What does it mean to be an A-list Hollywood power couple? Celebrity, yes, but also respect. Look at George and Amal Clooney, a high-powered heartthrob and his equally high-powered human-rights-lawyer wife. Or look at Beyoncé and Jay-Z, hip-hop royalty and dedicated philanthropists. You and your partner can buy a mansion in the right zip code, hang out with the right people and say the right things at the right charity events, but that doesn’t make you a Hollywood power couple. Modern-day stardom is about more than name recognition. It takes charisma, dedication and charm. For all their striving, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle just don’t have it. Britain has realized this — and Hollywood is starting to realize it too.
Every streaming-service deal has invited quiet sniggers, every ill-judged interview and profile-raising event now brings with it a mixture of pity and irritation. These corporations are learning that they are getting little bang for their buck. Over the last few months there have been whispers of Spotify growing more frustrated with Duchess Dolittle after the $25 million deal that went public in December 2020 only yielded one thirty-three-minute Christmas episode. It seems like a stern word may have worked, as we recently saw the much-awaited launch of Meghan’s new podcast Archetypes. Meghan calls the podcast a place “where we investigate, dissect and subvert the labels that try to hold women back”; her first special guest was the notably downtrodden Serena Williams. Listeners were offered little more than the Meghan show, with the Duchess managing to talk for eleven minutes straight before her guest got a word in edgeways.
Next we were delivered a 6,500-word interview in New York magazine, which covers the Duchess’s views on the monarchy, the British press and racism, in case — somehow — you didn’t know them already. In the article, Meghan claimed she is still viewed as a “real-life princess” and told assorted lies about the British press. Those were quickly debunked: when Meghan claimed that in the UK Archie would be subjected to “a press pen of forty people snapping pictures” on the school run, royal reporters quickly called her claim complete tosh, adding that her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, has happily been doing the school run for years without any problem. She also added that she and Harry were like “salt and pepper,” saying “you never move one without the other.” Blink twice if you need help, Harry. The interview didn’t seem to get the reception they presumably hoped for, with even staunch Sussex fans put off by it.
When the Duke and Duchess failed this year to snag an invite to the Oscars or the Beckham wedding, it was clear that they are slowly being frozen out of Hollywood, one red-carpet event at a time. Last year, the couple didn’t make the cut for Barack Obama’s 60th birthday celebration, attended by Tom Hanks, Beyoncé and Jay-Z and the Clooneys. Angela Levin, Prince Harry’s biographer, suspects that the Obamas are wary of Meghan’s supposed desire to run for the presidency and worried about upsetting the British royals.
One LA source told me that “the main reason for them being excluded is that organizers know that all media attention would be on them and take away from the event or people there to celebrate.” They also claimed that one A-lister, known for lavish parties, left the pair off a guestlist because of their “capacity to share,” adding that celebs never know where details of their private lives might end up. This is quite the irony, given Harry and Meghan’s self-professed obsession with privacy. It’s also a far cry from the open-arms welcome that they presumably expected would await them in Los Angeles after turning their backs on royal duties in 2020.
Many of the worst aspects of the couple’s priorities were apparent during their 2018 wedding. It was a lavish affair that came with a $37 million price tag, a diamond tiara, a $471,000 electric Jaguar, a Givenchy wedding gown and a bridesmaids’ fitting that may or may not have seen the Duchess of Cambridge reduced to tears. Meghan described the day as a “spectacle for the world,” as though she had no choice in the matter. Never mind that Harry’s cousin, Princess Beatrice, quietly wed her husband in a private service in Windsor two years later; so privately in fact that they had to announce to the world that it had even happened.
In hindsight it is now clear that the Sussexes’ wedding was part of Meghan’s plan to make it in Hollywood. Stars such as Elton John, the Beckhams, Serena Williams, George Clooney, Idris Elba, Priyanka Chopra and, of course, Oprah Winfrey lined the pews. A gathering of the closest friends of the bride and groom? Well, not quite. One guest that attended the ceremony told me that nobody there knew each other. “It was a show: part of me thinks she Googled who would make her look popular and shipped them over for the day.”
