You might think that ballroom dances between dashing princes and lovely princesses are just the stuff of animated Disney movies. But John Travolta lived that experience off-screen just over 35 years ago, when he cut a rug with Princess Diana at a White House dinner in November 1985 while Ronald and Nancy Reagan looked on. Photojournalist Pete Souza — who served as the Reagan administration's chief official White House photographer — captured their dance in a series of famous photos, and posted one picture on his Instagram feed in honor of what would have been the late Princess of Wales's 60th birthday.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2019, Travolta revealed that he had no idea he'd be playing "Prince Charming" when he arrived at the White House. “I didn’t know until I got there that I was supposed to dance with her,” the Hollywood icon says. “[Princess Diana] kept that a secret when she met me. She didn’t know that Nancy Reagan hadn’t told me yet that this was the plan — that I was the Prince Charming of the evening.” (Watch our video interview above.)
At the time, Diana was still a new addition to the British royal family, having married Prince Charles just four years prior. The two were on a tour of the U.S., and Nancy Reagan organized an event in their honor. Travolta, meanwhile, had graduated from scene-stealer status on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter to big-screen superstar thanks to hits like Saturday Night Fever and Grease, both of which established him as America’s leading heartthrob on the dance floor.
Of course, Travolta would never think of turning down a first lady... or a princess for that matter. But when he first took Diana's hand, his nerves initially got the better of him as images of the Royal Wedding flooded his mind. “I was awestruck with her,” he admits now. “She led the way, and I thought: ‘Well, that’s not going to happen! I’ve got to go back to my school days of learning ballroom dancing and show that I can lead her.’”
Reflecting on that night some three decades later, Travolta finds that his memories have less to do with what he and Diana talked about — Clint Eastwood’s tardiness was one subject they discussed — and more about the charisma his dancing partner brought to every room. He also has a near-perfect recall of the black velvet dress she wore, which was designed by celebrated couturier, Victor Edelstein. "It fit her beautifully,” Travolta recalls wistfully. "I could probably sketch it in my mind because it was so specific."
In 2019, the dress made its grand return to the public stage when the U.K. auction house Kerry Taylor Auctions announced that it would be auctioned as part of "Passion for Fashion" collection. It was eventually sold to the independent charity Historic Royal Palaces, which purchased it outside of the auction for the royal sum of $347,000. "We're delighted to have acquired this iconic evening gown for the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection," Eleri Lynn, curator at HRP, said in a statement at the time. "Not only is the 'Travolta' dress a fantastic example of couture tailoring designed to dazzle on a state occasion, it represents a key moment in the story of 20th century royal fashion."
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