INTERVIEW

Meghan Markle "excites controversy" — Andrew Morton on the galvanizing power of the People's Duchess

The biographer spoke to Salon about Meghan's rocky ride with royalty and the side the world hasn't seen yet

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published November 4, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Meghan Markle at Global Citizen Live on September 25, 2021 in New York City. (NDZ/Star Max/GC Images)
Meghan Markle at Global Citizen Live on September 25, 2021 in New York City. (NDZ/Star Max/GC Images)

It started out as a fairytale made for a Netflix rom-com — the beautiful American and the prince who fall in love and get married. But the sequel has been far more interesting, as the royal couple and their expanding family leave the stifling shackles of the empire and carve a new life in, of all places, Hollywood.

The story of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, more familiarly known as Harry and Meghan, isn't quite so simple or sunny, of course. There are family tragedies, estrangements, scathing rumors and a hefty dose of racism. But as royal family chronicler Andrew Morton, what makes their saga unique is the couple's sincere and strong bond.

In his updated version of "Meghan and the Unmasking of the Monarchy," the prolific biographer and author of "Diana: Her True Story —in Her Own Words" follows the life of the girl who once worked at a soft serve place called Humphrey Yogart ,to becoming the daughter-in-law of the future king of England, through to her current incarnation as a California mother, producer and dropper of bombshells to Oprah.

Salon spoke to Morton via phone recently about the behind-the-scenes intrigues the world didn't see, how "Megxit" really unfolded, what might lie ahead for Prince Andrew, and why we keep being fascinated with this family.

This conversation has been ledited for length and clarity.

Watching Meghan's public trajectory, it's hard not to make comparisons with Diana.

Plus ca change. Everything changes. Everything stays the same. Meghan's talking about her sense of isolation, her loneliness, and her despair. Diana, similarly, was talking about the fact that she just felt that she was living in a hostile environment. The difference — the big difference — was that Diana and Charles effectively separated pretty early on in their marriage and went their separate ways.

Whereas, with Meghan and Harry, the one thing you can't say about them is that they're not a genuinely loving couple.

The parallels between Meghan and Diana are certainly stunning. I was thinking also with regard to their relationships with the press.

With all that to be said, it's not about individual members of the press. It's about how [Harry] feels in relation to what happened to his mother. I don't want to speak for Prince Harry, but he will tell you, if you ask him the question, that he feels that sweating, the panic, the claustrophobia, when he's faced with the cameras.

One of the things that intrigued me is he's admitted that even going back to London makes him very agitated. I think he has a lot of work to do on himself in order to come to terms with his mother's death. That's not something lashing out at the press is going to achieve.


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There's a part in the book where you ask, "Who would accommodate whom? Who would blink first?" It feels, when we think about the royal family, that it always comes down to that, and it always comes down to the outsider to blink first. I wonder, when you think of it in those very reductive terms, did anybody blink first, or did both sides walk away from that showdown?

That's a very good point. I think that the royal family blinked first and tried to accommodate them. Whatever they tried to do, they couldn't accommodate them. You have to ask yourself, how much of their decision to leave is predicated on the fact that Harry himself, finds it very difficult performing in public? All that to be said, they have swapped one microscope for another.

Meghan is coming from this world that is so different. She's come up against challenges with the British press, with the royal family, with social media, with her own family, that no other person who has married into that family has had to deal with. Was it always going to go down like this?

You've got this father-daughter battle, which has been made to seem like it's the daughter versus the media, but it's really the daughter versus her father. If her friends hadn't spoken to People magazine and talked about the letter, Mr. Markle wouldn't have released the letter. I do find they are unrelentingly hostile to paparazzi, but they care deeply about the optics to do with them. So the first question people of her team will ask is, "What pictures are you using?"

You talk about that example where the press were taking pictures at Wimbledon and she reacted as if it was pictures of her. The idea that it could be about someone else almost didn't seem possible.

I found the irony of that was that she'd been there three years before, 2016. She was photographed by the Getty photographer, and nobody knew who she was. They were more interested in Anna Wintour. How things change.

You also lay out in the book some of the misconceptions around her, around her own "pedigree." This idea that she was just this interloper, this outsider, this American descended from enslaved people. Do you think that those kinds of conceptions hurt her reputation in the U.K.? Or was that something that actually might have made her seem more sympathetic? 

What I found shocking about all this is that initially on that May day in 2018, they couldn't have been more beloved and admitted, as it were, into the British family. They were seen as the face of the future.

One of the things I found shocking was just how quickly it turned. I compared that as well to Diana, how quickly it turned with Diana as well. When they were both struggling to cope with just their life, the image of them was of, two women who were bossing people around. Diana was called a fiend and a monster. Meghan went from Duchess Delightful to Duchess Difficult. And that narrative stuck.

There's that famous interview after Archie was born, and she breaks down a little. You talk about that, how galvanizing that moment was to see her that vulnerable, or in the eyes of some, manipulative and playing to the camera. It seems like there's almost no way to not interpret this family. They become a litmus test for whomever is watching them and observing them. They are such a reflection of the public mood at any given time.

