Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, sat for a long talk with Oprah Winfrey.
Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, sat for a long talk with Oprah Winfrey.
When Britain's Prince Harry got married in May 2018 to American actress Meghan Markle — who had found success as a regular on the basic-cable series Suits — they became the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. For a short time, they lived their lives as royals. They did events, they were affiliated with charities and they were — she was, in particular — unceasingly, often brutally, covered by the British press. Her clothes, the way she sat, the personality she supposedly had and her general suitability were under constant scrutiny. And, of course, there was from both the press and the public an undercurrent of racism that was sometimes less "under" and more simply "current." Black women have spoken and written about this again and again, right up until now, and Harry himself decried it in a public statement well before they were married.
In the spring of 2020, they stepped back from that life. They're still officially the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but you don't call them "His/Her Royal Highness" anymore. The couple has relocated to Southern California, where the two now have deals with Netflix and Spotify and a production company called Archewell. They are pursuing a very different kind of unusual life. And they do not ask for permission to do or say things.
That brings us to Sunday's two-hour interview that Meghan alone, and then the couple together, did with Oprah Winfrey, which aired on CBS in prime time. In the days leading up to it, the couple and perhaps others as well seemed to be preparing people to receive it in opposite ways. Harry did a jovial segment with James Corden for late-night television in which he FaceTimed with Meghan and talked warmly about Zoom calls with his grandparents and about how his grandmother — the queen — sent a waffle-maker at Christmas for their son, Archie. (Meghan is currently pregnant with their second child.) At the same time, a fresh flurry of negativity about Meghan appeared in the British press, most prominently an accusation that she "bullied" staff.
What wasn't clear going into Sunday evening was how much there would be in this interview that the royal family — or, more precisely, the larger business enterprise around it, often called The Firm — wouldn't want them to say. Based on the Corden interview, Harry wasn't spoiling for a fight with his grandmother, at least. But once the flood of dirt started to flow about Meghan, it was easy to wonder whether somebody somewhere was nervous about what they might say and was trying to get out ahead of it.
And in the end, the interview was painful and personal and unsparing about the cost of all this to Meghan particularly, and it was not anything the royal family would be excited to have people hear. It wound up being a discussion more profoundly sad than juicy.
Oprah proved quite willing to press for details when an answer was a little ... artificially diplomatic. This was a carefully managed backyard sunlit chat where a pair of expectant parents faced an interviewer who was persistent but also deeply empathetic to them, and where they had two straight hours to get their side of the story on the record. Whether any other sides will emerge remains to be seen.
Here are the major takeaways.
1. Meghan says she had serious and frightening thoughts of suicide during her pregnancy with Archie as she began to understand what the life that lay ahead would really mean, but the institution around the royal family told her she could not get the help she wanted. The most revealing conversation may have been about mental health. Meghan described having serious thoughts of suicide. She approached a senior person working for the royal family who, she says, forbade her from seeking treatment in the way she asked. (A friend of the late Princess Diana, Harry's mother, did offer support.)
2. They're having a girl. You need at least one straight-up headline out of this, right? The headline that doesn't require much detail is that the baby Meghan is due to deliver this summer is, they believe, a girl.
3. Meghan says the royal family declined to make her baby, Archie, a prince or offer him the protection that would come with that title — and expressed concern about his skin color before he was born. Meghan told Oprah that when she was pregnant, the family informed her that they would not make her first child (who turned out to be Archie) a prince or princess, and the child would not get the protection that accompanies that title. She says she received no clear reason why and stopped short, just barely, of saying it was because she's Black. But she says there were also discussions (with Harry, not with her) in which members of the family expressed concerns over what the baby's skin color might be. She didn't say which family members, even when prodded, saying she thought revealing that would be "damaging" to them. Harry, too, later acknowledged that at least one such discussion had taken place, but he wouldn't offer any specifics. Not sharing who was behind these discussions of the baby's skin color was the firmest boundary the couple drew.
4. They both cite security concerns as having played a huge role in their choices. Harry and Meghan said their hands were forced with regard to moving to California because after they initially moved to Canada (a Commonwealth country), they were informed by The Firm that all their security was being taken away. This left them exposed at a time when, Harry says, the Daily Mail had revealed where they were living. They moved to the United States and took advantage of the hospitality of Tyler Perry, who could offer them safe harbor until they got settled. Harry also says that he was cut off financially by the royal family in early 2020 and that he and Meghan have been able to get by because of what his mother left him — he even speculated that in some way, she "saw this coming." And he added that the deals he and Meghan now have with Netflix and Spotify are in part to meet their ongoing security needs.
5. Harry described what he called the "invisible contract" between the royal family and the tabloid press, in which currying favor with particular reporters leads to more favorable press. While this might seem self-evident, Harry used it to explain what he called "how scared they [in the family] are of the tabloids turning on them" and said that he believes this is partially why the family and The Firm failed to offer support to him when it came to bad press. Repeatedly, Harry and Meghan both said that the biggest issue that led to their departure from their duties was this same lack of support from within the family and the institution. No one would stand up for them, they said, which Harry found galling, especially when Meghan was suffering racist harassment that earned her the public support of more than 70 members of Parliament — but not the royal family. Meghan summed it up starkly: "They were willing to lie to protect other members of the family" — she did not say who — "but they weren't willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband."
6. Meghan says a story about her making her sister-in-law, the former Kate Middleton, cry was quite the opposite. The closest thing to a refutation of specific tabloid tales — as well as the only real revelation about the behavior of the other royals — came when Oprah and Meghan spoke about reports that just before her wedding, Meghan had made Kate (Prince William's wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) cry during an argument about flower girl dresses. According to Meghan, the truth was quite the opposite, but the palace refused to let anyone refute it. She says that Kate actually made her cry — though she says the idea that it was over flower girl dresses is accurate — and that Kate later apologized and even sent her flowers.
7. Harry's relationships with his father and brother seem ... complicated. Harry was quick to speak warmly about his relationship with his grandmother, even now. But long pauses when he was asked to talk about his relationships with his father and his brother, William, suggested more tension. Of his father's lack of support when he and Meghan felt so miserable, he said, "I feel really let down. Because he's been through something similar — he knows what pain feels like — and Archie's his grandson." At one point, he says, Prince Charles even stopped taking his calls.
8. They both say they did not blindside the family and never planned to quit their roles entirely; they wanted only to step back. Harry and Meghan said that they never intended to entirely leave their roles with the royal family. They say they wanted not to be senior members but to play the smaller roles that many other less prominent royals play. They told Oprah they did not get the support they needed to make that possible.
9. Harry says that he was "trapped" within the system of the royal family and that his relatives are too. Oprah asked him about stories that present Meghan as a manipulator who coerced him into leaving the family. Would he have left if not for her, she asked. He spun this question in precisely the opposite direction. He would probably not have left if not for Meghan, he acknowledges. He says he was trapped. He says he didn't realize how trapped he was, and it was meeting her that ultimately let him understand that he wanted something different.
10. They got married before they got married. It may have been an early sign of what was to come that Harry and Meghan, seemingly overwhelmed by the public spectacle of their wedding, wound up getting married three days early in what Meghan said was a backyard ceremony, although who knows what that looks like for these folks? She says that those are the vows they keep framed. It seems like for them, that wasn't just their legal wedding but their true one as well.