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Royal Flush

While the British royal family has an entire apparatus devoted to maintaining the status quo and managing those who threaten it, as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry proved in a Sunday interview with Oprah, they have the tools to take down that scaffolding

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It all happened so fast: It was only roughly five years ago that Meghan Markle, then a prosperous if moderately famous actress on the long-running USA Network program Suits, began hanging out with some dude named Prince Harry. It was less than three years ago that the two of them beamed at one another at the Windsor Castle altar and sat side by side en route to their wedding reception, Meghan flashing a ring that belonged to her new husband’s late mother, Princess Diana, and Harry having changed from his military formalwear into a tux. By May 2019, this royal couple had welcomed a son, Archie, with the release of a moving photo shoot that celebrated both baby Archie’s diverse heritage and Meghan’s postpartum body positivity. And in January of last year, Meghan and Harry made the announcement that would rock their tiny, huge world right off its axis, abdicating their official “senior” royal duties (oh, and moving to Canada). It was a declaration of sorta-independence that almost immediately curdled into something closer to straight-up estrangement from what the couple refers to as “the institution” and “the firm” but which most people know better as “the royal family,” Harry’s own.

“After many months of reflection and internal discussions,” the couple wrote in an Instagram statement at the time, “we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution.” Instead, they’ve been moving further and further outside of it, both geographically and philosophically, settling near Santa Barbara and trading escalating barbs with the British royals in a highly public manner. Their every relationship—Harry’s with his stiff-upper-lipped older brother, the future King William; Meghan’s with her dissembling father—has been scrutinized relentlessly and globally; the couple has taken some of the more unscrupulous UK publications to court and won. Recently, when there was a sudden micro-surge in stories describing Meghan as a high-maintenance bully, there was a reason: an upcoming, old-school tell-all interview between the duke, the duchess, and Oprah Winfrey, a woman long considered (even by the British press!) to be television’s queen.

Speaking out in a gripping two-hour prime-time event on Sunday night that was engineered by Oprah’s Harpo Productions and licensed to CBS, Meghan—who was joined halfway through by the sixth-in-line-to-the-British-throne Harry—chatted with Oprah and, thus, the world about the couple’s wedding; their chickens; her acute mental health crisis; her silence; their safety; her husband’s beloved granny Her Royal Majesty the Queen; and the absolute HR nightmare that became and remains an international incident. They shared stories about the regressive, racist things they’d heard from both inside Buckingham Palace and beyond; they gushed over the baby girl they’re expecting this summer. It was a riveting piece of television that felt both retro in its very existence (and ratings!) yet also of the moment in its lush, righteous urgency. And at its heart, it highlighted Meghan’s simultaneous status as an outsider and an insider to the machinations of influence and power.

Already hyper-familiar with the unwritten rules and open secrets and strange economies of the that’s show biz, baby! Hollywood circuit, Meghan admitted to having the dawning realization that she didn’t know the half of it. “I grew up in L.A., where you see celebrities all the time,” Meghan remarked to Oprah on Sunday night, justifying why she hadn’t quite grasped just what she was getting into by marrying England’s second-born prince. Now she knows: “The royals? It’s not the same,” she said. “It’s a whole different ball game.” Meghan’s longtime proximity to celebrity led her to initially overlook the enormity of what it means to marry into monarchy, in her telling. But, ultimately, it also gave her the experience, network, and tools to assert real leverage against these extreme distortions of power.

The duke and duchess’s TV interview comes on the heels of several recent projects that have revisited the way society’s institutions, from the media to the courts to the banks, handle successful and idiosyncratic women. In one of them, a Hulu documentary about Britney Spears, New York Times critic (and friend of The Ringer) Wesley Morris points out the structural context of the singer’s rise and fall. “What can you say about misogyny?” he asks. “There’s a whole infrastructure to support it. And when it’s time for people to come, in a misogynistic culture, for a woman, there’s a whole apparatus ready to do it.” Watching Oprah read off vile headlines and recount mocking nicknames and whispers to a visibly wincing Meghan on Sunday night, it was impossible not to be reminded of this point.

The monarchy’s version of that ready-to-go apparatus is a truly well-oiled machine, one operated by a gleeful shit-starting segment of the press that manufactures warped fun-house-mirror versions of reality. (On Tuesday, bad ol’ Piers Morgan interviewed Meghan’s father, Thomas.) In Meghan’s case, this meant coverage that ran the gamut from rude to racist, and it sometimes meant being lectured not to leave her house for weeks on end by handlers who clucked that she was already overexposed in the media. It also meant constant comparisons between her and her outwardly serene sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, who is now often held up as a graceful paragon of the ideal royal wife but who was once a major target of snickers herself: “Waity Katie” is still one of the more cutting nicknames of all time.

In 1995, Diana Spencer, another woman who had married into the Windsor line of royalty and found herself at the cruel heart of such infrastructure, gave a televised interview that made similar waves as Sunday night’s presentation, both in England and stateside. Diana was already separated from Prince Charles by the time she famously spoke up about her dreadful experience being his wife, and she told interviewer Martin Bashir why: “There were three of us in the marriage,” she said, referring to her husband’s mistress, but also to living under the tyranny of being throupled by the queen. As a woman who had gone from a teenaged preschool teacher to a central figure in the monarchy, Diana’s perspective had always been particularly compelling (and upsetting) to the public. Unfairly or not, she genuinely seemed like a protagonist in a daydream or fairy tale: the regular gal, suddenly thrust close to the throne. The juxtaposition between her warm personality and the iciness of the institution emphasized both.

