It was the television event of the year. Last Sunday, CBS’s Oprah With Meghan and Harry proved to be a perfect storm of entertainment — it had everything! — somehow surpassing the colossal hype it had drummed up, all while effectively (and somehow respectfully) dragging the monarchy. For the first time since admitting she was “not really OK” in 2019 and then leaving the royal family in 2020, Meghan Markle was doing a televised interview, now with America’s beloved media demigod (and her new neighbor). Oprah Winfrey is no stranger to high-traffic, high-profile interviews (her 1993 broadcast with Michael Jackson still holds the record for most-watched TV interview of all time), but this was, according to her, a career personal best.
But though this may have been Meghan’s first sit-down interview post–royal life, it technically wasn’t Harry’s. On Feb. 26, a week and a half after the Oprah interview was first announced, the Duke of Sussex made a surprise appearance on The Late Late Show With James Corden. The 17-minute-long segment showed the two British expats touring Los Angeles via an open-top double-decker bus, with stops at the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air mansion — where Corden FaceTimed with a glowing Meghan — and then at a military-style obstacle course.
Harry spoke candidly about his early days dating Meghan, Archie’s first word (crocodile!), virtues of The Crown (his dream casting is Damian Lewis), Zooming with his grandparents, and the couple’s future plans. It checked the boxes for a quintessential talk show interview — funny anecdotes and a take-home message: He had chosen to step back, not down, from royal duties and regardless his “life is public service” wherever he may be. The messaging was well-timed: Just one week prior, Buckingham Palace announced that the pair would officially not be returning as working royals.
The appearance on Corden’s show — offering far less formality than a typical royal interview — was a means to generate goodwill and familiarity with his new, American audience. And it seemed to work: The video already has over 18 million views. (To give some perspective, Late Night’s “Seth [Meyers] and Rihanna Go Day Drinking” has had 16.6 million views since airing in June 2019.) Meanwhile, early numbers indicate that Oprah’s interview with the Sussexes had at least 17 million viewers who tuned into the live event. The CBS News TikTok account amassed major traffic from sharing clips of the conversation, including this unaired moment (about the Sussexes being snubbed by the Queen) with over 18 million plays.
Compared to most other living members of the royal family, Prince Harry has always felt a bit looser and game for a laugh, more poised for American celebrity than not. (In 2018, he even teased the opening of a Hamilton song.) Meanwhile, thanks to her stint on Suits, Meghan was already familiar with fame in America, albeit with a much lower profile than she’ll have moving forward.
Still, these two interviews — one dense and dramatic, the other buzzy fluff — officially signal the Sussexes’ arrival as American celebrities while providing insight into why that lifestyle suits them, and what we can expect from the couple moving forward.
"What I was seeing was history repeating itself. But more, perhaps. Or definitely far more dangerous, because then you add race in, and you add social media in,” Prince Harry told Winfrey. “And when I'm talking about history repeating itself, I'm talking about my mother.”
The specter of Princess Diana, her experiences with the royal family, and the tragedy of her death have always hovered over Meghan and Harry, both as individuals and together. They frequently find ways to pay tribute to her and, on Sunday, she was referenced repeatedly while Meghan wore an old bracelet of hers. After being cut off financially from the royal family, Harry cited his inheritance from his mother as the only way he could afford their new home. And although the prince believes Diana would hate to see how things have evolved (“I think she would feel very angry with how this has panned out, and very sad”), she might have been more keen on their actual move than you think; the late princess reportedly had plans to move abroad, and more specifically, to California.
On a practical level, California might actually be the perfect place for them.
With shared custody of her sons, she wanted them to experience life there, according to her former butler. He said she listed the country’s merits: “Nobody’s judgmental here in America, you don't have the class system, you don't have the establishment.”
Whether or not Diana uttered those words verbatim, it’s worth noting the naïveté behind the sentiment. Americans are actually quite judgmental of others, and according to Scientific American, they’re quick to deduce someone else’s social class, even if they don’t realize it. Like any other nation, Britain certainly has its merits (cue Hugh Grant’s speech from Love Actually), America has its flaws (cue...pretty much any newscast), and both countries are incubators of injustice and racism.
Still, while many Black Britons, especially Black British women, can relate to the racism experienced by Meghan Markle — and that’s no small matter — the life of a British royal is clearly its own bizarre circus. It’s no surprise Diana believed an American life would be different and arguably better — freer — for her.
On a practical level, California might actually be the perfect place for them. While the UK boasts some of the toughest data privacy laws in the world, California has the strictest in the country — a clear benefit of their new home. Even better is how the Golden State has a series of laws governing paparazzi, including those that prohibit high-speed car chases — much like the one that killed Harry’s mother — and that protect celebrities’ kids from unwanted photos and harassment.
And while the paparazzi are known to bend the rules, the Sussexes aren’t afraid to take action. They’ve both won lawsuits against British tabloids recently. They’ve been successful on US soil too: When a drone photographed Archie from above a private backyard — an operation that seems illegal for at least two reasons — the couple swiftly took legal action, received an apology, as well as partial reimbursement of legal fees. Furthermore, due to their transatlantic profiles, they also may have the option of suing in the UK, even if the offending publisher is American. Meghan and Harry’s litigiousness has consistently worked in their favor and might just dissuade the local paparazzi from overstepping boundaries in the future.
Meanwhile, Californian civilians are more likely to keep their cool — and distance — if they happen to spot the Sussexes roaming freely (an act which they could not do in the UK). On Sunday, Meghan remarked on the difference between celebrity status in the States and what it was like to be in the Queen’s orbit: “I grew up in LA, you see celebrities all the time — this is not the same.”
