LONDON — Princess Diana, Britain's attractive, blond, future queen and the most photographed woman in the world, has an image problem.
It's not that she's too thin, or too fat, needs a nose job, is drinking too much, or has any of the alleged ailments Britain's tabloids delight in reporting as fact.
The 26-year-old mother of two is having too much fun.
And she's kicking up her heels with a sense of style that some Buckingham Palace observers say has finally overstepped the restraint the royal family should show.
Even the most trivial details of Diana's glamorous wardrobe, public appearances and private habits have made headlines since the coy former kindergarten teacher sent fervor for the royals soaring with her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981.
Since then, she has become the darling of a media impressed by her refreshingly down-to-earth nature, love of children, pop music and dancing.
But in a year when speculation is intense that she and Charles are drifting apart and the young royals are being told their coltish behavior is undermining the monarchy's dignity, Diana is raising more eyebrows than usual with her hemlines and high-living friends.
Just as Buckingham Palace was papering over Charles and Diana's alleged marriage rift by ensuring they were seen more together after 39 days apart over the summer, Diana was photographed after dinner with a male friend last month.
The raunchy People newspaper said the princess burst into tears when a photographer snapped her skylarking outside a friend's home with Life Guard Capt. David Waterhouse, who tried playfully to run her down with his silver Audi 100.
That incident followed media comments that Diana and her sister-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, were fooling about too much in public at Ascot, Britain's premier horse-racing event, and reports that they were consuming large quantities of champagne, Pimms and white wine at private drinking parties.
Royal observers have also attacked the other young members of the royal family for appearing in "It's a Knock Out," a television game show whose participants dress up in funny clothes and attempt slapstick tasks.
Buckingham Palace's press office--which normally watches in long-suffering silence as the royals' lives are pulled apart in the media tug of war for readership--confirmed that Diana and Waterhouse had dined together.
Hounded by Photographers
But it expressed concern that Diana was being hounded more than ever by bands of free-lance photographers who track her all over London and pose a security threat.
Last week the Palace public relations machine swung into action by sanctioning reports about Diana's "secret" good works for Dr. Barnado's, a children's charity, of which she is the British president.
In a widely reported statement, a spokeswoman for Barnado said Diana had been working for three years behind the scenes, making visits to the homes of handicapped children, sexually abused children and families under stress.
"The Princess is a hard-working woman, far removed from her dizzy disco image," the spokeswoman said.
Diana, who failed most of her school exams and publicly described herself in January as "thick as a plank," took notes and had appeared very knowledgeable during the charity's management meetings, she said.
In July, Diana herself broke with the royal custom of not responding to press reports by denying she was a heavy drinker.
"Contrary to recent reports in some of our more sensational Sunday newspapers, I have not been drinking, and I am not about to become an alcoholic," she said. Since then, she has twice quipped that she does not believe what she reads in the papers.
According to recent polls, she is not alone.
Forty-eight percent of Britons do not believe what they read about the royalty, and 67% think the media pays too much attention to the royal family.
Princess Di in 2nd Place
Princess Anne still tops the list as the royal member people think is most unfairly treated, but Princess Diana has this year passed Prince Andrew to take second place.
The tabloids' latest shock "revelations" have included reports that Queen Elizabeth summoned Charles and Diana to a midnight summit and told them they had to be "seen" to be getting along, and that she will in future check each of the royals' timetables to avoid undignified public displays.
Suzy Menkes, the fashion editor of Britain's more staid Independent newspaper, commented on television recently that Diana's short skirts and plunging necklines were those "of a tart."
"I think Diana made a mistake when she went for her Dynasty Di image. . . . It just doesn't work when you're the future queen for people to be looking at your legs and the length of your dress, or being wolf-whistled in the street," Menkes said.
The racy News of the World followed hot on Menkes' heels.
It said the queen was horrified by the clothes Sarah Ferguson and Diana had started wearing.