How thoroughly modern Meghan managed to tame the playboy prince
It reads like the plot of a Hollywood rom-com: a prince who shook off the ties of traditionalism and chose a whip-smart, feminist actress for his bride. Julia Molony looks back on Harry and Meghan’s path to fame.
The comparisons with Wallis Simpson, though laboured, were perhaps inevitable. The last time a glamorous dynamic American divorcee blew into the House of Windsor on a hurricane of publicity, it sparked a scandal which threw the monarchy into crisis and led to the abdication of Edward VIII from the throne.
How things have changed.
Despite some token grumbling from traditionalist corners, when Prince Harry announced his engagement to the beautiful actress Meghan Markle, no such obstacles stood between him and fulfilling his heart’s desire to marry the woman he loves.
She is divorced, a TV actress, an American, and the first mixed heritage person to marry a senior British Royal. But when Markle joins The Firm officially next year, it will welcome her with open arms.
In times gone by, a senior royal such as Harry would be obliged to choose his bride according to her breeding and social standing. Meghan, who was raised in Los Angeles, her father a lighting director on American soap operas and her mother, by Meghan’s description “a dreadlocked, nose-ringed free spirit” doesn’t have blue blood or any kind of title. But she’s got something else much more useful to a monarchy which is now utterly committed to remaining modern and relevant — a communications degree.
It’s that, and her previous career as an actress, that no doubt explains in part her easy, practised way with the media. When, in 2012, Harry’s older brother William sat down on a similar couch with his then-fiancee Kate to conduct their own joint interview, he was the one who took the lead. Kate spoke tentatively, while valiantly but visibly struggling to contain her nerves.
The comparison with the TV interview with Harry and Meghan which aired hours after their engagement was announcd, was stark. This time, it was the bride-to-be, fondly grasping her fiance’s hand, who was the more voluble interviewee.
But then, Meghan is a Californian, brought up in a showbiz family, free from any fixation with the finer points of British etiquette. That she was natural, warm, and utterly at ease with herself, was plain for all to see.
By the time Kensington Palace officially announced in November 2016 that Prince Harry had a new girlfriend, tabloid stories about his romance had already sparked a thousand profile-features, all asking the million-dollar question: who is Meghan Markle?
But they didn’t have to look too far to find out. “I’m an actress, a writer, the editor-in-chief of my lifestyle brand The Tig, a pretty good cook and a firm believer in handwritten notes,” she declared in 2015 in an article she wrote for Elle magazine, before she’d ever even set eyes on the man who is fifth in line to the throne.
In the piece, she described her path to “finding her voice” and “creating her identity” as a mixed-race woman whose heritage set her apart from the world in which she grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Markle’s father Thomas is of Dutch/Irish heritage and her mother Doris is African/American.
Her childhood neighbourhood, in the Valley in LA, she wrote, was “leafy and affordable. What it was not, however, was diverse. And there was my mom, caramel in complexion with her light-skinned baby in tow, being asked where my mother was since they assumed she was the nanny.
“I was too young at the time to know what it was like for my parents, but I can tell you what it was like for me — how they crafted the world around me to make me feel like I wasn’t different but special.” Like Harry, Meghan is a child of divorce — her parents split, apparently without acrimony, when she was small.
“What’s so incredible, you know, is that my parents split up when I was two, (but) I never saw them fight,” she told Vanity Fair in September.
“We would still take vacations together. My dad would come on Sundays to drop me off, and we’d watch Jeopardy! eating dinner on TV trays, the three of us ... We were still so close-knit.”
Being of mixed heritage paints a blurred line that is equal parts staggering and illuminating.
She has said. “While my mixed heritage may have created a grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence, I have come to embrace that. To say who I am, to share where I’m from, to voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed-race woman.” These, clearly, were not the words of a woman looking to be rescued by a prince.
“I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches,” she once wrote, “I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works.” Indeed, Markle has been an avowed feminist since she was little.