When Diana died in a car accident two years later while being chased by paparazzi in Paris, her brother Earl, in eulogy, sharply described her parenting ethos: She wanted to raise sons, he said, whose “souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly.” Ever since they made their relationship public, Harry and Meghan have talked about wanting to implement this sort of vibe for their growing family, too.

Like Diana, Meghan felt to many like a breath of fresh air when she joined the royals: an outsider untethered to that strange, staid family orthodoxy; a stylish, progressive bright light. (She was 36 when she married Harry; Diana had been only 20 when she wed Charles.) Neither woman set out to sever connections to the past; they just sought a healthier present and a more thoughtful future, both for themselves and the people they love. But in both cases, the powers that be—from many family members themselves to the functionaries tasked with managing them to the ruthless tabloid machine and all its scheming backchannels—were uninterested in, and even threatened by, the idea of transformative change. To them, the roaring vibrancy of these women was something to be stamped out, never stoked.

But while it took Diana much of her life to understand and break away, ever so briefly, from all this, Meghan came to her marriage equipped with the kind of tools that can tinker with society’s scaffolding until it becomes less of a constraint and more of a support structure. And she knew how to use them: As a tween girl, Meghan spoke truth to corporations. As a performer, she learned the importance of making sure as many people as possible get a chance to hear what you have to say. So what better way to fight a foreign monarchy than with the help of a domestic regal institution, Oprah? When you’re playing a whole different ball game, you have to bring in the aces, after all.

The interview was enough to prompt a response from Buckingham Palace, which issued a Tuesday statement on behalf of the queen. It called Harry, Meghan, and Archie “much loved family members,” said that the whole extended family was “saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been,” and noted that the stories the couple told Oprah—particularly the ones that involved race—were “concerning.” But it wouldn’t be a monarchical memo if it didn’t also contain a line that would launch palace intrigue: “Some recollections may vary,” the note sniffed.

Between Meghan’s winsome, savvy candor—her “that’s a loaded piece of toast!” line made me feel genuine warmth—and Oprah’s own experience as an alternately gentle and dogged interviewer, those who tuned into the conversation heard a rich (in more ways than one) assortment of specifics about Meghan and Harry’s marriage and their rift with his family. The duke and duchess’s story contained references to watching a “friend” (Serena Williams) play at Wimbledon. Another unnamed “mutual friend” of Meghan and Oprah’s provided the gorgeous SoCal backyard setting for the TV event. A small gift from the queen that Meghan first described as if she had been given bath soaps turned out to be a set of pearl earrings and a necklace. And yes, the royal couple has watched The Crown.

Meghan and Harry revealed that when they felt overwhelmed in the days leading up to their nuptials, they rang the Archbishop of Canterbury—the Archbishop of Canterbury!—to come to their property for an intimate secret blessing. When “the firm” pettily removed the duke and duchess’s security detail upon their move abroad, the couple went to live in California with Tyler Perry—Tyler Perry!—who also hooked them up with new security.

Even the production’s interlocutor, Oprah, projected a cozy familiarity with the royal pair, pointing off almost right off the bat that she had attended the couple’s 2018 wedding (which she described as magical), and that she lives not far down the road from them in Southern California these days.

Oprah’s very involvement was a coup for the couple, so intent on spreading their side of the story as widely and unassailably as possible. It was also one hell of a promotion for their own big recent media deals: Harry and Meghan have inked enormous video and podcast partnerships with both Netflix and Spotify. (Hello, colleagues!) Their chat with Oprah may have involved squatting in a chicken coop at several points, but make no mistake: This event was as highly orchestrated and negotiated as any international summit. Meghan and Harry were forthcoming and even funny, but they were also on message. Reminiscing about an old job scooping ice cream at a place named Humphrey Yogart, Meghan described her personal evolution. “I’ve been a waitress, an actress, a duchess, a princess,” she said, but “I’ve always just been Meghan. And the most important title I’ll ever have is mom.” The line sounded pretty workshopped, which is exactly why it worked.

Which made it even more sad, and harrowing, when Harry spoke about his own mom, reflecting on the gulf between his and his wife’s ostensibly shrewd ability to extricate themselves from their former life and his mother’s lonelier, less in-the-know existence. “I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for her going through this process by herself all those years ago,” Harry said, “because it’s been unbelievably tough for the two of us.” Beside him, wearing a diamond tennis bracelet that once belonged to Diana, Meghan placed a hand on her pregnant belly, a harmless, loving, extremely normal gesture that has nevertheless gotten her castigated by the tabloids in the past.

Oprah can maybe sympathize about what it’s like when the tabloids get to spinning: In 2018, when Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, was photographed leaving Oprah’s home with some bags in her hand, “the story was that Meghan’s mom had come to my house and she left laden with gifts,” Oprah told Entertainment Tonight at the time, irked by the implications. “You know what the gifts were?” she continued then. “First of all, she’s great at yoga, so I said, ‘Bring your yoga mat and your sneaks in case we just want to do yoga on the lawn.’ So one of the bags was a yoga mat and the other was lunch.”

It’s a breezy anecdote, but revisited in the wake of Sunday night’s interview it’s one more reminder of the stark realities of the quasi-fantasy world in which Meghan and Harry live. Meghan may be one of the most well-connected women on the planet, and yet, for a time, she couldn’t so much as leave the house for lunchtime yoga with friends, the way her mother had. For a time, the days dragged by. For a time, her mind turned dark. It all happened so fast—life—and it will surely continue to do so. The important difference is that for now, that time is up.