There is that knee-jerk cynicism. People talk about this endlessly, that in the old days, the Democrats and Republicans could work out a compromise. Now there's just no way of any kind of compromise. Everybody immediately goes into their silos, no matter what the issue might be.

In the microcosm, we've seen the same with Meghan. That she excites controversy. For the right, she's too preachy. For the left, she's got too many high heels. She's too articulate. She's too opinionated. She's very different to the kinds of women who have joined the royal family over the years. And that includes Diana. They have been, to a degree, molded and accepted the system. In fairness to Meghan, she accepted the system. She changed. She was becoming a British citizen. She was baptized in the Church of England. She gave up all the social media accounts that she had.

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Maybe anyone who joins that family thinks, "I can handle it." I look at her and Harry in contrast with the very dutiful, toe-the-line narrative, certainly from this side of the Atlantic anyway, we see about William and Kate. It does feel extremely unprecedented, or certainly unprecedented in our lifetimes in a way, to turn your back on it all. Yet to walk into something completely different. This isn't a quiet retreat at all.

It's not a retreat. It's not an impulsive retreat, either, as I've recently discovered. Harry, six months after their wedding, was in detailed discussions with Oprah in a London hotel and several of the media executives, talking about what eventually became "The Me You Can't See," and talking about his own struggles with mental health.

It's not like he wasn't going to do an Oprah interview. Whether he was inside or outside of the royal family, he was going to do that one.

You say when you get to that part of the narrative, how few people knew what they were cooking up. How few people knew what they were planning, in terms of the Oprah interview and the move.

I think that the narrative that they'd like to project is that they arrived in Los Angeles with a couple of suitcases and a cuddly toy and that was it. I think the reality is that they've been planning this move to Hollywood for some time, not necessarily where they were going to live.

But Meghan had been in talks with David Furnish, Elton John's husband, about "Pearl." They had conversations with Jeffrey Katzenberg, about his streaming service Quibi. Harry was very keen on Hollywood and was in conversations with Oprah Winfrey, secret conversations with her, way back in December 2018, whilst they were still about to move into Frogmore, taking on Commonwealth positions and so on. So whilst the plan wasn't fully worked out, I wouldn't suggest that they were babes in the woods.

Now they've set on this path that's almost normalized. They're parents of two kids. They live in L.A. They have a growing empire of their own that they're building, as "lesser royals," or whatever.

Prince Harry's probably got more bathrooms to choose from than the Queen.

I'm sure he's doing fine. I'm sure their children will be just fine as well, and live to be royalty in California.

I think what people haven't really taken onboard is that Lilibet is going to be the first ever American princess. Archie was born in the U.K. There's some debate about whether she's going to be christened in the U.S. or the U.K. If she's christened in the U.S., then I think America will embrace her as an American princess.

It's a whole new world. And then 15 years from now . . .

For the kids, it's going to be unique.

What happens now to the monarchy? Has Meghan disrupted it, or is it business as usual?

I think the irony is that Prince Charles and Prince William saw themselves as being the leaders of the slimmed down monarchy. In a way, Harry and Meghan have done them a favor by jumping ship, rather than being asked to walk the gangplank. They would've had a supportive role, and their position would've been progressively lower down the pecking order, as Louis, and Charlotte, and George, all came into maturity.

It's rather like Prince Andrew, who was at one point second in line for the throne. Now he's way down the order. Meghan and Harry have got a generation to really make an impact. Then afterwards, it'll be, "Oh, Meghan who?"

But we'll still care about Lilibet.

The very fact that they can go to New York and have the Mayor and the Governor pay court is a sign of their international prestige. And the fact that they're known by their first names, like Madonna, is also a sign of their popularity. It's going to be very interesting to see how they carve out a career without mining themselves, which is what they've always objected to. And so far, they've mined themselves with that Oprah interview, with their only one Spotify conversation.

Harry has his book coming out. But after that, it's going to be a question of, as television and film producers, do they have knack of picking out the scripts like "Squid Game"? Harry and Meghan were very fortunate to be signed up at a time when these streaming services were eager to sign up big names, because they've got the global reach, and these are global institutions. It remains to be seen whether they'll be worth the money they'll be paid.

Andrew, I have to ask, you mentioned Prince Andrew. What do you think his role is now going forward as a royal? Where do you think he ends up in the public face of the monarchy?

Well, he's the most unpopular member of the royal family, according to a latest U.K. poll. His relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, whether or not he had sex with Virginia Giuffre, the fact is that he remained friends with a convicted pedophile and stayed at his house for five days. It's a mess. It's an unmitigated mess. His royal career is over. I think the best thing he should be doing is as a land manager of Balmoral, or something working for the family firm as an executive, overseeing the works on the farms. I think his royal career is pretty well caput.

I think people never stop being fascinated with this family because we see all our family dynamics played out in these sibling dramas, in-law dramas, mental health problems, postpartum problems, petty rivalries and embarrassing relatives.

What I took from this book was this sense that Meghan and Harry have a real partnership and real respect for each other. Whatever comes next, remains to be seen. But they're in it together, and that's interesting to watch.

They're not going separate ways. Most people would bet the farm on the fact that they're in for life. It's not about monarchy. As you say, it's about families.

 

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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