The opening moments of Prince Harry’s appearance on a May episode of Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast give us good insight into the royal’s new life as a public figure in the US. You get the impression that the Duke of Sussex was still settling into his seat when he casually asks his host, “What do you think about Joe Rogan’s comments [about vaccines]?” He’s referring to Rogan’s inane advice to young men not to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
Shepard somewhat dodges the question. For Shepard, the comments are “ridiculous, obviously,” but he sees where Rogan is coming from. “[Rogan’s position is] ‘I fucking call fights. I’m an MMA announcer. I’m not Fauci,’” Shepard says. He concludes that he agrees “with both sides.” Harry pushes back: “[Rogan] says, ‘Don’t listen to me,’ but it’s like, well, Don’t say that.”
The exchange sets up the rest of the episode as a sort of laid-back chat — Harry comes off as unguarded and off-the-cuff, your smart friend riffing on current news stories. Only it’s not your smart friend — it’s Prince Harry, a figure who’s been in the spotlight since he was born. He’s accustomed to being the most-watched person in the room even without a camera present. So it’s hard to imagine he didn’t know the microphone was on, that the show wasn’t already rolling when he started his riffing. But he pulls off the unfiltered vibe in a smooth and unassuming way. And it’s this casual cool that is the story of Prince Harry’s reinvention right now.
Harry has been in the news because he’s an executive producer (and central figure) alongside Oprah, in a new docuseries about mental health on Apple TV+, called The Me You Can’t See. He’s on the cover of People magazine for it. And this week, the docuseries is following up its five episodes with “a special town hall” featuring Harry, Oprah, Glenn Close, and experts who will continue the conversation the show started on mental health.
On The Me You Can’t See, Harry is compelling, charming, and heartbreaking. He is forthcoming about details of the by-now-familiar story of how he and Meghan Markle left life as working royals to move to the US. He becomes emotional frequently — as he did when he told Oprah that Meghan didn’t act on her suicidal ideation because she didn’t want him to lose another woman he loved.
He is relatable, too, asserting that, “like so many people my age, I know that I’m not going to get from my family what I need” (same, my guy). The 36-year-old royal speaks with authority and precision on mental health and trauma. He is unvarnished when it comes to talking about the dark periods of his life.
Watching him at work in The Me You Can’t See, it’s hard not to admire what he’s pulled off: a total and complete pivot to a new kind of social currency. After all, Harry was “cool” in a very different way not long ago. He had a reputation for being a “bad boy,” the iconoclast within a stodgy family, the wild one who takes it too far, or parties naked in Vegas, or...whatever this is.
But in a moment still in search of new definitions for masculinity — ones that do not rely on machismo and bravado and showing off — somehow, Prince Harry is here to deliver. He’s out here evangelizing therapy and the virtues of getting help when you need it. He makes taking care of your mental health seem like the in thing to do. He’s joining the ranks of men like Nick Jonas, Michael Phelps, and Dax Shepard himself who are embracing a refreshing approach to their own mental health struggles.
Before his move to the US, Prince Harry’s identity was deeply intertwined with life as a working royal. That meant the public's engagement with his choices was limited to that realm: Was he doing the job, or was he failing at it? This is not to say people didn’t have strong feelings about his identity, only that he had little say in the matter.
But with the move to California, Harry’s celebrity posture has changed. He has comfortably slipped into a decidedly American version of celebrity, relying on a more personal story to grow his platform. He invoked the tragedies of his past to powerful effect. He shared that his years of unhealthy alcohol and drug use were the darkest of his life. When he and Meghan launched their nonprofit, Archewell, they wrote, “I am my mother’s son. And I am our son’s mother. Together we bring you Archewell.” The story may be familiar, but they are the ones doing the telling. The power has radically shifted.
In his new mode of celebrity, Harry’s not exactly reimagining the wheel. We’re living in a potent moment of the multihyphenate celebrity — Barack Obama makes podcasts with Bruce Springsteen (?) while Michelle Obama makes Netflix shows (??); Beyoncé sells athleisure (???); the Clintons are writing novels (????). Harry and Meghan have a well-established trail to follow, and they’re doing so enthusiastically (including a Spotify deal and a Netflix one, because why not!).
Piece their moves together and you’ve got the makings of an all-encompassing “brand,” the kind every celebrity is expected to have now. And with this type of public profile, the expectations are that you are to be judged on your public choices. Who are you aligning yourself with? What shows are you appearing on? What are the subject matters you want to elevate over others?
And this is why the Rogan comment is important. The MMA announcer/podcast host/professional “just-asking-questions” guy has, for myriad reasons only some of which are under his control, become shorthand for an old-school story of masculinity. He is understood as rugged and assertive, a tough guy’s tough guy.
In other words, Rogan is a natural foil to the story Harry is trying to tell right now. Even the prince’s choice of media is telling. Before his Armchair Expert appearance, his significant sit-down interviews were with James Corden and Oprah, interviewers who reach broad audiences. Turning to Shepard, a figure whose public identity is propelled by vulnerability about addiction and mental health issues, signals that Harry wants to be included in the conversation about changing masculinity.
The prince is building a public narrative on the idea that the old ways of being a man are not working. He presents himself as living proof that flying an Apache helicopter is cool, but facing your inner demons is cooler. ●