The British journalist Rachel Johnson (sister of Boris) tells a story that was doing the rounds in the weeks after the wedding. While Carolyn Bartholomew, Diana’s former roommate, was waiting for the wedding service to start, she turned to the couple alongside her and asked how they knew Harry or Meghan. “We don’t,” replied the Clooneys. Perhaps it’s a cruel rumor, but it illustrates a feature of their attempt at stardom: they can command the attendance of global VIPs but they can’t command their friendship.
Just two years after the wedding, the Sussexes stepped down as working royals, citing their need to “take a step forward into…a more peaceful life.” After the decision was finalized, it was widely believed that Meghan had won. She would reap the rewards of her blue-blooded marriage — but would no longer be tied down by the archaic rituals of British royalty and could instead begin a Hollywood dynasty of her own founded on a quest for social justice.
But with every step she takes, Meghan’s ascent looks less and less certain. If recent months have shown us anything, it’s that she hasn’t won anything at all. And that she vastly underestimated how fickle Hollywood is, mistaking five minutes of fame for lifelong relevance. You can’t just take a mid-budget TV actress and a mid-ranking royal and use their considerable bank balance to buy Hollywood status.
Harry and Meghan’s attempts to manufacture friendship have continued. Last year Prince Harry, seemingly desperate to let the world know that he was in with the Montecito crowd, told Dax Shepard on his Armchair Expert podcast that the pair had struck up a friendship with neighbors Orlando Bloom and his partner Katy Perry. Harry said, “just two days ago Orlando Bloom sent me a message because he’s down the road,” adding that the pair “keep in touch.” But an LA source claimed that “despite what they want you to think, Orlando Bloom and Harry are nowhere near being close friends.”
Unsurprisingly, the wedge between the pair is down to Meghan, who, a source reports, “is still angry about Katy Perry’s interview,” where the singer said that Meghan would have been well-served by another wedding-dress fitting. The source added that “the men are trying to stay out of it and although they are being cordial and kind to one another, they are certainly not going to the local bar together for a pint.” It can’t help that Perry added in the interview that “Kate won” the wedding dress sweepstakes.
Speaking to people in LA, there’s a sense that Tinseltown is starting to see through Meghan’s “truth.” Angelenos are realizing that British people didn’t hate her because she wasn’t white, or because she had a career, or any of the other reasons suggested by the Sussexes’ PR. There was no big anti-Meghan conspiracy that kicked into gear as soon as she stepped on British soil. The public there simply saw through her. She lacked the understanding that if taxpayers are footing the bill for her luxury lifestyle, they expect things in return. Is a few pictures once a year and the sight of the new royal baby too much to ask? Brits also don’t take too kindly to being branded racist bigots when Meghan doesn’t get her own way.
The Sussexes’ flop can’t be traced back to a single event; it’s the sum of a series of mistakes fueled by a failure to understand royalty and celebrity. When the actress moved to a palace, she brought with her a showbiz appetite for drama. Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace briefly hosted something akin to a Real Housewives spin-off: the starlet and her team dreamed up personality clashes and confected plotlines and fed them to the London newspapers. But the day-to-day job of a modern royal is gloriously glamour-free. It’s about opening schools and chatting to nurses. There is a relentless focus on celebrating, and spending time with, the little people. It takes a certain type of person — willing to smile, wave and do little else — to marry into the Firm. As the very high royal divorce rate of the last thirty years will tell you, not many are cut out for it.
Now the Sussexes are discovering that the reverse is true, too: you cannot simply take a prince to Hollywood and expect him to become a star. Their fame stems from both royalty and celebrity, but they’re not the same thing.
The death of the Queen, whose life was defined by dutiful public service, was an acute reminder of those differences. A strange combination meant that Her Majesty was somehow the most famous and recognized woman in the world, yet we knew so very little about her, about her thoughts and opinions. In fact, in seventy years on the throne you could count on one hand the times that she expressed her point of view. And that is what true duty is. The Queen’s death is about far more than the story of the feuding Windsors and Sussexes, of course, but it will change the dynamics of this important relationship — and make a royal comeback harder for Harry and Meghan.
