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In the days leading up to Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the crown’s publicity machine went into offense mode, portraying the Duchess of Sussex as a bullying boss and superficial magpie who donned earrings gifted to her by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi prince who had dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi killed in 2018, to a state dinner that same year. These — to my mind, blatant — attempts at damage control betrayed the palace’s fear of what the Megxiteers, who gave up their royal duties in March 2020, might reveal in their much-anticipated conversation with Winfrey. It was a fear that, after the airing of CBS’ Oprah With Meghan and Harry, now appears to have been wholly justified.
Set in a lush but painstakingly tended garden belonging to a “friend,” Meghan and Harry gave Winfrey the kind of interview that’ll be talked about for years to come. A visibly pregnant Meghan wore a black dress with white floral embroidery and Winfrey a pastel-pink sweater, endowing the two-hour interview with a kind of California casualness that belied the many upsetting and emotional revelations to follow.
Air date: Mar 07, 2021
Focused on Meghan in its first half and featuring the couple in its second, the conversation came just shy of scorched-earth — addressing, among other things, the alleged lack of support Meghan got when she went to the palace with her persistent suicidal ideations; the denial of security protection for the Sussexes’ child, Archie; and the royals’ apparent prenatal concerns over the skin tone of Meghan and Harry’s progeny, which flabbergasted the usually unflappable Winfrey.
Even before Meghan and Harry began drawing their own parallels to Diana, the comparisons (and contrasts) were clear. In hindsight, Diana’s marriage to Charles was doomed because she didn’t understand the “invisible contracts” that governed life within Buckingham Palace — that her husband wouldn’t be faithful, that she was supposed to dim her own light so she wouldn’t outshine Charles, that she shouldn’t talk to the press about anything resembling her real feelings. Part of the power of Meghan’s interview came from her willingness to lay out what those contracts were: If she didn’t speak out, even to correct falsehoods, she’d be protected by the palace officials. In one of her few over-rehearsed lines, Meghan compared herself to The Little Mermaid — a girl who falls for a prince, at the cost of her voice.
Unfortunately, according to Meghan, those invisible contracts didn’t apply to her. “They were willing to lie to protect other members of the family,” she said, “but they were not willing to tell the truth to support me and my husband.” That lack of support, Meghan noted, even extended to her requests for assistance with her mental health struggles: In an important and distressing segment, the Duchess of Sussex emphasized both the difficulty of asking for help in the first place and the palace’s prioritization of its reputation over the continued suffering of one of its most prominent and vulnerable members. “I thought it would have solved everything for everyone,” she said heartbreakingly about her imagined death. Even more devastating was Meghan’s memory of attending a glitzy event with Harry shortly after revealing her self-harming thoughts to him, because she feared what she might do to herself if she were alone.
It’s likely no coincidence that Meghan reached out to a fellow Black woman for such an intimate and wide-ranging interview. Winfrey was at the top of her game as she drew from the Sussexes a measure of how race has affected their relationship, from the tabloid vilification of Meghan for the same things they praised in Kate (like eating avocado) to the crown changing its own rules to ensure that Archie, the first child of color born to the royal family, would be denied the title of “prince.”
Though neither Meghan nor Harry were explicit about it, both drew a distinction between interpersonal niceness — Meghan was apparently treated so well by Elizabeth that the queen reminded her of her own grandmother — and institutional inertia, with systems perpetuating the status quo, including racist dynamics. The Sussexes admit that every member of the royal family was welcoming to Meghan, but also allege that the Windsors did little to nothing when it came to countering the racism within the British press, lest they themselves lose the favor of royal watchers.
The Windsors and their press office will likely spend the next several weeks countering Meghan’s challenging of the tabloid record. (To name just two points: Meghan says she didn’t make Kate cry shortly before the Sussexes’ wedding, but that it was the other way around; and the queen wasn’t blindsided by Megxit but had been informed of the plan when it was hatched two years prior.) With so many narratives to revise, it’s no wonder the interview contained little filler, with lighter bits concerning the baby to come.
While it’s no surprise that Meghan came across as relatable — a naive outsider who made the mistake of assuming the queen doesn’t really expect her grandson’s girlfriends to curtsy for her (she does) — it’s shocking how relatively open Harry was about his family, sharing his current estrangement from his brother and father and wondering aloud who among his “trapped” clan has contemplated suicide.
It would surprise no one if, after this barn-burner of an interview, the royal family’s favorability ratings plummeted to their lowest since Diana’s death. But Meghan isn’t Diana. Unlike Charles’ onetime teenage bride, the former actress got to live three-and-a-half decades of a relatively normal life before marrying Harry, building a crucial support system and a strong sense of self. Unfortunately, the British monarchy seems no less sclerotic than it was in the 1990s, when it was caught flat-footed in response to Diana’s distress, and then her death. No wonder, then, that Harry says he’s most delighted by his son when the one-year-old is on the back of his bike or on a beach, enjoying a freedom he has the luxury of taking for granted.
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