Harry often says this switching of gears was a way to protect his family, and the need for that is clear. The UK’s racist media coverage and the palace’s idleness led Meghan to contemplate suicide. Even baby Archie wasn’t impervious to attacks; the biracial newborn was likened to a chimpanzee by a BBC commentator, and we now know even Archie’s own extended family had concerns about how dark his skin might be. Even so, given Harry’s mother’s hopes for him to experience California living, perhaps it’s also a way to fulfill a dream that never was.
Even when the Sussexes were working royals, they had a seemingly more American-style approach to handling affairs than their counterparts. Upon launching their own record-breaking Instagram account, @sussexroyal, the couple casually signed off from their inaugural post with their first names instead of their formal titles. Meghan also appears to have personally composed some of the account’s earlier captions, occasionally using American terminology and spelling — perhaps by accident — instead of the British equivalent. As a result, their social media presence came off more informal, authentic, and accessible. (Interestingly, since @sussexroyal was retired, Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton’s Instagram account, @kensingtonroyal, has become warmer and more personal, with videos where Kate speaks directly to the camera. This could be due to the pandemic’s enforced isolation, but the change is still noteworthy.)
Nowadays, a celebrity’s primary vehicle is their life and identity, and the former royals have a hell of a story to launch from.
Meghan and Harry have yet to return to social media in any “verified” capacity (a finsta could theoretically be possible). But in a recent interview with Fast Company about social media reform, the prince revealed they haven’t ruled out an official return: “We will revisit social media when it feels right for us.” And if they do decide to come back, they still have a considerable well of social media savvy to draw from. Before she married into the monarchy, Meghan operated a highly curated lifestyle blog, the Tig (for “those with a hunger for food, travel, fashion & beauty”), as well as a now-deleted personal Instagram — both bursting with the kind of glossy, #inspirational content that puts (organic) food on the table for influencers nationwide. Meanwhile, Harry has been the Windsor with the most modern approach to social media marketing; he often uses humor to bring attention to his causes, as well as the occasional celeb cameo (e.g. Jon Bon Jovi, Ed Sheeran, the Obamas, and, yes, the Queen herself).
The British monarchy is rooted in tradition, feudalism, and protocol, preferring to uphold the status quo, whereas American ideals have become — whether accurate or not — synonymous with ambition and progress. (And in this case, maybe they are pretty accurate: Meghan parlayed a meeting about her collaboration with Smart Works Charity into a chance to guest-edit British Vogue.) Indeed, on the topic of Meghan’s alleged friction with palace staff, Daily Telegraph editor Camilla Tominey told the New Yorker, “I’ve put it down to a clash of cultures, in the sense that she had come from the celebrity world, which is very fast-paced and quite demanding. The royal world is very different—it’s much slower-paced, and hugely hierarchical. In the royal world, it’s ‘What should we do next?’ ‘Well, what did we do last time?’”
And while this certainly isn’t a virtue, the US capitalism-fueled obsession with work culture and productivity might be a good foundation for the former royals to hit the ground running as they make a new start. They already appear to be working more efficiently than they might’ve under the thumb of the royal establishment: Their Archewell Foundation has funded a World Central Kitchen in Dominica, with another soon to come in Puerto Rico.
With all eyes on them, they’ll likely be under scrutiny and forced to prove themselves, but in doing so, they’ll also have a chance to define themselves — something Prince Harry never really had the freedom to do (permanently anyway). To be a former royal living in the United States has no major precedent or protocol — it’s a path they can forge however they like. (Case in point: Diana had been in talks to star alongside Kevin Costner in a sequel of The Bodyguard.)
Meghan and Harry’s former adjacency to the monarchy will of course largely be what lends them their cultural currency. Nowadays, a celebrity’s primary vehicle is their life and identity, and the former royals have a hell of a story to launch from (which might be why they’ve signed with an upscale speaking engagement agency). Some might side-eye them for cashing in on high-profile, lucrative contracts — they’ve already landed deals with Spotify and Netflix — but that feels unfair. For one, they never claimed they wanted to leave the public eye, just the British tabloid circus. (And while America has its share of trash media — and its cruel treatment of stars such as Britney Spears is rightfully criticized — it seems lesser in volume and viciousness; the UK tabloid system is like TMZ on steroids, and notably more racist.) Secondly, after being cut off financially from the monarchy (i.e., the institution that endangered them in the first place...), they have to finance their security somehow. And isn’t it better for uber-rich content producers to be responsible for filling their pockets than taxpayers anyhow?
Still, the novelty and significance of their situation goes beyond ideas of reinvention. “I recall early on, when I first approached [Meghan] in 2018 and she had just joined the royal family,” said Winfrey on CBS This Morning. “[Meghan] said she’d been given advice that it’d be best if she could be 50% less than what she was. And I remember hearing that in 2018, and said specifically to her, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to survive being half of yourself.’” And perhaps what’s most exciting — and I’m sure, for them, relieving — is that the Sussexes are now free to be their authentic selves, undiluted and unencumbered.
While the CBS interview has clearly already created some waves across the pond, it seems unlikely to singlehandedly undo the monarchy, despite the hopes of anti-royalists (if Diana’s bombshell interview with Martin Bashir couldn’t do it, what can?). But perhaps that’s fitting. Winfrey’s conversation with Meghan and Harry read as a debrief, an unloading, but also as a new start; it served as their American coming out. And any lack of meaningful change in the monarchy will only further prove that the Sussexes were right to leave.
“We’re actually on the other side. We’ve actually not just survived but are thriving,” Meghan told Winfrey, as the already-iconic interview wound down. “This is, in some ways, just the beginning for us.” ●