Hollywood isn’t blind to their intentions. Gossip extraordinaire Perez Hilton told me that he never believed the Sussexes stepped aside because they wanted more privacy: “It was more of a desire to call their own shots.” But no one seems to have told them that what they wanted — to be the Clooneys or the Obamas — was not something that could merely be bought.
Hilton added that what happened next, in terms of interviews and million-dollar deals, was unsurprising. “They had a need to exploit Prince Harry’s family for financial gain: they needed money. They wanted to live a superstar lifestyle with a multimillion-dollar megamansion in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States. They live a very expensive life, and entertainment is where the money is.”
You can see why Harry, and particularly Meghan, thought it could work. At her core, Markle is a showgirl. Forget smiling at nurses! She could take her star-power and his royal privilege global. The problem is that her confidence stems from what can be, at best, described as a loose relationship with reality. As the British royal family has learned the hard way, Markle is a fantasist. She was just eleven years old when she first appeared on Nickelodeon to condemn sexist language in a TV commercial about dish soap. It’s a story that she brings up from time to time, claiming she was so “furious” when she saw the “sexist” Procter & Gamble ad that she decided to write to the most powerful people she could think of, including then-first lady Hillary Clinton, and managed to get the ad pulled.
When she was a D-list celeb who starred in a middling series on the USA cable network, nobody fact-checked her anecdotes. But as her status grew, and her utterances became ever more embellished, they attracted more scrutiny. The investigative journalist Tom Bower claims that the Procter & Gamble story, including Hillary Clinton’s supposed response, was merely the invention of “an adoring father,” Tom Markle. That fantastical worldview certainly runs in the family. Although quite who counts as family is, as ever with Meghan, contested. Her sister is currently suing her for claiming that she was an “only child” during the infamous Oprah interview in March 2021.
The interview in New York, “Meghan of Montecito,” includes her newest and most self-aggrandizing story: she claims that during a visit to The Lion King in London, a cast member from South Africa pulled her aside. “He looked at me, and he’s just like light. He said, ‘I just need you to know: When you married into this family, we rejoiced in the streets the same we did when Mandela was freed from prison.’”
A showgirl’s skills can be useful when carrying out the duties of a smiling, waving, fantastic-hat-wearing royal. As we learned from Princess Diana, there is always an element of faking it. But Meghan’s preoccupation with the superficial is all-consuming. As is her self-obsession. Her tale about the P&G commercial tells us all we need to know about how she wants the world to see her. While normal teenagers wasted their time playing with friends and answering teachers back in high school, Meghan was standing up for all the oppressed women standing over the kitchen sink. Dear reader, while you were doing nothing, Meghan was changing the world.
Meghan and Harry’s recent decision to return to the UK poses awkward questions for the couple. Why return now, when only Harry returned for the funeral of Prince Philip, and when they didn’t come to support William at the unveiling of the Princess Diana statue at Kensington Palace? And why step foot in a place that made you feel so unwelcome that, according to Meghan, it made her feel suicidal? Perhaps the answer is that they have exhausted their options in Hollywood.
In her New York interview, Meghan told the world that she was “very aware that people see her as a princess,” and at this point I’m not sure whether this is her attempt at satire or whether she has fallen victim to her own imagination. The objective truth is that Meghan’s relationship with reality is blurred — whether or not people saw her as a princess four years ago, they do not regard her in the same way now.
There is no doubt that if he returned, Harry would be welcomed by his family — and the British people — with open arms. But for Meghan, the game could well and truly be up. Perez Hilton summed up the feeling in Hollywood : “They are not our royals. We don’t have any allegiance to them. We don’t have any reverence for them. We will not curtsy in front of them. To us, they are just celebrities.” That’s the problem with mixing monarchy with celebrity: the two worlds overlap — but they are not the same. Meghan and Harry claim to have one foot in both. Increasingly, they aren’t welcome in either.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2022 World edition.