed hired him was “absurd and completely invented,” and that no one leaked information about the yacht’s whereabouts to him. Every summer at that time, he was in Sardinia so he could take paparazzi shots of famous people, he said, and coming across Diana and Dodi was simply a “great stroke of luck.”
On Aug. 1, 1997, Brenna said he approached Diana’s yacht on a fast moving inflatable boat after mistaking a blonde woman making a telephone call on its upper deck for an old acquaintance. As he got closer, he was stunned to realize it was the princess.
Bruno Malca, Brenna’s agent at the time who helped sell the images to Paris Match magazine, said in an email that he thought Brenna was familiar with the yacht, “without knowing it was Diana and Dodi” onboard that day. Brenna was successful, Malca added, because he had spent so many years working in the region.
After spotting the couple, Brenna said he spent the next few days stalking the boat, including climbing a cliff to get a better view. From that elevated position, about 400 meters away from Diana, he took several photos of Diana and Dodi in an embrace. The shots were almost blurred, Brenna said, because the heat haze meant he struggled to get the pair in focus.
Still, he knew immediately he’d secured “a historic photo.” He’d also captured an image that “solved my personal and family problems,” he said, at a time when he had recently divorced and so “was not swimming in wealth.”
He unloaded the rolls of film from the camera, then buried them to make sure they didn’t get exposed to the sun as he tried to take more images, and also as he feared a competitor might have seen him at work and try to steal his camera and so obtain the images every other photographer in the Mediterranean had been hoping to get first.
On Aug. 10, the Sunday Mirror, a British tabloid, splashed Brenna’s image on its front page. “The Kiss,” the headline read. Soon, Brenna said, he was selling the pictures worldwide. In the following six-to-eight months, he said, he made about 1.7 million pounds, or $2.1 million, from his photos of the couple.
Brenna’s pictures — and the prices news outlets paid for them — sparked a frenzy. In 2013, Jason Fraser, a British photographer who helped Brenna sell his images, told The Daily Mail that after they were published, over 2,000 photographers arrived in the Mediterranean hoping to get their own snaps of Diana and Dodi. “I felt the whole thing was spinning out of control,” Fraser said. Weeks later, the couple died.
In “The Crown,” Brenna (portrayed by Enzo Cilenti) explains his methods to camera. To capture celebrities misbehaving, the fictional Brenna says, you have to take risks. Paparazzi also have to act like “hunters … killers.”
Brenna said in the email interview that he did not share this opinion of his work (“I do not identify with the term ‘killer,’”) and that he was never contacted by anyone from “The Crown” to learn about his experiences (Netflix did not respond to a request for comment).
After Diana and Dodi’s death, al-Fayed sued Fraser, the British photographer, for taking photos of Diana and Dodi on a boat, saying it was an invasion of privacy. Brenna said he did not face any such action, adding his images were legal as they “were taken outdoors, in a public place.” And he regretted the privacy crackdown that happened since, with governments and stars trying to stop the paparazzi from taking photos: “There is still the right to report,” he said.
Today, Brenna lives near Lake Como, in Italy, where he said he’s photographed celebrities including George Clooney, Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé, even as the dawn of social media had impacted his profession significantly, including its financial rewards.
Brenna said he and his family enjoyed the success of the photos throughout August 1997. But then, Diana died. When he heard the news, Brenna said, he “couldn’t believe it” and cried, not least because he had two children himself and so could understand what her death would mean for Diana’s boys. He made a decision “not to speak or disclose anything about the incident until William and Harry reached adulthood.”
The mere thought that his images “could have contributed to fueling the hunt for Diana and Dodi obviously saddens me,” Brenna said. But he did not think his work added significantly to the furor around the princess.
“If it hadn’t been me,” he added, “someone else would certainly have captured those images.”