At just 11 years old, she wrote an angry letter to Hillary Clinton to complain about an advertisement which featured the wording “Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans” after which the company behind the ad agreed to change the line from “women” to “people”. By the time she met Prince Harry last summer, she had more than fulfilled that dream to be a “woman who works”. After a private education in a Catholic College and gaining her degree in Northwestern University, she flirted briefly with pursuing a career in diplomacy — she did a stint working in the American Embassy in Buenos Aires — before settling on acting.
During her wilderness years as a jobbing actor, she worked as a freelance calligrapher, while accepting a run of bit parts such as “briefcase girls” on Deal Or No Deal and “Hot Girl” in the film A Lot Like Love before she was cast in the role in 2011 that made her famous, playing paralegal Rachel Zane in the TV drama Suits.
She got married that same year to producer and agent Trevor Engelson but the pair divorced in 2013, citing irreconcilable differences. Friends of Engelson are reported to have said that he, to this day, remains “baffled” as to why the marriage ended.
Meanwhile, Markle kept busy. As her profile grew, so did her commitment to humanitarian work. “My life shifts from refugee camps to red carpets,” she once said. “I choose them both because these worlds can, in fact, co-exist.” The UN took notice of her interests and invited her to advocate for women’s political participation, and to deliver an address on International Women’s Day. She also set up a blog, The Tig, covering lifestyle, travel and beauty.
Marriage to Prince Harry spells the end of Meghan’s acting career. Shortly before their engagement was announced, she released a statement saying she would be leaving Suits, and a few months before that, closed down her blog. But life as a royal will not mean converting to a “lady who lunches”.
Instead, as she explained to the BBC, she is itching to get stuck into the humanitarian work, both in the UK and around the world, that is a central part of the role.
According to a clearly-besotted Harry, it was love at first sight for him when he first clapped eyes on the actress. And Piers Morgan claims that Meghan confessed to him after that first meeting that Harry had been “bombarding” her with texts.
Arguably the most popular royal and ever the iconoclast, Harry spent much of his 20s playing the field.
In 2012, he said in an interview that the challenge of finding a partner was, for him, “not so much searching for someone to fulfil the role, but obviously, you know, finding someone that would be willing to take it on’’.He has had a couple of high-profile relationships before meeting Meghan, but neither had what it took to survive under the intense pressure and white glare of scrutiny that is very much a feature of the life into which he was born. Chelsy Davy, a blonde Zimbabwean heiress whom Harry dated on and off between 2004 and 2011, told the Press that the experience of being his girlfriend had been “crazy and scary and uncomfortable”. She added: “It’s not a life for me”.
And Cressida Bonas, the blue-blooded beauty he romanced between 2012 and 2014, seemed to escape gratefully from the media circus when their relationship ended. “She’s not a tough cookie at all,” her brother told the London Evening Standard. “She’s a very sensitive, sweet girl.”
Perhaps that explains why, when Harry’s relationship with Markle hit the headlines last year, he was robust in his desire to protect her, instructing Kensington Palace to release a statement: “Some of it has been hidden from the public — the nightly legal battles to keep defamatory stories out of papers; her mother having to struggle past photographers in order to get to her front door; the attempts of reporters and photographers to gain illegal entry to her home and the calls to police that followed; the substantial bribes offered by papers to her ex-boyfriend; the bombardment of nearly every friend, co-worker and loved one in her life,” the statement, which pleaded for privacy, read.
It’s significant, too, that Prince Harry was introduced to Meghan by a mutual friend, rather than them meeting on the high-society party scene, far away from Mahiki nightclub — (a favourite of public school poshos and the Prince’s regular haunt in his 20s.)
And that the world they inhabited during the early days of their courtship was one in which they spent time getting to know each other during “long walks” and quiet nights-in.
It’s a new image for Harry, who in his bachelor days flirted with scandal on several occasions, once being photographed naked during a bender in Las Vegas. Meghan, who is three years older than Harry, is an accomplished woman — a proper grown up. And his betrothal to her marks the playboy Prince’s coming of age.